Post-apocalyptic tales, zombie movies—even the Party Rock Anthem video—none of it is my thing.
Also, you know what’s not on my list of characteristics of good writing? Speaking in fragments, letting fly endless streams of invented portmanteaus, and showing signs of a deep, weirdly personal revulsion for the comma.
With The Road, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I don’t really like stories like this. It doesn’t matter that McCarthy makes up all his own rules about the construction of an English sentence. That’s because The Road is above personal taste and grammar rules.
An unnamed father and young son are travelling by foot through a cold and barren landscape. At first, all you know is that the father doesn’t want to be seen, which seems a little paranoid, given the desolation. But soon, it becomes clear why they need to stay hidden and why they’re never safe in one spot for too long. In an event that’s never really described, the whole continent (and the whole world, the father assumes) has burned. The years after the disaster have required that the small population of remaining humans fight to survive. The struggle has brought out the worst in some.
The winters have become too harsh, and the father’s vague goal is to get him and his son south to a more sustainable climate. But what will they do once they get there? You share the feelings they must have: there’s an uneasy hope that maybe it will be some improbable paradise of safety. But you don’t want to think about that too much, since what certainly lies in wait is death, one way or another.
The Road chronicles a few months of this pair’s journey. Along the way, you experience all the moments of desperation and horror and soaring relief that accompanies them.
First off, know that McCarthy speaks in fragments. There is no careful crafting of complex sentences, no adherence to anything like rules. Words go on paper, and he’s done. But where as I felt like editing the bejeezus out of the last author I read like this (Junot Diaz), I think putting a hand on McCarthy’s prose would be a mortal sin. You do not touch this man’s writing. It would be like trying to add a vanishing point to a Picasso or something—sure, it would make more visual sense, but you’re messing with the inventiveness of the art. McCarthy, despite disregarding the rules of written communication, communicates beautifully. His writing is never confusing or unclear, and it’s inventive. His unusual twists on standard English do him a great service, in fact. It’s difficult to make devices like simile and metaphor not sound cliche, no matter how inventive the actual comparisons are. But this syntactical defamiliarization throws the reader off-game enough for McCarthy to use these devices without fear.
No one will accuse him of being a man of too few words, though that’s not to say the writing is simplistic. If you like Hemingway’s style, you will love McCarthy. He never tells us what his pair of protagonists are feeling, only what they say, do, and think. You’re left to fill in the emotional blanks yourself, and boy, do you. You live inside the characters.
I think one of the most moving scenes is when the two finally come upon the ocean. They had been trying to get to the shore for weeks, and you almost feel as much anticipation as they do. For what, you don’t know. You’ve just been living in their bleak world with them, looking forward to anything different that might be awaiting them, starving for some kind of hope. When they come upon the ocean, it’s gray, not blue. The sea is “shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash.” The father apologizes that the ocean is not blue. The boy says, “That’s okay.” Then he insists on going swimming, despite the cold. When he comes out, he’s weeping. When the father asks what’s wrong, the boy says nothing. End scene.
You don’t have to describe the emotions, the disappointment of it all. Just what McCarthy says is enough to rip your heart out. Adding any more would be a sin. It’s minimalism at its most perfect.
That’s McCarthy’s best skill, I think. As a reader, you’re extremely active in the story. He carefully places his blanks, never leaving out so much information that you’re frustrated, but always making you do the work of walking with his characters. I think that’s a kind of respect for your audience.
You’re very much thrown in medias res into the two character’s lives, so you must form a picture of who they are from what you see of them now, not who they have been. The boy and the man are very different, though you understand why. The man is jaded and always on guard. He is the boy’s protector, and he takes that role very seriously. That causes problems between him and the boy. The son is empathetic and is willing to take risks to make human connections with others. But since that will endanger him, the man overrules all his son’s overtures to make friends with the few people they encounter who may not be savages.
Both the man and the boy are characters you understand, and though the focus of the book appears to be on the journey, it’s largely about what the situation is doing to the characters and their dynamic with one another.
I’m not going to give it away, but there’s one shining moment of delight and relief in this book where you can almost feel your whole body relax. Straits were dire, and all of a sudden, a miracle.
At the same time, you understand when McCarthy tells us the man hates the luck. The father had accepted death was coming, and he was looking forward to the relief it would bring. He could have finally rested. Now, it was clear he was meant to keep fighting, and it was almost painful to switch back into that mode.
So, yeah, I guess the highlight is kind of depressing. This is why I don’t really like doomsday scenario books. It’s worth the experience in this case, though.
Who Should Read this Book
A beach read this is not. (Unless you’re like me and like to read Beloved while sipping a daiquiri on a cruise.)
But you’ve got to read it, just to watch McCarthy work. It’s an amazing experience. You absolutely go with these characters on the journey, and it’s nearly impossible to put down.
But, I don’t know…if you’re particularly empathetic (which I am, for what it’s worth) or feeling low these days, you might want to pick the right time in your life to read it. No judgement if that time isn’t now. The book is heavy.
For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)
I’m shocked that I loved this. Like I said in the beginning, it does not have the makings of a book I would even finish. The minimalist prose and the bleak apoco-scape are not on my list of favorite things. But it’s a beautiful, haunting experience, and I give so much props to McCarthy for crafting such a thing. The Picasso reference wasn’t thrown out casually. I feel like this author is an artist.
I’ll tell you what else. Taking a hot shower and feeling your hair dry all fluffy, curling up under a down comforter, throwing a delightful spinach/goat cheese/raspberry vinaigrette salad into your face—none of it will ever feel as good as it does after you finish The Road. Every little luxury in my life I appreciate now as privilege. Considering the season, it might be an appropriate thing. I don’t know the last time I’ve been so thankful for what I have.
Glad to see that you made it to this book, and you’re right about McCarthy’s ability to force the reader to feel the essence of an emotion without ever assigning a name to it, or describing the emotion itself. There’s a passage in the Border Trilogy where McCarty does the same when introducing a woman’s character. At the end of the passage I felt like I had just cheated on my wife. Couldn’t decide if I was angry or happy that a stranger had just made me feel (what seemed like a real) emotion toward an entity having no more substance than the paper and ink in my hand. I dog-eared the page.
I know exactly what you’re talking about. How is someone I’ve never met all up in my personal space? And is it an amazing experience or a horrifying, kind of violating one? Sometimes I think authors are practicing some kind of black magic. It’s unsettling, but in a way I’m drawn to. I think I over and over conclude that I think the experience is amazing, not horrifying. Maybe amazing because it’s horrifying.
Also, from Literary Starbucks–
Cormac does not believe in refills.