Keely's Reviews > The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
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's review
Sep 18, 11

bookshelves: novel, fiction, reviewed, post-apocalyptic, america
Recommended to Keely by: Mother
Read in May, 2008

The Road is unsteady and repetitive—now aping Melville, now Hemingway—but it is less a seamless blend than a reanimated corpse: sewn together from dead parts into a lumbering, incongruous whole, then jolted to ignoble half-life by McCarthy’s grand reputation with Hollywood Filmmakers and incestuous award committees.

In 1996, NYU Physics Professor Alan Sokal submitted a paper for publication to several scientific journals. He made sure it was so complex and full of the latest jargon terms that the average person wouldn't be able to make heads or tails of it. He also wrote its conclusion so it would deliberately flatter the preconceptions of the journals he submitted it to. As he predicted, it was accepted and published, despite the fact that it was all complete nonsense.

The Sokal Affair showed the utter incompetence of the people trusted to judge work for publication. They were unable to recognize good (or bad) arguments and were mostly motivated by politics. The accolades showered upon works like The Road have convinced me that the judges of literature are just as incompetent (and I’m not the only one who thinks so). I don't imagine that McCarthy did this purposefully, like Sokal, but that he writes in the ostentatiously empty style which some judges of literature find safe and convenient to praise.

Many have lauded McCarthy’s straightforward style, and though I am not the most devoted fan of Hemingway, I can admire the precision and economy of a deliberate, economical use of words. Yet that was not what I got from The Road:
"He took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy came and took it and stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again. Then he handed the bottle back and the man drank and screwed the cap back on and rummaged through the pack. The ate a can of white beans, passing it between them, and he threw the empty tin into the woods.

Then they set out down the road again."

Simple? Yes. But precise and purposeful? Certainly not. Most of The Road is as elegant as a laundry list (if not as well punctuated). Compiling a long and redundant series of unnecessary actions and descriptions does not make a work straightforward, it makes it needlessly complicated.

I know we're supposed to find this simplicity profound--that old postmodern game of defamiliarization, trying to make the old seem new, to show the importance of everyday events--but none of it ever manages to seem important, because McCarthy isn't actually changing the context, he's just restating. There is no personality in it, no revealing of the characters, and no relationship to the plot.

Perhaps it is meant to show the weariness of the characters: that they cannot even muster enough energy to participate in their own lives, but is the best way to demonstrate a character’s boredom really to write paragraphs that bore the reader? A good writer can make the mundane seem remarkable, but The Road is too bare to be beautiful, and too pointless to be poignant.

Once we have been lulled by long redundancy, McCarthy abruptly switches gears, moving from the plainness of Hemingway to the florid, overwrought figurative language of Melville:
"The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves."

There is no attempt to bridge the two styles, they are forced to cohabitate, without rhyme or reason to unite them. The metaphoric language is equally jarring, as in one sentence he describes 'dead ivy', 'dead grass' and 'dead trees' with unerring monotony, and then as if adding a punchline, declares them 'shrouded in a carbon fog'--which sounds like the title of a bland cyberpunk anthology.

Then we have this example:
"It's snowing, the boy said. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire like the last host of christendom."

Where McCarthy seems to be trying to reproduce the morbid religious symbolism of Melville when he plays the tattered prophet in Moby Dick. But while Melville's theology is terribly sublime and pervasive, McCarthy's is ostentatious and diminutive, like a carved molding in an otherwise unadorned room. Nowhere does he produce the staggeringly surreal otherworldliness Melville achieves in a line like "There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within".

Many times, McCarthy's gilded metaphors are piled, one atop the other, in what must be an attempt to develop an original voice, but which usually sounds more like the contents of a ‘Team Edward’ notebook, left behind after poetry class:
". . . Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was?

Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.

People sitting on the sidewalk in the dawn half immolate and smoking in their clothes. Like failed sectarian suicides. . . ."

I love how he prefaces that like an Asimov robot. Sardonic Observation: I'd almost believe he was one, since he has no understanding of beauty or human emotion. Biting Quip: However, he violates Asimov's first law of robotics, since his work allows harm to come to humans.

Sometimes, right in the middle of a detailed description of how a character is scraping paint with a screwdriver, we suddenly get a complex jargon term which few readers would understand. These terms are neither part of the world, nor are they aspects of specialized character knowledge, so I cannot assign them any meaning in the text.

