Monday, January 05, 2009

Book Review: The Road

Okay, fine. So, maybe my self-taught literary appreciation skills just don't measure up. I'll accept that. But, to my way of thinking, The Road, Cormac McCarthy's 2006 post-apocalyptic novel, offers small reward when weighed against the demands it makes upon the reader. McCarthy is often recognized as one of today's most accomplished novelists, and other reviews of this, his ninth novel are almost universally laudatory. Count me out.

The novel grabbed me from the first paragraph. I finished it in one sitting.

I wish I hadn't read it.

It is the tale of an unnamed man and his son migrating southward in a world gripped by nuclear winter. In this world, the Earth offers nothing but coldness, privation, and savagery. The reader journeys with them southward along "the road" in search of warmth and survival. Along the way, they struggle to avoid starvation, death from exposure, and tribes of cannibalistic savages.

Several themes run through the book. Among them is an acknowledgment of the essential need humans have for purpose, for a morality that transcends survival.

For the protagonist, the father, his single-minded purpose in life is the survival of the son. "My job is to take care of you," he says to the boy. "I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you." And the boy is clearly cast as humanity's redeemer. It is the boy who pitifully evokes the traces of compassion and morality in this stark, savage world. The boy is the world's one last hope. Or perhaps, the last ghost of a hope that has died.

It's not that Mr. McCarthy lacks eloquence or power. His terse, Hemingway-esque prose is marvelous. And scattered throughout are lines of pure poetry that force the reader to pause and ponder. "There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who is not honored here today." His ability to create a universe by stringing together hundreds of stripped-down moments, verbal exchanges, and flashbacks, interspersed with a very few significant events is awe-inspiring. And although there is no plot to speak of, the novel does not suffer from its lack when viewed as allegory. McCarthy is, without doubt, a wise and dour man, an intimidating intellect.

But the book is brutal. The reader is subjected to unspeakable horrors and unrelenting despair. In this world, humankind appears to be the only surviving species. All vegetation is burnt ash; there are no animals; the landscape is charred ruin. In short, this is not a world where human beings could survive at all, let alone subsist for ten years after the (never-explained) holocaust. There is no relief, no moment of jocularity, no elevation from the grim reality. It is as if some sadistic vein of McCarthy's creativity has created this implausible world so that he can inflict his own torment on his readers; so that we can experience the hell he knows.

That would be acceptable if the reward were commensurate with the suffering. But it seems to me that if the reader must endure the horrors (and, without elaborating, this book is full of obscene horrors) it is fair to expect an equal measure of wisdom or virtue to be imparted.

Perhaps McCarthy believes that the two-page denouement, with its hints at an enduring morality and its merest shred of hope, is enough to assuage the lonely despair of his readers. And, maybe --in today's dying world, with its wars and savagery, with its decaying humanity --it is.


Shus li said...

Sounds like "Threads" or "The Day After", both 1980's post-newkuler movies with zero hope presented. Just my cup 'o' tea, although I also like the rosy post-apocalytic salvation of "The Stand" by Stephen King, where good prevails over evil.

Heather Ann said...

Thanks for the warning Dade! One more reminder that the knowledge of good AND EVIL come with a heavy price tag. I long for the day when Good finally claims its victory and truly delivers us from Evil!

Anonymous said...

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Great Review!
I got this book a few days ago, although i haven't read it yet. But your review makes me want to grab the book and start right now!

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