Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I enjoy post-apocalypse novels. This may seem strange, as the genre has at its basis the premise that some several billion people perish in some cataclysm. That's not the point of the genre, though. The point is survival, renewal, and commentary on man's relationship with technology and the world.

Cormac McCarthy is considered one of the best American novelists today. He is certainly a wordsmith. Few writers alive have his gift for aphorisms and metaphor. I'm currently reading his novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, a fictionalized account of The Glanton Gang in antebellum Texas. It's taking me a while, not because McCarthy's book is hard to read, but because it is dark and has a depth that requires attention.

I saw The Road in a book store. Reading the flap I learned that it was a post-apocalyptic story. That and McCarthy's writing interested me. A week ago Saturday I was borrowing books on CD from the library for my trip to northern Arkansas. They had The Road, so I borrowed it. I'm very glad that I did.

The book tells the story of three main characters. The first two characters are the Man and the Boy. The Boy is the the Man's biological son. The Man is trying to keep the Boy alive in a bleak landscape of desolation and destruction. The third main character is the world, the landscape around the Man and the Boy. No one takes a setting and makes it a character in its own right like McCarthy. You can see this process in Blood Meridian but it is more obvious here in The Road.

In the novel, the world is ending. It took me a while to realize there were no animals, save for the mention of a dog. The world is covered in ash. The sun and moon are obscured. Ash carpets the ocean. People wear makeshift masks to protect from the ash. There is mention of some plant life (trees, mushrooms) but no crops. As they move along the road — a series of roads and highways — the characters spot cities devoured by firestorms and lone houses ransacked for food. At all times they fear roving bands of canibals.

The Boy was born soon after the cataclysm. The Boy's mother, the Man's wife, is dead. The Man and the Boy have only themselves. The temperature is dropping, and they don't believe they can survive another winter, so the Man leads them south, for warmer weather and, hopefully, food. The Man has told the Boy that they are some of "the good guys" and that they "carry the fire", presumably the fire of civilization and humanity amidst brutality and a new dark age.

When I describe the world as bleak, I mean it. This is no survivalist fantasy like Lucifer's Hammer or Red Dawn. The question isn't so much how they can survive, but if they should survive. The Man is sick and getting worse. In spite of that, he forces himself to press on, to teach the boy how to survive... and to kill the boy if things get so bad that there is no choice.

I wasn't sure if I'd like the book even while I was half way through. The story is entirely character driven. There's no "high concept" plot. In fact, early on you could be forgiven if you doubt that there is a plot at all. It isn't until about two thirds along that you realize that McCarthy has been developing his characters, and that the development is the plot. With that development, you discover that, perhaps, there is hope; perhaps the world is not entirely bleak.

None of the above properly describes the lyricism of the prose. Here is but a small excerpt:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out and touch the child sleeping besides him. Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

I understand that there is biblical imagery within the novel. Not being a biblical scholar I missed this, such as all the clocks in the world stopping at 1:17, apparently a reference to John 1:17, "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." This suggests that the Man is a Moses figure while the Boy is the embodiement of Christ. Biblical symbolism is found in McCarthy's other books, so it fits. In spite of the symbolism, the novel's take on religion is somewhat brave.

A number of reviewers suggest the holocaust was a nuclear war, but you never discover what caused the cataclysm. There are strong suggestions that the destruction of the world was man made. Nuclear armageddon seems the most likely explanation, but there is no mention of radiation, nor any obvious effects of radioactive contamination. In fact, the cause isn't important. The world is dying, decaying. That's what matters. by not focusing on the cause the question is taken off the table. A lesser talent would have wasted time on an answer that doesn't matter.

I will finish with a word about the CD. The unabridged recording is on six discs. The narrator is Tom Stechschulte. Stechschulte is excellent. His voice is perfect for the story, as the Man is the point of view character for most of the story. I've heard other books on CD narrated by Stechschulte, and those have been likewise excellent. He is clear and evocative. The book has tracks at about every three minutes, for easy bookmarking.


JAM said...

Hey Allan. Glady y'all had a good holiday.

I've been trying to catch up on all of my blog reading. Your stuff on Boxing Day, Hogmanay, and Gerald Ford and Canada was quite interesting. My younger daugher and I watch a lot of BBC America, Dr. Who and whatnot, and neither of us understood the references to Boxing Day.

I wanted to comment on this post, because I too am a fan of post-apocalyptic novels. I appreciate you talking about this one because I've not even heard of it. I'll have to visit the library and check it out. My favorite of the genre is Luke Rhinehart's "Long Voyage Back." I'm not sure why exactly, I just know I've re-read it every few years since the early 80's. I'll definitely have to check out McCarthy's book.

My wife and I were in Monroe for four days right after Christmas. It was our first time back in almost six years. I've been talking about it some on my blog, and posting some pictures. I started getting sick on our drive up there, and was sick the whole trip. I visited with everyone I could, and tried to act as if I weren't sick, but looking back, the whole trip was as if I dreamt it. So many changes around Monroe in the past six years, and very many since my high school years in the late 70's. We did as much and visited as much as we could, but still ran out of time. I was only able to see one old friend, and the rest was just family visiting. We had fun though. I walked around with my camera and a spray bottle of Chloraseptic for my sore throat. Spray, click.

I'll shut up now.

Allan Goodall said...

My younger daugher and I watch a lot of BBC America, Dr. Who and whatnot, and neither of us understood the references to Boxing Day.

Glad my meandering thoughts were useful!

I get asked a lot what "Boxing Day" is about. I got the idea to post it on my blog when I had to explain it to folks at work.

I wanted to comment on this post, because I too am a fan of post-apocalyptic novels. I appreciate you talking about this one because I've not even heard of it.

I hadn't even heard of Cormac McCarthy until early last year. Looking him up, I see he's being treated as a modern day Faulkner or Hemingway. That's not very fair to McCarthy, though. While very lyrical, he is concerned with the story. The Road wasn't bad, but Blood Meridian is pretty violent. These are very well written accessible novels.

I have all of Jerry Pournelle's There Will Be War series of anthologies. There were a lot of post apocalypse stories in those books. I also read Lucifer's Hammer by Niven and Pournelle, and The Postman by David Brin. I understand that the novel (actually three linked novellas) of The Postman are much better than the movie. I always wanted to read A Canticle for Leibowitz (it was one of the books my high school taught, but I never got to study it).

I'm sorry to hear you were sick on the holidays! I lucked out this year and wasn't sick much at all, just a little sniffly.

By the way, I like the pictures on your blog!