"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy

[The following review may contain some spoilers, the most extreme of which (dealing with the book's ending, will be marked. But there is this to be said: it is not really a book one reads for the plot.]

Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was? (27)

An apocalyptic world, shrouded in an ashy haze that blocks out the sun, populated by cannibalistic cults and terrified stragglers. A man and his young son (unnamed, everymannish, distanced by third person narration) follow the road, the remnant of a civilization that disappeared within the last few years, towards an unknown hope. It seems they might be seeking others like them, for whom there are still basic laws of morality (you shall not steal from the living, you shall not eat human flesh), but every encounter with another human being sends them spiralling into violence and terror. They scavenge for food, struggle to stay warm, try to keep moving, and the father is coughing up blood.
Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it. (110)

This is not, I must warn you, a jolly book. It is a book about survival, and the remnants of morality in an apocalyptic landscape. It is an exploration of how one negotiates love amidst hopelessness. McCarthy's prose is plain and action-oriented - the majority of the novel is taken up by flinty, curt descriptions of the basic actions of life: searching the surroundings for danger, acquiring food and water, protecting yourself and your family from cold and detection, trying to read the landscape for any indication of where you are or what to do next. From time to time, a surreal (and often dream-based) passage will burst forth, but to be honest, these sections are not as beautifully written or as gripping as the intense focus of the plainer prose.

But even more striking is the almost choric use of dialogue: father and son say little to one another, but they retread the same conversational ground repeatedly, in exchanges which point to the uncomfortable impossibility of ever really knowing someone else's interior life. What are you thinking? -the father repeatedly nudges - Aren't you going to talk to me? And from the son: Are we going to die? [No.] Are you lying to me? [No.] Would you lie to me about this? [Maybe.] Which is kinder, the novel asks us, a lie which comforts in the moment, or a harsh truth that prepares you for the future? The son, who stands in for an absolute, naive, and implacable moral idealism against his father's pragmatism, would have the truth. When they encounter others on the road (a man who has been hit by lightning, a little boy among the ruins of a city, or - most horrifyingly - a cellar-full of people caught by the cultish cannibals), the son is the voice of empathy (against the survivalist demands of self-interest), the morality that asserts the absolute necessity of acts of kindness and altruism for the survival of humanity. And it is this voice which is always disappointed, always crushed, but always willing to remind the father of the compromises he has made in his soul to gain the questionable gift of survival.

The plainness of McCarthy's plot and language make this into a modern allegory, in which the Road comes to play the same fraught and contradictory symbolic role (it is destiny, leading on to a hopeful future, rewarding their devotion with the promise of enlightenment, but it is also fatalism and entrapment) as it has in stories going back to the works of Chaucer, Bunyan and Spenser.
I think we're about two hundred miles from the coast. As the crow flies.
As the crow flies?
Yes. It means going in a straight line.
Are we going to get there soon?
Not real soon. Pretty soon. We're not going as the crow flies.
Because crows don't have to follow roads?
They can go wherever they want.
Yes. (132)

His prose is plain, but shows the almost baroque love of unusual and archaic language amidst this plainness that I have always heard associated with him (this is my first finished McCarthy novel). At a certain point in the novel, it was teaching me an average of one new word per 8 pages: discalced (unshod!), fire-drake, lave, mastic, rachitic, siwash, skift, claggy, quoits. The boy picks up clichés out of nowhere, it seems, magically resurrecting conventions of language that died in the cataclysms of his pre-speaking life. From time to time, a turn of speech will seep through from our time, revealing the possibility that this is an allegory for our politically embattled world:
[Speaking about the possibility of meeting other fugitives]:
And they could be carrying the fire too?
They could be. Yes.
But we don’t know.
We don’t know.
So we have to be vigilant.
We have to be vigilant. Yes. (182-3)

You can see here the trace of an aspect of the novel that made me slightly uncomfortable: the religious overtones that drive their survival. Why keep going in a world of suffering? To “carry the fire.” (At one point – p.143 - they encounter a sort of a holy man named “Eli” on the road, devoid of all sympathies and beliefs, pure in his faithlessness. He tells them “There is no God and we are his prophets.” Which seems to me to be an apt summary of the book.) Is this religious striving simply a self-deluding justification for the callous acts that guarantee each day of continued life? Or is the father’s belief that his son has this flame, and must survive to carry it on, more than just an evolutionary imperative, a reflection of the boy’s supernally keen empathetic abilities?