One of the basic lessons for any beginning writer is 'don't just add big words because you can', it's self-indulgent and doesn't really help the story. It would be one thing if it were a part of some stylistic structure instead of bits of out-of-place jargon that conflict with the overall style of the book--more textual flotsam for us to wade through.

The longer I read, the more mirthlessly dire it became, and the less I found I could take it seriously. Every little cluster of sentences left on its own as a standalone chapter, every little two-word incomplete sentence trying to demand importance because it actually had punctuation (a rare commodity in this book), every undifferentiated monosyllabic piece of non-dialogue like a hobo talking to himself--it all made the book overblown and nonsensical.

It just stared me down, like a huge drunk guy in a bar daring me to laugh at his misspelled tattoo. And I did. I don't know if my coworkers or the people on the bus knew what 'The Road' was about (this was years before the movie), but they had to assume it was one hilarious road, possibly with a busfull of nuns, and one a convict in disguise on the run from a bumbling southern sheriff and his deputy; a donkey is involved.

Though I won't mention specifics, I will say the notorious ending of the book is completely tacked on, in no way fits with or concludes any of the emotional build of the book, but instead wraps everything up, neat and tight. Though it does bear out McCarthy's admission on Oprah that he "had no idea where it was going" when he wrote it. We can tell, Cormac; well, some of us, anyway.

As you may have noticed from the quotes I have used, another notorious issue is the way the book is punctuated, which is to say, it isn't. The most complex mark is the comma, and it is pretty rarely used. It's not like McCarthy is only using simple, straightforward sentences, he uses plenty of conjoined clauses and partial sentence fragments, he just doesn't bother to mark any of them.

He also doesn't use any quotes in the books, and rarely attributes statements to characters, so we must first try to figure out if someone is talking, or if it's just another snatch of 'poetic license', and then we have to determine who is talking. Sure, Melville did away with quotes in one chapter in Moby Dick, but he did it in stylistic reference to Shakespeare, and he also seemed to be aware that it was a silly affectation best suited for a ridiculous scene.

But it is not only the structure, grammar, figurative language, and basic descriptions which are so absurdly lacking: the characters are likewise flat, dull, and repetitive. Almost every conversation between the father and son is the same:
Father: Do it now.
Son: I'm scared.
Father: Just do it.
Son: Are we going to die?
Father: No.
Son: Are you sure?
Father: Yes.

Remember, you won't get little tags so you know who's speaking, it'll all just be strung out in a line without differentiation. Then they wander around for a bit or run from crazy people, and we finally get the cap to the conversation:
Son: Why did (terrible thing) just happen?
Father: (Stares off in silence)
Son: Why did (terrible thing) just happen?
Father: (More silence)

And that’s it, the whole relationship; it never changes or grows. Nor does it seem to make much sense, based on the setting. The characters are always together, each the other's sole companion: father and son, and yet they are constantly distant and at odds, like a suburban parent and child who rarely see each other and have little in common. McCarthy never demonstrates how such a disconnect arose between two people who are constantly intimate and reliant on one another.

But then, McCarthy confided to Oprah that the is book about his relationship with his own son, so it makes sense why the emotional content is completely at odds with the setting. Perhaps he just sat down one say and thought “I’m an award-winning author and screenwriter who has a somewhat distant relationship with my son. You know what that’s like? That’s like the unendurable physical suffering of people in the third world who are trying to find food and escape crazed, murderous mobs.” So then he wrote a book equating the two, which is about the most callous, egotistical act of privileged self-pity a writer can indulge in.

At least now I know why the characters and their reactions don’t make much sense. The boy is constantly terrified, and his chief role involves pointing at things and screaming. His constant screams punctuate every conflict in the book, like a bad horror film. But things aren’t scary just because the author makes a character react histrionically over and over again--it just becomes silly.

Cannibals and dead infants are an okay place to start when it comes to unsettling the reader, but just having the characters point and scream does not build tension, especially when the characters are too flat to be sympathetic. Another Creative Writing 101 lesson: if you have to resort to over-the-top character reactions to let the audience know how they are supposed to feel, then your 'emotional moment' isn't working. It's the literary equivalent of a laugh track.

