Books, like the minds from which they are born, are, by nature, unpredictable. They can shock us to the core, enlighten us or let us experience the whole range of emotions that we as humans are capable of feeling. Some very rare novels achieve of all these. For me, such a book is Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’.
In an age when the threat of nuclear attacks are discussed and debated, a world where the calls to change planet earth and humanity’s abuse of
it are stifled and ignored, perhaps more than ever a view of a post-apocalyptic world is needed to shake us out of our complacency. The vision created within ‘The Road’ is bleak and foreboding. A father and his young son travel through the ravaged remains of America, experiencing the unimaginable sense of hunger, those who turn to savagery to survive and the continual fear that the next day of monotony and hardship will present an insurmountable obstacle. Yet equally, juxtaposed against the raw terror are images of untamed beauty and wonderment:
‘Human bodies. Sprawled in every attitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotted clothes. The small wad of burning paper drew down to wisp of flame and then died out leaving a faint pattern for just a moment in the incandescence like the shape of a flower, a molten rose. Then all was dark again.’
Such is the power of McCarthy’s formidable accomplishment as a writer. The language is restrained and simplistic yet on an epic, biblical scale. Whilst every sentence is measured and crafted, moments of intimacy between father and son strike one down with amazement. I felt my eyes sting with tears as McCarthy described the father’s undying affection for his son: ‘He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.’
‘The Road’ is not entirely bleak and ominous. There is an underlying streak of love and the hope that even on the road to their inevitable demise, there will be a solution, an antidote to the protagonists and their troubles. At the very least they have each other. The father’s energy and fears are directed towards their search for food whilst the boy looks to his father, equally afraid, as a source of support, a foundation. Their exchanges are sparse and limited but there remains the paternal that survives beyond the pages of the novel. ‘We’re the good guys’, the boy reiterates, his mantra to survive. ‘Yes’, his father replies. McCarthy has described how both are ‘each other’s world entire.’ In his dedication of ‘The Road’, McCarthy writes to John Francis McCarthy, his own son, and it is this raw and steadfast love within this relationship that lies at the very heart of the novel.
McCarthy’s ability to transfix the reader on the two companions’ mundane life, his ability to grip the reader in a novel where the outcome is painfully real and set in motion merely proves his prowess as a writer. The words are as bare and as naked as the landscape which encapsulates the characters, as this encapsulates the reader. McCarthy’s prosaically beautiful lament lulls the reader into a security. At times the reality hits and its reverberations hit home.
Such reverberations are the stark reality of death. McCarthy never simplifies nor does he elaborate upon its reality but confronts it with stark honesty. Indeed, within the novel, the finality of death is one of the few honest and startling truths in a world governed by fear and uncertainty of what is to come. For this reason, the man’s wife, the boy’s mother, kills herself. The father yearns for his wife and his memories of their time together as a married couple is heightened in joy and sensuality with its evocation of colour and music, as equally absent and missed: ‘He could remember everything of her save her scent. Seated in a theatre with her beside him leaning forward to listen to the music. Gold scrollwork and sconces and the tall columnar folds of the drapes at either side of the stage.’ Yet he remains stoical in the presence of his adoring son, retaining his composure to preserve the boy’s innocence.
It is the gradual diminishing of this childhood innocence which is one of the most painfully real and heartbreaking aspects of ‘The Road.’ While the boy initially remains fixated upon himself and his father remaining the ‘good guys’, he soon becomes all too aware of death and the harsh brutality which others turn to in order to survive. This is preparation for his final act that requires tremendous courage and maturity: the realization of his father’s death. As his father lies dying, he vows to continue on his journey south and to retain the ‘fire’ within. Perhaps this is the real pilgrimage, the road of the title. While the actual journey is ultimately futile, the harsh and painful transition from a nervous and shy boy to strong-willed and independent young man is a triumph. The boy’s eventual acceptance of his father’s passing is marked with a simple burial before he continues on his way, accompanied again but with a strong sense of maturity and resolute.
Yet hope and triumph is evident in many facets of the novel. The father’s carving of a flute to entertain his son and the boy’s playing of it is a rather searing and warming refrain from the the silence: ‘After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin.’
Another break from the routine of ‘The Road’, a routine that provides a steady and reliable foundation for father and son, is the appearance of the mysterious Ely. Elderly and impoverished, his proclamation that ‘There is no god and we are his prophets’ is open to reader interpretation. Whether these are the musings of a mad man or a startling truth from the lips of a prophet remains to be seen. Faith is a recurrent theme within the novel, for it is a faith of sorts that drives the boy and his father forward. The implications of the world as it is prompts and demands a questioning of god’s existence and Ely is determined that such an existence cannot be possible or permissible of the horrors that have besieged them all.
Nietzsche wrote, ‘When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you’ and this is certainly true. In confronting the very depths of despair and human fears, McCarthy’s novel explores the many facets and great depths of human emotions. While the novel is a prophetic call to take heed of the planet that we inhabit and regrettably abuse, it is also a celebration of human resolve, willpower and the love that binds us together, even more so in times of need.
In many ways I admire the novel for what it is not: it is moving without being sentimental, honest and yet non-judgmental, ambitious and yet completely free of any pretension. This is writing, although simplistic in narrative, at its most daring and complex. The wife is neither heroic nor cowardly. Ely is neither foolish nor wise.
Ultimately this is a novel of contradiction. It is a celebration of love in times of utter depravity. It is an intimate exploration of its characters yet always maintains a restrained distance. It is an elegiac and prosaically beautiful lament upon destruction and unimaginable horror. Yet most importantly it is an ageless parable of such startling and unsettling relevance for today.
The Road, Cormac McCarthy, Picador (2010)