Cormac McCarthy's The Road is one of those books that you feel you really shouldn't miss out on. The reviews have been overwhelmingly glowing. I picke...moreCormac McCarthy's The Road is one of those books that you feel you really shouldn't miss out on. The reviews have been overwhelmingly glowing. I picked it up to read on the basis of these reviews and despite its recently being chosen as Oprah Winfrey's latest selection for her book club.
"It may be the saddest, most haunting book he's ever written, or that you'll ever read," says the reviewer for The Village Voice, who also goes on to say, "the tender precariousness of The Road's human relationships is what finally makes it such a beautiful, difficult, near perfect work."
The Guardian's reviewer comments that "part of the achievement of The Road is its poetic description of landscapes from which the possibility of poetry would seem to have been stripped, along with their ability to support life." The world of The Road is dark and bleak, uniformly dead. The people are dead, the wildlife is dead, the foliage is dead. These are not landscapes that would seem to lend themselves to poetry or to compelling description, but McCarthy manages to mine the landscapes for the poetry of their very existence.
The Powell's Books reviewer, Tom Chiarella, writes, countering temptations to read The Road as a warning, a tract, or a metaphor,
But you shouldn't read this book for the metaphoric possibilities of change in the life of mankind. You know all that crap already. Yeah, yeah, we're headed for doom. You should read this book because it is exactly what a book about our future ought to be: the knife wound of our inconvenient truths, laid bare in a world that will just plain scare the piss out of you on a windy night.
In The New York Review of Books, Michael Chabon writes,
The paradox in every part and sentence of the post-apocalyptic narrative—evoking even as it denies—is repeated as if fractally by The Road as a whole. . . . This paradox, like a brutal syllogism, leads McCarthy, almost one senses in spite of himself, to conclude The Road on a note of possible redemption that while moving and reassuring is prepared for neither by one's reading of his prior work nor, perhaps, by the novel itself. In order to destroy the world, it becomes necessary to save it.
Possible redemption? I find much of Chabon's review insightful, but I do not see any redemption in this book. The final paragraph of the novel is the only break in the bleak and overwhelming trip the father and son have made:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. (286-7)
This final section of The Road may gesture toward a better world, but it is a world that no longer exists. At the end of the novel, all fish are dead, all streams are polluted and dead or dying, and the boy does not even have memories of the world that is described in this final paragraph. These "maps of the world in its becoming" are long since gone, as is the world they mapped, and this world can "not be made right again." This seems to be something other than hope. Nostalgia, perhaps. Loss. Regret. A sense of the insignificance of humanity. But not hope.
Chabon also writes, more convincingly, of The Road's treatment of the father-son relationship that is at the heart of the novel:
The Road is not a record of fatherly fidelity; it is a testament to the abyss of a parent's greatest fears. The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with. The fear of one day being obliged for your child's own good, for his peace and comfort, to do violence to him or even end his life. And, above all, the fear of knowing— as every parent fears—that you have left your children a world more damaged, more poisoned, more base and violent and cheerless and toxic, more doomed, than the one you inherited. It is in the audacity and single-mindedness with which The Road extends the metaphor of a father's guilt and heartbreak over abandoning his son to shift for himself in a ruined, friendless world that The Road finds its great power to move and horrify the reader.
Despite the earlier injunctions (in Chiarella's review) against reading The Road as metaphor, this virtually demands it be seen as such. It is certainly about this generational anxiety, this burden of responsibility, but this burden of responsibility cannot stop at the boundaries of personal relationships. The precept of the Iroquois that "in every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine" calls upon the same sense of human responsibility that McCarthy's father feels for his son. We may not know exactly what happened to cause this apocalypse in The Road, but this vagueness allows us to envision the many ways in which our actions today could condemn future generations to such a diminished and hopeless life.
In this light, perhaps most interesting is the commentary by the reviewer for The Modern Word. He writes, "Ultimately, The Road suggests that no matter how bleak our existence, we must live life as if it has meaning. As if our progenitors are watching; as if there is a line separating the good guys from the bad guys." And perhaps, as if our descendants are watching.
This is precisely what the father and son in the book try to do, at some times with more energy and heart than at other times. They are driven by a desire, a need, to be "good guys," to separate themselves from those who steal others' means of survival, those who hold people captive until they can eat them, those who kill and eat children. They live to hold themselves apart from the others they encounter on the road. The horrors of becoming one of those others is illustrated most dramatically in a scene in which they come across an abandoned campsite with "a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit" (198).
In this quest to be good guys, to do the right thing, to survive, however, there are choices to be made. At what point does a father sacrifice his own son to protect him from rape and cannibalism? Can he do such a thing? How long does he have to force himself to remain alive to protect his son? How long will he be capable of doing such a thing?