The stripped down quality of the language yields a sort of interpersonal blurring: long patches of dialogue yield no character attributions (i.e. “the boy said”) to guide us, and because virtually all the characters are male, pronouns frequently seem self-reflexive when they are not. How much distinction is there between the man’s sense of self(-preservation) and his sense of his son?

At its best, this stripped-down, hard-as-rocks language, focusing on the most basic actions, gestures of survival, yields a cynical philosophical symbolism that recalls Beckett:
What if I said that he’s [the boy] a god?
The old man [Eli] shook his head. I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true. Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
They will?
Sure they will.
Better for who?
Everybody. (146)

These moments are my favorite ones, the ones I have most often quoted throughout this review; instants of perfect mundanity, and perfect poetry.

“The Road” (USA 2006)
Cormac McCarthy

More encounters on the road:
  • Wikipedia has entries for The Road and Cormac McCarthy, the latter including a quite snazzy picture of the author giving the camera a suspicious glare
  • Malcolm Jones writes a review for Newsweek that is somewhat optimist (or even simplistic) about the book's moral quandaries, but amusingly summarizes the entire range of the book's concerns using the Library of Congress subject headings from the copyright page.
  • Alan Cheuse's review from NPR can be found here...
  • ...and Janet Maslin's for the New York Times here.
  • You can examine or buy McCarthy's book at Amazon: The Road.

And now, a few questions for those who have also read “The Road.” In other words, glaring SPOlLER ALERT from this point until the end.

1) On p.74, there is a sudden shift in narrative voice – while the rest of the novel is in the third person, a single paragraph at the top of the page is in the first person, in the father’s voice. What is odd is that this passage deals with memory and seems to “correct” the central narration: “He doesn’t remember any little boys.” What is going on here? Does this happen at other points in the novel, points that I just missed?

2) What did you make of the ending? I must admit that I found it slightly disappointing (all but the last paragraph, about brook trout, which was so spontaneous and unaccountable that I found it oddly thrilling), rather too steeped in the scantily fleshed out religious component of the novel, and rather too pat (as if it were just the playing out of the man or the boy’s fantasy of a happy ending). Also, if the road has a larger allegorical (or spiritual, or historical) significance, what does it mean that someone has been following them, and that the boy turns back and retraces their steps. What does it mean that when his father dies, he does not keep going? What does it mean that he identifies his father (who was loving to him, but uncomfortably harsh with others) with God?

16 Responses so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for admitting that you were having to dust off your trusty dictionary quite frequently to get through this book! What do others do? Simply skip over the words they don't understand and TRY to make some sense of what the author meant? "The Road" ranks right up there with "To Kill A Mockingbird" in my list of all-time favorites, but I wondered if you have any ideas about resources for finding the meanings to words that do not show up in dictionaries or on Google or anywhere else that I can find. Where do I go to find definitions of "skifts" or "batboard" or "entabled" or "stoven" just to name a few that defy all efforts to be defined? Thanks!

  2. That is an excellent question. I used dictionary.com quite a bit while reading "The Road," since it compiles a number of different dictionaries (including medical and other specialist dictionaries). From time to time, I had to turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for archaic usages (which McCarthy - and I love him for it - seems to delight in resurrecting). I had access to the online OED through my university, but most libraries should have a hard copy of it.

    And I think that most people do just skip the words that seem unfamiliar and rely on context clues to approximate the meaning - but when I went to look up meanings, I frequently found that my assumptions had been way, WAY off the mark. :)

  3. Anonymous says:

    The ending was definitely disappointing. I read for pleasure, not to have to try to imagine what the author would have written had the story continued. It escapes me as to what probably happened to the boy.

    The author's writing style is ridiculous. When did we give up punctuation?

  4. I also think, though, that there is a distinct pleasure involved in being asked to form one's own opinions about what happens outside of the boundaries (before, after, during gaps) of the narrative. After all, there every story in the world asks us to fill in the blanks in one way or another.

    As for the grammatical/stylistic issue you raise, my stance is roughly this: punctuation serves at least as great an expressive function (indicating pauses and framing tonal shifts) in language as an orderly function (allowing us to comprehend the grammatical structure of an utterance), so it seems only natural to me that a writer should be able to remove punctuation and disobey its conventions for expressive reasons as well.

  5. "... it seems only natural to me that a writer should be able to remove punctuation and disobey its conventions for expressive reasons as well."

    Maybe, if it adds something to the story, but he writes all of his books this way, which means it has nothing to do with the book and everything to do with him.

