Friday, 14 August 2009

The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This is the other book that Mo lent me, another on the post-apocalyptic theme. After All the Pretty Horses I was not so sure I was that bothered about reading something else by Cormac McCarthy, but I am very glad I gave it a chance, it could not have been more different. I read it practically in one sitting. One of the reviews suggests a solitary all-night reading, and I can imagine that would be a good way to take on this story.
I am not sure where to start with such a book. All the praise is well deserved. Strangely, where I found the descriptive passages in 'All the Pretty Horses' a bit laboured, the descriptions in The Road were even more repetitive and yet were such a vital part of what created the haunting atmosphere. It is the unremitting desolation that is at the core of the book. There is no end to the greyness. There is a man and his son, both nameless (also vital to the atmosphere of the book), and they are travelling through a country that has been totally destroyed by fire. Again you are not given any explanation for the apocalypse. It is almost as if it is not relevant, as if the end of the world is somehow inevitable and how it comes about is not important, only how or if the human race might be able to survive the end of everything (if that's not a contradiction in terms).
There are no chapters, the whole book is made up of short paragraphs separated by spaces. I think that the layout was quite deliberate. There are no breaks in the story, no parts, no pauses for breath. It is as if you come up at the end gasping for air. I certainly held my breath some of the way. I was horrified and terrified by turns, and the moments of relief from the fear were no help, because you just knew they couldn't last long. It is quite some time since I had such an extreme reaction to a book.
There is not much story to describe. They travel, they scavenge desperately for food and water, they avoid contact with others, they try and hide their fear from each other. The only thing about the past that is described is the boy's birth and the woman's decision to leave them (with the assumption that she kills herself). There is no sense of time. Each day is just a struggle. There is no hope and no prospect of a future. Everything is dead and mostly burned. Ash fills the air and the water and coats the ground. They are cold all the time. It gets light but the sun does not rise. Some reviews seem to think they are heading for the coast so that the boy can see the sea. I am not convinced that there is any such purpose in their journey. The notion is far too lyrical. There is no meaning in anything they do, any choices they make, beyond mere survival. The man's determination and persistence are awe-inspiring, but it is the existence of his son that keeps him going and keeps them both alive. They know the world is dying but it is as if they cannot allow themselves to give up. Their gun has two bullets, kept in reserve, in case they do reach that moment of despair, but the man is forced to use one, so they no longer have their escape route. Their world is divided into 'Good Guys', who they never seem to find, and 'Bad Guys', who they avoid at all costs. The man tries to protect his son from the worst sights, when they encounter human behaviour at its most extreme. Between them there is caring and tenderness but when they meet other people they find only violence and death. Three times, at the point of despair and starvation, they miraculously find something that helps them and restores their strength. You feel almost as if, as the observer, you are being tempted to be hopeful, to think that things will somehow be okay for them. But I'm warning you ... don't.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the most powerful and in an eery sense, elegantly written books I have read. Your review is spot on. Most great books are easy to recommend, but I have hesitated to do so with this one unless I know the reader is someone who has such regard for fine literature that they are willing to take it on. It definitely put Cormic McCarthy at the top of my list of best novelists.

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