This is my first guest post, and it’s from my wonderful friend Nels, who lives in San Francisco and helpfully passed along his thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road. I saw the movie version of “No Country for Old Men” and it scared the bejesus out of me, so no surprise that this book is pretty dark, too. Read on, and thanks Nels!
Hello everyone, a few days ago Lauren invited me to be a guest blogger here on her site. As it happens I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – a dark tale about a father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. So my apologies if you, as a faithful bookworm reader, are expecting more Harry Potter and The Bachelorette because you may be put off by such a dark story but that’s what’s fresh in my mind (and it just so happens that I really like the book too).
So to begin, The Road is McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning story about post-apocalyptic survival. In the story, the cause of Earth’s ruin is unspecified, but whatever it was, it destroyed almost all life and left the world cold and grey with ash covering just about everything. In this world we find a father and son trekking down a dangerous road in search of an elusive southern coast. They choose the coastline as a destination in the hope that they’ll find a better climate to the south. The father also entertains the son with stories of brilliant blue ocean – something the boy has never seen before having been born post-apocalypse. However, everyone (the reader and the characters) know that really the coastline holds no promise and that it will be just cold and gray like everything else. So mainly they trek just to remind themselves what it used to feel like to have a purpose. Whilst they’re on this journey, their exciting daily agenda consists of searching for food in abandon houses, continuing to walk down the road, and sleeping through pitch black and very cold nights. Riveting, I know.
Offsetting their boring daily routine though, is a constant fear of other people. In the beginning, this is only hinted at through not-so-subtle clues: a mirror on their shopping cart to look behind them and a pistol they keep close at hand. Later the reader begins to understand their fear and the cruel nature of this new world. They have no friends and they’re not at all interested in making any. The few people they meet on the road are aging loners on the edge of death, which they only minimally help out at the behest of the son. And the only apparently organized group of people are some fierce cannibals who enjoy enslaving people and doing some thankfully undetailed things which result in screaming and loss of limbs. What’s great about The Road is that this exposure to gore and the resulting peaked fear that grips the reader lasts only for an instant. Then we find the father and son back in a routine of waking, walking, looking for food, eating, and then sleeping. You get this sense of a subdued but constant background fear that is overshadowed by boredom and a lack purpose. You get a sense of what it might be like if your only mission in life was to survive and to keep your child alive in a world that holds no promise or real future.
None of the characters in the story are named and it’s written in a direct stream-of-consciousness kind of style. This makes the writing feel as stripped down as the new earth in the story. There’s very limited punctuation beyond periods (or “full-stops” for any British readers) and the dialogue is simple enough that there is no need to identify the speaker. The dialogue (like the rest of the book) is written in an apathetic third person and the reader picks up who’s speaking from context. Take this example of the father and son speaking to each other about entering an unknown house to search for much needed food:
I think we should take a look.
Papa let’s not go up there.
I don’t think we should go up there.
It’s okay. We have to take a look.
It’s a very simple writing style where you can almost hear the father sigh as he speaks. The accepting quality in the father’s tone can be juxtaposed with what the reader knows is a possible life-and-death decision for our heroes to make – in this world going into an unknown house is very dangerous but necessary if one’s going to find any food to speak of. So the reader sees that the father has joylessly accepted the facts of this new world and plays along (presumably) only for the sake of his son.
I don’t know what it is exactly but I love these post-apocalyptic stories of survival. Maybe it’s the geek in me, but there’s something about the sci-fi meets thriller aspect that connects with me (probably something I share with Kevin Costner, see Water World and The Postman). And The Road happens to be a very good example of this kind of story. It does well in bringing out the themes of a lack of purpose or promise and juxtaposing fear with boredom. It makes you wonder what in life is necessary to have some hope at happiness. For whatever reason I find these themes fascinating and The Road does a great job in communicating their emotional weight.
Some notes: I only found out after finishing the book that a movie is being made based on it. It’s going to star Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, and Robert Duvall. McCarthy’s other works include All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men.