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Book review: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy



I can appreciate exquisitely crafted prose in the same way I can appreciate exquisitely crafted little frou-frou salads, as pretty things that still leave me unsatisfied and feeling ripped off if there's no protein in 'em. Me, I'll take a cheeseburger over some artistically drizzled lettuce, thanks, and if that makes me nekulturny, so be it.

So while I'm comparing elegant, pretty salads to cheeseburgers, I'll compare Cormac McCarthy's The Road to Stephen King's The Stand. The Road and The Stand are both post-apocalyptic novels with lots of death and horror and good guys vs. bad guys. Other than that, they're about as unlike as can be.


The Stand is a doorstopper of a novel that was already full of dated references thirty years ago, with a huge cast of characters, multiple POVs, and chapter-long tangents. Like most King epics, it's about a small town phonebook longer than it needs to be. It's got some serious plot holes (are there two less hospitable cities in which to set up camp in a post-apocalyptic world than Boulder and Las Vegas?), and it ends in a ridiculous (literal!) deux ex machina. And yet, The Stand, in all its cheesy, bloated glory, remains one of my favorite books. (And holy crap am I getting old or what -- I just realized that the TV miniseries with Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald is sixteen years old now! :()

The Road is a short, sparse novel. There are really only two characters ("The Man" and "The Boy"), and there aren't really any plot holes because there isn't much plot. The Man and the Boy walk along a road in a post-apocalyptic America (we're never told what caused the apocalypse, or exactly how long ago it was), with the vague goal of reaching the coast, for reasons never clearly articulated. Now and then they encounter another survivor, or dead bodies, or roving bands of cannibals, and get away. By the end, I was only mildly curious to find out whether McCarthy would kill The Man, The Boy, or both. And then it ends, in a completely unsurprising way, and I'm going, okay, and reading the rave reviews for this book and thinking, WTF? (And how lame is it that I didn't even know there'd been a movie made of it? Gonna have to check that on Netflix.)

Cormac McCarthy is a literary author better known for stories like All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and No Country for Old Men. I downloaded The Road because it was on sale on Audible.com, and it was a post-apocalyptic tale, and Cormac McCarthy is all literary an' shit, "one of the greatest American writers," and I'd never read him.

So, the prose: yes, it's finely crafted, and there were some bits that I did find quite aesthetically pleasing. McCarthy is a true wordsmith. That's the thing about literary fiction; you love it for the wordsmithing and the themes and how you're supposed to feel when reading it and what influenced it and What's It All Mean? It's made for writing college English papers about.

Or, like me, you think a lot of it is precious affectation, but that's probably just my bias against literary fiction. Or maybe I just don't love McCarthy's writing as much as some folks do.

The dialogs between father and son, over and over again, go something like this:


We should go, Papa. Can we go?
Yes. We can.
I'm scared.
I know. I'm sorry.
I'm really scared.
It's all right. We shouldn't have come.


or:


We're going to be okay, aren't we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That's right.
Because we're carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we're carrying the fire.


Maybe it's a different experience reading this on the page; listening to it as an audiobook, the kid starts to sound really whiny after a while.

If I may commit literary heresy, however, and analyze the story as a story, there were a couple of things that bothered me.

First, because this is literary fiction and you're not supposed to care about dramatic tension and plot twists and resolution and other lowbrow stuff like that, there isn't any. It's a story of survival and devotion and "carrying the fire" in the face of hopelessness, and it's got an emotional punch at times, I won't deny that. But I can understand why it was an Oprah selection: it's all emotional punch and no delivery. It's for people who like books that they can describe as "moving, remarkable, tender, and harrowing," but give you a blank look when you ask about the story. People who think this is some remarkable new thing McCarthy has done, writing a moving, tender, and harrowing story about apocalypse survivors. People who would never lower themselves to read The Stand... or Earth Abides.

There was one other big issue that stood out for me: the boy is always scared, horrified by dead bodies, burying his face in his father's side and crying when he sees something horrible.

This is a perfectly understandable reaction -- for a child who has grown up in the comfortable safety and security of our modern world. But this child never knew that comfortable, safe world. We are told that he doesn't remember the time before -- he has grown up in this much darker world. He and the man have been on the road for a long time -- over a year, at least. He has surely seen plenty of horrific sights in his young life, yet each time, he reacts as if this is the first dead baby on a spit or burned body he's ever seen.

