A searing, postapocalyptic novel destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece.
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.
The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.
Bleak. This book in a single word. Bleak. The writing style, the themes, the environment, and even the dialogue, everything is coated with a layer of bleakness, unlike any reading experience I’ve had before; yet it’s incredibly powerful. The Road is a strange, post-apocalyptic journey across a barren landscape, where people have turned to primal survival tactics to navigate their new world. McCarthy takes a new angle on the usual post-Armageddon story by keeping everything minimal, and disturbingly realistic. Everything feels gritty, and unbearably close to what may happen should such unfortunate events befall us. There are no forts or protected states of being; humanity verses the wilderness, go.
The plot maintains a dull, and yet poetic pacing. At first the slowness can be a bit of a deterrent; there’s no real antagonist, so much as an abstract idea of one, and it takes about one-hundred pages for the story to really get rolling. However, the plight of our ‘heroes’ (and I use that lightly) is strangely compelling. Personally, I think the gradual opening is intentional. The protagonists transverse a wasted world, avoiding what humanity has become; they raid decaying supermarkets, and struggle against cold and hunger. Immediately, the realism of their situation catches the attention. We all relate to the basic needs for survival without any real connection to what’s happening; we all know the premise of starvation, extreme climate, and fear, even if we are unfamiliar with it in this particular scenario. Meanwhile, the steady pacing allows us to grow accustomed to the isolation of the world, so much so, that by the time we’re given the more disquieting content towards the centre of the novel we’re met with a strange conundrum. Do I prefer the cold, isolated rock, which lacks people altogether, introduced in the initial act, or do I prefer that humans are surviving in a very inhumane and freighting hard place? Once the more ominous nature of people came into the text, I did find the questioning whether I’d want to remain in the harsh peopleless construct, rather than the morally ambiguous inhabited world I was now thrust into. The story arch is repetitive, but even this adds the mundane, ‘this-is-life-now’ themes the novel is trying to present. Not everything works, and like I said sometimes the drudging pace can get distracting, but the story comes together with a lot of technical elements to really stir an interest in what’s happening, and forces us as readers to consider alternatives, and ask questions about our morals and judgements. The only real disappointment for me, was the sudden and convenient ending. I know what McCathy was trying to achieve by concluding in the manner he did, but for me it was just too easy.
Our characters don’t even have names, and are really just a construct of ideas, more than they are intricate protagonists. Again, I think this is deliberate, and it really, really works. Without any true identities we don’t so much invest in their journey as take it ourselves. They’re more vessels in which we explore the world, than developed minds through which we merely observe it. Some traits stand out; a parent figure maintaining the life of his son, and a boy growing in a hostile world, but really that’s the extent of what we need to know. Everything is very subtle; we’re given clues as to an living before this rather morbid existence, but nothing is ever overtly stated or concluded. I think in that way, it’s up to us to gain what we want from what we’re given, but ultimately these people could be anyone. They could even be future shadows of the reader themselves. This method further immerses us in the decisions and struggles faced by the characters. Their choices become our own. Could we endure as the father and son are, or we ourselves take the alternate route? The father has a complex system of endurance; his focus being his son, but even there things aren’t so simple. Is he surviving for a true meaning, or simply finding any excuse to keep going? What’s the point of his keeping the boy alive, with nothing much to live for? The motives, while stated in the limited dialogue over and over, are marvellously blurred. Is he really invested in this ‘carrying the fire’ deal, or is he forcing himself to believe it because he’s too afraid to die? Interesting ideas. There’s so much more happening inside our heads than can be expected of the characters’ thought processes, making for a much more compelling storyline in this particular setting, than if we had well-developed, individualised protagonists. Other than our father and son team, there’s really no one else. Like I said, an abstract, raw idea of antagonists, based on our moral understandings of cannibalism, and a few dotted stragglers, who exit as quickly as they enter. McCathy keeps everything infront of us black and white, even going as far as to literally call people ‘good’ or ‘bad’, allowing our understanding of our own world to craft the grey-areas without too much prompting. Even the father and son, act as duel sides of a coin, one standing to embody the selfless nature of human compassion, and the other for selfish preservation. I enjoyed this refreshing simplified characterisation, I think it allowed for a comparison between environments, and great deal of personal philosophical thinking.
McCathy tells you nothing overtly; there is so much subtext, and reading between the lines in this novel I barely know where to begin. You can take what you’re given, or you can dive a lot deeper, but either way you get an interesting story, which remains austere. There are horrifying scenes within the book, that can be received as just that, a face-value, horrifying scene, but actually the implications behind those scenes are often much more gruesome. Warning- Between the stars, you will be in possible spoiler territory. *There’s a moment in the book where the two protagonists happen upon a locked basement where prisoners are being kept, some with missing limbs. Terrifying a fate on its own, until you hypothesize that in-fact their being kept alive to be harvested for their flesh, for one of the ‘bad-people’, cannibalistic communities… and then the notion becomes not just freighting but down-right unnerving. Is this what humanity will become? Is it really eat or be eaten to such a degree we torture each other not just for food, but as food?* You are safe from spoilers beyond this point. There are less vital pieces of information hidden within the text. We’re given some insight to what the father did before the end of the world-as-we-know-it, through his skills and attitude, but we’re never given conclusive evidence to that fact. We now somewhat what turned the world to waste, hints of environmental disaster from what I can gather, but again, we never receive a concrete answer, because it’s not important to the story, as much as it’s important to our hopes to prevent it. This keeps everything at that ominous level of bleak I mentioned earlier, because the story doesn’t need high levels of description, or hyped up language to convey a sense of tension, or even much background.
The story is even written in a minimal way with hardly any description, punctuation, or even dialogue. When conversations arise, it’s never more than a line per character, often no more than a word, creating an atmosphere of isolation, and caution. Sometimes the lack of realistic responses was irritating. McCathy uses the word ‘okay’ in communication more than I use it in a week, but letting this slide, there’s really something powerful about this economic approach to speaking. Everything is formatted in a semi-journal style, with no transitions. We jump from significant (in context) moment, to significant moment with nothing other than what’s necessary to the advancement of the protagonist’s journey. The writing is as much a wasteland (and I mean that in a good way) as the environment of the story. The lack of speech-marks takes some getting used to; I often found myself having to check who was talking, or even if they were speaking at all, and I don’t think this format will work for everyone, but once you learn to navigate the style, it’s an enjoyable change to the average novel formatting.
This is a realistic, unmerciful look, not only at the apocalypse, but at humanity, and survival and brutality. It’s hard to read in the way a TV beheading is hard to watch; you don’t want to partake really, but there’s a compelling nature to the progression of events. If you’ve read the lighter-hearted dystopian genres, then this will make for a grittier alternative. There’s so much to be gained from reading this; a deeper understanding into your own comprehension of survival for one thing, and certainly a glance at twisted version of a lawless world. The language is poetic, sometimes obnoxiously so, the world is dire, but the characters stand as the beacons of hope we always want to exist, and in that way the story is easy to relate to. It’s well-written, brilliantly thought-out, and worth the time of anyone who can stomach the chilling backbone of its contents. If you get a chance, give this a read.