You know what’s more unsettling than a child screaming when he finds a dead infant? A child not screaming when he finds a dead infant. And really, that’s the more likely outcome. The young boy has never known another world--his world is death and horror. Anyone who has seen a picture of a Rwandan kid with an AK-47 realizes that children adapt to what’s around them. And you know what would make a great book? A father who remembers the old world trying to prevent his son from becoming a callous monster because of the new one.

But no, we get a child who inexplicably reacts as if he’s used to the good life in suburbia and all this death and killing is completely new to him, even though we’ve watched him go through it half a dozen times already. The characters never grow numb to it, they never seem to suffer from post-traumatic stress, their reactions are more akin to angst.

Every time there is a problem, the characters just fold in on themselves and give up. People really only do that when they have the luxury of sitting about and ruminating on what troubles them. When there is a sudden danger before us, we might run, or freeze up, but there’s hardly time to feel sorry for ourselves.

There is no joy or hope in this book--not even the fleeting, false kind. Everything is constantly bleak. Yet human beings in stressful, dangerous situations always find ways to carry on: small victories, justifications, or even lies and delusions. The closest this book gets is ‘The Fire’, which is the father’s term for why they must carry on through all these difficulties. But replace ‘The Fire’ with ‘The Plot’ and you’ll see what effect is achieved: it’s not character psychology, but authorial convenience. Apparently, McCarthy cannot even think of a plausible reason why human beings would want to survive.

There is nothing engaging about a world sterilized of all possibility. People always create a way out, even when there is none. What is tragic is not a lack of hope, but misplaced hope. I could perhaps appreciate a completely empty world as a writing exercise, but as McCarthy is constantly trying to provoke emotional reactions, he cannot have been going for utter bleakness.

The Road is a canvas painted entirely black--it doesn't mater how many more black strokes he layers on top: they will not stand out because there is no difference, there is no depth, no breaking or building of tension, just a constant addition of featureless details to a featureless whole. Some people seem to think that an emotionally manipulative book that makes people cry is better than one that makes people horny--but at least people don’t get self-righteous about what turns them on.

This is tragedy porn. Suburban malaise is equated with the most remote and terrible examples of human pain. So, dull housewives can read it and think ‘yes, my ennui is just like a child who stumbles across a corpse’, and perhaps she will cry, and feel justified in doing so. Or a man might read it and think ‘yes, my father was distant, and it makes me feel like I live alone in a hostile world I don’t care to understand’; he will not cry, but he will say that he did.

And so the privileged can read about how their pain is the same as the pain of those starving children on mute during commercial breaks. In the perversity of modern, invisible colonialism--where a slave does not wash your clothes, but builds the machine that washes them--these self-absorbed people who have never starved or had their lives imperiled can think of themselves as worldly, as ‘one with humanity’, as good, caring people.

They recycle. They turn the water off when they brush their teeth. They buy organic. They even thought about joining the Peace Corps. Their guilt is assuaged. They are free to bask in their own radiant anguish.

And it all depresses me. Which makes me a shit, because I’m no more entitled to it than any other well-fed, educated winner of the genetic lottery. So when I read this book, I couldn’t sympathize with that angst and think it justified, just like I couldn’t with Holden’s. I know my little existential crisis isn’t comparable to someone who has really lost control of their life, who might actually lose life.

But this kind of egotistical detachment has become typical of American thought, and of American authors, whose little, personal, insular explorations don't even pretend to look at the larger world. Indeed, there is a self-satisfied notion that trying to look at the world sullies the pure artist.

And that 'emotionally pure, isolated author' is what we get from the Oprah interview. Sure, she's asking asinine questions, but McCarthy shows no capacity to discuss either craft or ideas, refusing to take open-ended questions and discuss writing, he instead laughs condescendingly and shrugs. Then again, he may honestly not have much to say on the topic.

Looked at in this way, it's not surprising he won the Pulitzer. Awards committees run on politics, and choosing McCarthy is a political decision--an attempt to declare that insular, American arrogance is somehow still relevant. But the world seems content to move ahead without America and its literature, which is why no one expects McCarthy--or any American author--to win a Nobel any time soon.

