Monday, August 9, 2010

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Lately I've been reading Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road. Ordinarily, one waits until finished with a book to write about it; I've tried but there's something that, this time, won't wait. The setting is the future -- not so distant that cars, trains, and ships are obsolete, not so near as to be unbelievable. The world is post-apocalyptic. We don't know what has happened except to say that civilization as we know it is a memory most would prefer to forget.

There may have been a nuclear war, an asteroid may have struck the earth, it's hard to say. There is ash everywhere and scarcely a living thing besides. The lead characters, a father and his young son -- how young, we're never told, but too young to survive on his own -- are traveling on foot to an unnamed coast. Their belongings in knapsacks and a shopping cart, they live as best they can off the waste that surrounds them.

McCarthy is hardly a transparent writer and what he wants to say is as difficult to determine as the ash-laden air is for father and son to breathe. You have to pick it up along the way in bits and pieces, a fragment of life here, a gleam of light there. And what I think may be only what I'd say, my own predispositions interposing themselves onto his poetic prose. And that may be the way he wants it.

What I see is a father who would likely have ceased living but for his son and a son who would never have survived but for his father. Days without food and nights in the cold. No reason to hope and even less to hope for and yet the father refuses to allow either of them to give up. The boy sees things no one should and yet he wants to share what they don't have with one who has nothing.

I'm forty or so pages from the end and how it will end is anybody's guess. I don't think it will end in death. It might, but I doubt it. McCarthy has these two pulling through at the expense of no one else. What the father would have held back, the son gives away, and together, they render their lives humane. I think Camus would have liked this story. A desolate world wearing the face of irrationality, and in it father and son keep each other going, and even if it seems they're going nowhere, one way or another they'll get there together. Call me crazy, but I call that hope.

(Creative Commons image of The Road by Pickersgill Reef via Flickr)
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