The thing about children is, they're adaptable. Children who grow up in brutal environments full of nasty things and people out to get them adapt to that, too, and they learn how to survive. Or they don't, and they die. Watch The Wire some time, or a documentary about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Children are quite capable of coping with the fact that the world is full of grim and scary things. Their adaptation may be ugly, and their coping mechanisms may be fatalistic and erase anything resembling that fond conceit of our modern world known as "childhood innocence," but this boy should have long since become inured to dead bodies and cannibals. He should recognize the latter as a threat, certainly, but I didn't find his tearful quivering and need to be comforted by his papa credible -- this was the reaction of a soft child from a privileged existence, not one who has grown up in the post-apocalyptic savagery of The Road

I appreciated the themes and the psychological depth McCarthy imbued this novel with despite its sparseness, so... a great writer? I can see it, I guess. But it just wasn't a great story, for me.

I am interested in hearing opinions about McCarthy's other works, though. I didn't fall in love with his writing, but the style was distinctive and intriguing enough to make me willing to give him another shot, if he can actually tell a story.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
psychox
Jun. 1st, 2010 10:53 am (UTC)
I gave up on The Stand. It bored me.

I liked Carrie though.

Been meaning to try McCarthy. These days, I'll take sparse and lean over grandiose epics anyway.


The thing about children is, they're adaptable. Children who grow up in brutal environments full of nasty things and people out to get them adapt to that, too, and they learn how to survive. Or they don't, and they die. Watch The Wire some time, or a documentary about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Children are quite capable of coping with the fact that the world is full of grim and scary things. Their adaptation may be ugly, and their coping mechanisms may be fatalistic and erase anything resembling that fond conceit of our modern world known as "childhood innocence," but this boy should have long since become inured to dead bodies and cannibals. He should recognize the latter as a threat, certainly, but I didn't find his tearful quivering and need to be comforted by his papa credible -- this was the reaction of a soft child from a privileged existence, not one who has grown up in the post-apocalyptic savagery of The Road


Haven't read The Road, so this is just a general statement about fiction, but there's such thing as metaphor and allegory. If he had written The Road as a more "literal" story, using techniques that a journalist would have used to tell a real life story, the underlying psychology would not have changed. The soul of humanity remains the same--a scared child protected by an older, adult self, both the complementary halves of the same entity. One exists to protect; the other is the reason for the struggle. Whittle away a lot of post-apocalyptic stories, all those fancy plot details, and you get this. "Survival" and "the reason."
psychox
Jun. 1st, 2010 11:14 am (UTC)
Also, a friend of mine (who normally hates books aka not a lit snob) recommends All the Pretty Horses.
indigo_mouse
Jul. 6th, 2010 04:19 am (UTC)
I read The Road for a book club.

At the end all I could think of was "How could humans survive in a world where even cockroaches were killed? Where is the oxygen coming from if there are no plants?"

I realize it is a metaphor, or analogy or some such high-brow stuff. But... the impossible setting was distracting. The book was dull and repetitive. I was not entertained... Maybe my brow is too low.

Yup, that's the book that made me quit the book club.
Menachem Rephun
Jan. 1st, 2021 12:41 am (UTC)
Literary fiction
I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "literary fiction". Is that a derisive way of describing literature, or just works with what you perceive as literary pretentions? If you think the latter describes McCarthy's work, then I have to sharply disagree with you. I've read about half of his novels now, including The Road, and I haven't encountered many authors who deal more profoundly and more beautifully with exploring human nature. There isn't a single glib word in McCarthy's writing. I've enjoyed plenty of Stephen King, but comparing him to McCarthy is honestly like comparing a KFC bucket to a four course meal at a 5 star restaurant.
inverarity
Jan. 1st, 2021 01:39 am (UTC)
Re: Literary fiction
McCarthy is hit and miss for me. I do think some of his style is very affected, but that is just the way he writes. I really liked Blood Meridian, but The Road was all elegaic prosiness to the point of pretentiousness.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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