A World that Has Survived Its End

04/05/2011 21:43

Review of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (London: Picador, 2009)

“There is no god and we are his prophets,” says one of the characters in Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, whose timeless message made its author a hot contender for the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature as well. And really, while reading the book, one cannot escape the feeling that God has abandoned the world McCarthy portrays in his tenth novel to date.

It is empty, devastated and bleak. It has been destroyed by an unspecified global cataclysm, which wiped out all life and beauty and hope. The landscape is covered in omnipresent ash, which irritates lungs and causes never-ending coughing fits, and the sun hasn’t touched the Earth’s surface in years. Nothing can grow, and food is running out. In the midst of this horror, the reader meets a man and a boy, a father and a son, wandering the landscape, scrounging for food in deserted houses and grocery stores. Like migratory birds, they head to the south to escape the increasingly frigid winter, still cherishing hope for a better future. Their goal is the ocean, which the boy believes will still be as blue as in his father’s stories. Unfortunately, when they reach it, it is grey with ash, just like the rest of the world. However disappointed they may feel, they must battle against their own despair and – survive.

For a while the reader might get the impression that the father and the son are the last human beings on Earth. In fact, there are also other survivors, even though not many. The father and the son, however, avoid any human contact as most of the surviving people have resorted to cannibalism. They are “bad guys”, as the boy calls them, symbols of death, the only ruler of the fading world. The novel is marked by its omnipresence. Its figure is haunting the scorched forests. It is looking at snowy streets out of the windows of long abandoned and plundered houses. It is observing you through the eyes of a decapitated person.

It is this sense of constant threat that gives rise to the most dramatic, and most horrifying, conflict in the book. Since the beginning of the story, the man, as the child’s father and protector, has been fighting an idea no parent should ever be forced to think about: Should he kill the boy himself, fast and painlessly, before they get caught, tortured and eaten? McCarthy masterfully portrays the psychology of a father whose mind is tortured by this uncontrollable thought and the possibility that he will be compelled by circumstances to become his child’s murderer.

The father and the son are “each other’s entire world” no matter how different they are. Their mutual symbiotic relationship forms the heart of McCarthy’s novel and saves it from being totally depressing. The father ensures his son has food to eat and the boy gives the man a reason to live. The father knew the world “before” and saw the rampaging hordes of people murdering and massacring their brothers and sisters “after”. On the other hand, his son was born as one of the last children after the disaster. He has never seen or experienced the “normal” world before (McCarthy incorporated a beautiful scene with Coke in the story to emphasize this). Therefore, the boy sees the world and destinies of other survivors through very different eyes than his father; his view is marked with innocence and compassion. The man, obsessed with his desire to protect himself and his son by any means and provide for their survival, has become callous, distrustful and suspicious. He is a prototype of a man who wants neither to hurt nor to help. In contrast, the boy seeks the good in people, which can be best seen in episodes where he glimpses another child or where they meet a harmless old glaucoma-affected man. He represents the last rays of light on dying Earth; he still retains belief in God although many others have given up their faith. “Where men can’t live gods fare no better.”

McCarthy displays a remarkable talent to describe the greyness and darkness that hover over the land and inside the human soul in multiple ways. Despite that, after a while the book may become a bit repetitive to some readers. Yet the repetition is necessary to give the reader a sense of how monotonous the characters’ lives are. They spend most of their time walking, looking for food, trying to comfort one another, and walking some more. Despite the repetitive nature of the story, the book is quite addictive. There are enough surprises and emotional ups and downs to sustain the reader’s interest throughout the story.

The Road is not a reading for everybody. It is spine-chilling and nightmarish, interwoven with symbols and allusions whose deciphering requires a certain degree of erudion, and at times deeply philosophical.

Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put into you head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.

You forget some things, don’t you?

Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.

The novel’s spare language corresponds with the wasteland the father and the son are going through. Short and seemingly terse dialogs, which are not separated from the narration itself with any punctuation, but simply emerge and vanish, appear to suggest that in a world without future there is no point to talking. Yet, despite their triviality, they are revealing.

There is no great ending to the novel. In fact, the ending is the only disappointing aspect of McCarthy’s narrative. It may be pleasing to the crowd, but it is frustratingly inappropriate. On the other hand, the deus-ex-machina resolution ensures that the book be read as a religious parable rather than rationalist sci-fi.

The Road is one of the most powerful novels of recent years, which definitely deserves a place in the American literary canon. It presents a warning post-apocalyptic vision of a world where only shreds of hope are left to hold on to. One often wonders what propels the father and the son to move forward. It is not clear what their destination is; the journey seems to be the point. They struggle to survive. They do not give up. They do not turn into monsters although the environment they live in invites them to. In a world where only the fittest survive, they cling to what remained of humanity and obey almost forgotten unwritten laws and rules. In a world that has survived its end and has no future, they “carry the fire” and seek meaning.

Lucia Otrísalová