    The content of a novel should indicate the structure. Harlan Ellison is a great example of this. Angry Candy contains some very interesting use of prose and forms, and enhances the story. The staccato "style" of McCarthy is just him saying "I can write however I please, and everyone will think I'm 'important'."

  6. I would also say that with authors as with actors versatility is admirable but it is not the only virtue. It is also possible to demonstrate great talent by developing a distinctive style, rather than an impressive range, and this is what Cormac McCarthy has done. In this sense, you are right that it is "all about him," but I don't necessarily see that as a demerit. It does, however, mean that not everyone will care for the the idiosyncratic voice he has developed through bold stylistic choices involving form, grammar, punctuation. Consider a famous instance of a distinctive authorial style involved unusual but indispensable punctuation choices: Emily Dickinson.

  7. Anonymous says:

    So no comments on the strange first-person passage? I don't understand this isolated shift. It's really bugging me!

  8. I talk about that passage a bit more in the discussion on the NYT Notable Books blog. If I remember correctly, I eventually became convinced that that strange narrative-voice-shifting passage hinted at the idea that the entire novel is a story constructed by the father to help the son come to terms with their situation (and including an abrupt "happy ending" of the sort that is apparently characteristic of his stories). See the comments here: https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=3854757878784277532&postID=2222817275543597171

  9. Anonymous says:

    I didn't notice the first person narration until the second time I read the novel.

    My initial impression of the passage was that it was commentary from the man encountered by the boy at the end of the story after his father dies. There is no mention of the main character (the man) trying to snare the dog, nor of them hearing or seeing the dog after the initial appearance.

    This man states that "there was some discussion about whether to come after you at all" which implies that they have been following the man and boy for some time. He also states that they have a little boy with him.

    This interjection seemed to be commentary by this (new) man that the boy travelling with him did not remember seeing the (main character) boy and instead had been more focused on the dog.

    Just my initial thoughts. Any refutation or opinions on it I'd like to hear. That one paragraph has been driving me batty.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed McCarthy's writing style in this book. The lack of punctuation was a very interesting concept, emphasizing the lack of things in the story.

    I think that the end of the book was necessary, for it showed that the boy had grown up enough to continue to "carry the fire"...even without his dad with him all the time.

  11. Anonymous says:

    In regards to the punctuation (well, lack of, really), I believe that it was a deliberated and effective "technique" to portray the story he is telling as truly fragmented and broken. McCarthy tends to break things up a lot in the story, and when I read it for the first time I got quite annoyed with it until I realised what his true purpose was.

  12. Shannon G. says:

    I took the overview of the novel to be an allegory for personal mental illness (namely, depression) caused by millennial angst. Indeed as an old English major, I tend to be a little out there with my interpertations. And this one is colored, of course, by my own personal experience of the Road of Depression.
    Every day is just another day on that bleak Road. There is some inner child or hope that you try to carry with you and keep alive. You try to nourish that Hope with food and Coca-Cola. You try to keep that Hope shielded from the true horors of life (e.g. canabalism -- another allegory for people who have become "eaten" by circumstance).
    And the point is that there is a will to live even in the worst depression. The body does not want to die. And even if the body dies, the Hope wants to live on.

  13. "In regards to the punctuation (well, lack of, really), I believe that it was a deliberated and effective "technique" to portray the story he is telling as truly fragmented and broken. McCarthy tends to break things up a lot in the story, and when I read it for the first time I got quite annoyed with it until I realised what his true purpose was."

    This can't be true, seeing as how McCarthy always writes this way.

  14. The stacatto must serve the purpose of embodying the sheer immediacy of the action in the story- as well as it's position in a timelessness in of itself from the earliest days of man. It's my first McCarthy novel too, but, though I am partial to filagree, nuance, and flourish, I admit that I find this terse form of writing very compelling.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Personally, I had to conclude that the boy had died with the man. When I first read the ending it threw me, so out of place within the context of the story. The man told the boy that if he had happy dreams of a place he wanted to remain then it meant he had given up, that he wouldnt let that happen. The man in the road, the "good guys" they had been looking for, even a boy his own age, all the things he had wanted throught the book. I think the boy gave up, dreamed his perfect scenario and used the last bullet to go with his father.

  16. zach says:

    Batboard is a carpenter term. It's usually referred to as board and bat. To explain it, large boards are placed upward with a gap of several inches between them, thinner "bats" are place between these gaps. Google "Board and Bat Siding".

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