I’d been hearing a lot about Cormac McCarthy‘s novel, The Road, before it won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for best novel. I purchased it recently, and during a long train journey read the book in one sitting.
I would describe this novel as literary horror, with an emphasis on horror. The post-apocalyptic world that McCarthy describes, in which a man and his son scrabble to live in a burned, used-up world, is bleak, desolate, hopeless. It is a story about the fact that humans endure despite the odds, even though there is no good reason why they should strive to do so. The biological mechanism, even in the worst of conditions, will scrap for life.
It’s literary because McCarthy gets away with a style that would be harder to pull off in the horror genre: stripped down and bare. There are no chapters, no apostrophes except to indication possessives, no quotation marks, and the paragraphs are slabs of text interspersed with generous white spaces. Dialogue is only indented when there is a long exchange, and that’s not often. Some people might dismiss this as pretentious, but it does possess a meta-textual objective of being a constant reminder that the world of this novel is savage; all the inessential flourishes have been erased.
This is a father-son journey along a road that the reader guesses will not end well. What keeps you reading is McCarthy’s pure and nail-hard prose, and the plight of a father who tries to keep his son safe, and teach him that even in such a hostile environment there are some things you don’t do to survive. Women are almost absent from the book. They are dead, pregnant, or enslaved. McCarthy’s concerns are focused on this one relationship in a world where “everything was ash” – a much repeated refrain.
I shudder when I consider the headspace McCarthy had to delve into to write this book, and I admire his bravery. McCarthy tells the truth in his fiction, and does not flinch from it. Nothing erodes our humanity faster than hunger.
The novel is short, 241 pages, which is a good thing, because I don’t know if I could have read more of the story. As much as I liked the writing, and the basic premise, I found this is a difficult book to read. A couple of times I stopped and asked myself “why am I reading this?” Was I trying to depress myself on purpose? McCarthy’s world has no future, really. The people are surviving only on the relics of the past, which are dwindling. There is no life in the soil or the sea. No tomorrows, only the now. Yet, people try.
The bond between father and son is the lifeline for the reader. We grip onto that and pull our way through the devastation because we care, deeply, about what happens to the pair. The ends, rushes at us with a dread inevitability, and I suspect in any other novel the author couldn’t have pulled off the ending, but we are so desperate for even the faintest glimmer of hope that we allow what amounts to a deus ex machina. I doubt I could have coped if McCarthy had not peppered his novel with occasional moments of luck.
After laying down that book you should go outside and rejoice in the world that we have. Treasure it. We will not survive its passing.