The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Pulitzer Prize winning post apocalyptic depression fest.
A man and a boy walk down a road. The world is covered with ash.
That’s sort of it for the plot. They are going somewhere.
My first thought as I read this book was that there was no hope in it. Most post apocalyptic stories hold the promise of a new world to be built. There is a phoenix-like quality to them. There is nothing of that in The Road. It is bleak without being explicit. I felt in every description of a meal or a search through an abandoned property that there was no life left in anything. All that remains in the book are small pieces of life from before, all of them slowly fading to nothingness. This includes the people. They are only still alive because they haven’t died yet, not because there is any reason to keep on living.
The character of the wife, only experienced in flashback, is odd but illuminating. Her dialog is ridiculously complex when contrasted with that of the man and the boy. It’s obvious that she is wholly a construct created by the author to ask the central question of the novel. Why keep going? I spent the first fifty pages of the novel asking myself “Why is this guy still going? There is no reason to live.” The wife’s worldview is so uncompromisingly bleak that I rebelled against her and started rooting for the man and the boy. Even though she seemed unnatural and her characterization was heavy handed McCarthy succeeded in using her to illuminate the incredibly tiny hope left in the world simply by showing that she had none.
The prose is oddly written although I can’t say if it is typical for McCarthy as this is the first work of his that I have read. It’s almost a storyboard of small scenes and vignettes from the lives of the characters. The dialogue is brief and spare. Contrasting with that are McCarthy’s almost florid descriptions of the landscape and characters. It’s evocative to be sure but it feels like reaching. I can’t help but think the author went through his manuscript at one point with a thesaurus and picked out the most obscure synonyms for adjectives that he could. It’s not in the same league with Umberto Eco in terms of intellectual rigor. Reading The Name of the Rose I felt a bit stupid because of the impenetrability of the ideas and arguments set forth by the author. In The Road I just felt like the author wanted to show off his vocabulary.
McCarthy’s real triumph is in holding up a mirror to the reader. No matter how futile existence may appear we as a species and as individuals will strive to continue in the face of bleakest despair. We will grasp at the most improbable, distant iota of hope. In the darkest night the tiny light shines more clearly.