To make this obvious as a decision to be made, McCarthy includes memories of the boy's mother, who killed herself before he had a chance to know her but after the event that ruined the world. "We're survivors," the father told her, but she did not believe him. "What in God's name are you talking about? We're not survivors. We're the walking dead in a horror film" (55). He begs her not to kill herself, to stay with him and their son. Her reply, over the course of the conversation, is chilling in the way that it so thoroughly captures the hopelessness and despair of the situation:
I didn't bring myself to this. I was brought. And now I'm done. . . . You cant protect us You say you would die for us but what good is that? I'd take him with me if it werent for you. You know I would. It's the right thing to do. . . . Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They'll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You'd rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant. . . . You talk about taking a stand but there is no stand to take. My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now. There is none. . . . As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart. (56-7)
The father cannot make this choice, though. He knows the need to live, to protect his son from the horrors of this new world, to protect his life. And the son, though he cannot protect his father from the horrors, knows that he bears responsibility as well. As the book progresses and the father weakens, the son begins to watch him, guarding him, holding him accountable for eating his share and for doing the right thing. This is most revealed after an encounter with a thief. The father and son recover their stolen things, but the father cannot resist taking the thief's few meager belongings in retaliation, even as the boy begs him to leave him something, recognizing that they have just condemned the man to death just as surely as if they'd killed him themselves.
Just help him, Papa. Just help him. The man looked back up the road. He was just hungry, Papa. He's going to die. He's going to die anyway. He's so scared, Papa. The man squatted and looked at him. I'm scared, he said. Do you understand? I'm scared. The boy didn't answer. He just sat there with his head bowed, sobbing. You're not the one who has to worry about everything. The boy said something but he couldnt understand him. What? he said. He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one. (259)
He is the one who ends up worrying about and trying to care for his father. And he is the one who survives, who has to worry about living with the other survivors, who has to continue to worry about the moral obligations of survival in this changed world.
Not much happens in the novel and when it does happen it is described in a spare, understated manner. No dramatics or histrionics here. The world may have ended, but there's no point in screaming about it. This lean style, coupled with the short segmented writing (the novel is constructed from over 200 short sections, not quite chapters, some of which could be fit anywhere in the novel), the rarity of dialogue or human contact, and the repetitive nature of the story, simultaneously gives the narrative a sense of the ordinariness of affairs in this strange new world and provides a slowly but steadily ratcheted-up sense of drama. Encounters with the bizarre and horrific are described matter-of-factly, but the sheer magnitude of these things, the way the world continues to reveal death at every turn, lends them a weight that the straightforward description and delivery would not necessarily if these encounters were discrete events. This is truly a novel in which the cumulative effect is greater than the sum of its parts.
The novel is moving because it frightens with its realism and deadens with its matter-of-factness. This is a world that we want to avoid, but, despite the surface differences (post-apocalyptic barrens and roving bands of cannibals), it is a world, McCarthy seems to say, that is not so far removed from our own.(less)
I just re-read this book in order to teach it in my literature course and I still believe it deserves five stars. The situation (a dystopian theocrati...moreI just re-read this book in order to teach it in my literature course and I still believe it deserves five stars. The situation (a dystopian theocratic future society in which women are basically slaves and breeders) is interesting and--still!--politically relevant. The prose is lovely and effective. Atwood has a knack for providing telling images and making the reader work with her to construct this world by carefully parcelling out descriptive details. She never resorts to mere infodumps to set the scene, instead, like the poet she is, making sure each detail furthers the development of the book.(less)
Every time I read this book I love it more. Eventually I'll be able to write about it and feel I'm doing it justice. In the meantime, here are a few tho...moreEvery time I read this book I love it more. Eventually I'll be able to write about it and feel I'm doing it justice. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts, beginning with a favorite scene, one that is at the heart of Beloved--Baby Suggs' sermon in the Clearing:
"She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She di dnot tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.
"She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
"'Here,' she said, 'in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don't love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain't in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don't love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I'm talking about here. flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that neet to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver--love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. more than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.' Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh." (88-89)
It is this ethic of self-love that makes possible the love for others and the strength of community that permeates Beloved.
"You your own best thing," Paul D tells Sethe. This is a hard lesson to learn, especially for a woman who has never truly known herself or owned herself. Sethe and Denver both have to learn to see themselves as individuals, learn to see themselves and value themselves. Without this, they will disintegrate or be smothered by a too-thick love. After all, "For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, [Paul D] knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you'd have a little love left over for the next one" (45).
Free from slavery, however, free from the threat of losing children to beatings and slavers, this dangerous, too-thick love can give them strength to find themselves. Sethe insists, "Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't no love at all" (165), and Denver draws on her love for her mother to find the courage to venture into the dangerous world outside of their home and get help. A love that puts another's needs before one's own is still dangerous, as the relationship between Sethe and Beloved attests to, however, which is precisely why self-love and love for others must go hand in hand. (less)