Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Books: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy

Quickie Synopsis: A man and his son journey south--always south--through a barren, desolate, post-Apocalyptic world. The landscape, the air, the sky--they are all filled with ashes. The vegetation is dead, burned to a crisp and frozen in time. Along the road are abandoned pieces of humanity: cars with melted tires, empty houses falling inward upon themselves, luggage abandoned and picked over by people moving south. It is always raining and cold. There are no birds or deer or animals of any kind, and the only humans that the boy and his father meet are either near death, insane, or predators.


This is not a light-hearted or uplifting book by any kind of standard. And I read it in great big gulps over the course of about two days. Even when I put it down, I felt myself constantly pulled back toward that world, its struggle for survival, and Cormac McCarthy's stark, biblical language.

The Road is a book that must be read all at once to be truly appreciated and understood. It is told in short snippets no longer than a paragraph or two and in one long continuous sequence with no breaks for chapters. The effect reinforces the feeling of disjointed, confused reality, a reality that feels like it begins in the middle of a sentence and ends before the speaker has finished speaking. The story, the characters, the dialogue, the language, the writing, the pace, the structure of the book: all these aspects work together in perfect harmony to continually reinforce the themes of the book like a symphony or a force of nature that builds on itself without any seeming effort on the part of the crafter. The reader walks next to the man and his son, sees what they see as they are first seeing it, feels what they feel, judges their actions and experiences just as they judge themselves. McCarthy has achieved a work of master craftsmanship in this book.

This is a story of apocalypse--the worst apocalypse imaginable, the one that is preached by every present-day prophet with a bullhorn, and the one that is often dismissed as being alarmist. I am also guilty of the dismissal, and yet as I read McCarthy's book, I found myself constantly thinking, "Yes, this is how it would be. This is how humanity would end."

But the book is not just a warning of some possible dystopian future; The Road can also be read as commentary on the increasing soullessness of human society, the psychic wasteland of the spirit as evidenced by shootings in schools, corruption and immorality at the highest levels of our government, increasing incidences of suicides and mental illness, bystanders to violent crime who turn away or--worse--take pictures on their camera-phone instead of stepping in. The wasteland is both literal and metaphorical: a city ghetto, a suburb of perfect green lawns, a refugee camp, a prison, a person's mind. I'm not saying--and nor do I think McCarthy is saying--that we all need to get a little more of that old time religion. Rather, by putting his reader directly into this terrifying landscape, I think McCarthy aims to bring the apathy and despondency into focus and to show us what's really at stake here. And what's at stake is our souls.

I feel that it is just as crucial to have books like The Road as it is to have books like Savage Inequalities and Manufacturing Consent because it tells what is real and true without artifice or angles or even statistics. The nightmare being told in this book is alarmist, but it's a nightmare that needs to be faced in order to be understood. It's already around us and choosing not to face it only makes the nightmare more real. The Road will never be a best seller. It will be read quietly, alone, and then slipped back on a shelf while the reader walks away--thoughts turned inward, steps slowed, tongue softly touching lips, fingers checking all the locks.


mel said...

never be a best seller?

it did win the pulitzer (spelling?) prize! :P haha.

EmmaC said...

I know! So funny, right?! I wrote this review right after the book came out and before it started getting all that hype. Looking back on this post totally cracks me up.

I have to say that I'm STILL astonished at how popular this book became. It's gorgeous, but so grim and...grim...that I really didn't think the 'mass market' would pick it up. Shows me, huh?!