Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” So begins a journey, not only along “the road,” but into the depths of human nature.

I read slowly and therefore I am cautious in my choice of books. I have left many a book unfinished because the effort was insufficiently rewarding. Isn’t it curious, then, that I should find so captivating a story as unremittingly bleak as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”? Its vision of a post-apocalyptic environment that has been burned to an entirely gray, dim, cold, and dangerous wasteland is relentless. The desperation of its nameless characters—father and son, referred to only as “the man” and “the boy”—is redeemed only by their attachment to each other.

What compels the reader to continue on, like the characters themselves, is McCarthy’s mastery of both language and storytelling. The austerity of its imagery and precision of its spare dialogue reminded me of Becket—a humorless and grotesque “Waiting for Godot.” The artistry—and poetic beauty—of the writing transcends the wretchedness and ugliness of the situations it describes and even the nihilism of its narrative. The brilliance of his achievement makes the unimaginable seem completely believable.

“The Road” was published in 2006; I clearly came to it late. However, I believe it speaks to a global society filled with uncertainty and anxiety today. We are exposed to a worst-case scenario of humanity’s future without ever knowing the cataclysm that caused such circumstances. The abstraction of their predicament, combined with the absolute physicality of McCarthy’s concrete descriptions of devastation and depravity, taps directly into archetypal emotions: fear, dread, horror—also courage, and, through it all, love. The boy and the man never say each other’s names and we never learn them. They are no one and therefore could be anyone. Their’s are T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men” whose “eyes I dare not meet in dreams,” and although there was clearly some kind of “bang,” the world did not end. We witness it slowly whimpering away.

Are we left at the end with any hope at all—either for these two fascinating characters or for the fate of humanity? Read it and decide. If you’ve already read it, leave a comment and let me know what you’ve decided.

If you want to read a more thorough review, go to “The Road Through Hell, Paved With Desperation,” from the New York Times, 2006.

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