This book is a paean to the obliviousness of American self-importance in our increasingly global, undifferentiated world. One way or the other, it will stand as a testament to the last gasp of a dying philosophy: either we will collapse under our own in-fighting and short-sightedness, or we will be forced to evolve into something new and competitive--a bloated reputation will carry you only so far.

But then, the Pulitzer committee is renowned for picking unadventurous winners--usually an unremarkable late entry by an author past their prime. As William Gass famously put it:
"the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill"

Of course, to readers of genre works, this book will have a familiar and unpleasant taste: that of the big name writer slumming. They pop into fantasy or sci fi with their lit fic credentials to show us little folk how it's really done, but knowing nothing about the genre or its history, just end up reinventing the wheel, creating a book that would have looked tired and dated thirty years ago. Luckily for such writers, none of the lit fic critics that read the book know anything about other genres, either--meaning that any sort of rehash is going to look fresh to them, as long as you have the name-recognition to get them to look.

So, McCarthy gets two stars for a passable (if cliche) script for a sci fi adventure movie, minus one star for unconscionable denigration of humanity. I couldn't say if McCarthy's other books are any good; I will probably try another, just to see if any of his reputation is deserved, but this one certainly didn't help. All I see is another author who got too big for his editors and, finding himself free to write whatever he wanted--only proved that he has nothing of value to say.

"Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are merely lists . . . Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what's always distinguished bad writing--flat characters, a narrative world that's . . . not recognizably human, etc.--is also a description of today's world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world . . . most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?"

-David Foster Wallace
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 763) (763 new)

message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Ah, fuck me. Yer a right nut, ren fair.
Cormac is the greatest living American novelist, a writer of technical genius and a man of some wisdom. This review makes me want to vomit.

bryan Keely: I may disagree about your philosophy of writing, but you're right about this book. It's way overrated. If this is representative of McCarthy (it's the only novel I've read by him), then he's way overrated too.

Keely I felt that I needed to give the book a fair shake. I couldn't have written this review if I hadn't looked at it as a whole. It's easy to look at the repetetive prose, silly metaphors, and unrealistic bleakness and simply turn away, but I couldn't have really written a review without taking it all into account. I do have a number of books I have abandoned midway, but I make sure to mention this and my reviews cannot, by their nature, deal with a complex criticism of the text.

There is an old rule for those who wish to become wiser, and that is that you should always make sure to read something you don't like and are bound to disagree with once in a while to keep yourself fresh.

Not only might you find something new to make you rethink your old opinions, but you are also reminded of why you dislike certain things in the first place. As a writer, it is sometimes more important to know what mistakes to avoid than to know what positives to include.

Thanks everyone for once again telling me I'm wrong but giving no argument or reason. I don't care if you agree with me or not. I don't care if you like me or not. I care about books and ideas. I'd love for someone to point something out to make me reconsider this (or any other) book.

I always learn more from mistakes than from being right, and it's always my hope to find a mistake that will lead to an error in my entire process, such that it may be altered and improved. I don't begrudge anyone not wanting to put in the time to do so, but if you aren't, it seems rather pointless to disagree.

I tend to expect that for every opinion I hold, there will be an overwhelming majority who disagree with it. However, it doesn't really matter unless they can tell me why. Either that, or chase me to the mill with pitchforks.

message 4: by [deleted user] (last edited May 10, 2008 12:41PM) (new)

Bryan, a quick aside: The Road is completely unrepresentative of McCarthy's work, as is `No Country for old men'. I would try `All the Pretty Horses' first and then the other volumes in the Border trilogy. `Blood Meridian' is his best book.

Ginnie, are these your feelings about McCarthy in general or just `The Road'? I think his work is a whole is an excellent treasure-trove of American Classicism, a close, almost sacred, observation of nature and an intelligent meditation on what it means to be human in an age where all certainties have been ripped from us. One could argue that he is a tad nihilistic, something that I think you might not respond to, but there are passages in his book that are profoundly moving and beautiful and a love of creation can be found there, albeit a spartan one.

I stand by `The Road'. It is howl from the edge of the abyss, a cry out for what we can all lose if we allow ourselves to continue down the path we are heading as a civilazation. It is also a love story between father and son, one that is heart breaking from page one, because you know death will part them soon and there is no valley of Shang-ri-la where all their hurts will be salved.

The book is a classic; I have not a single, solitary doubt that it will be read a hundred years from now. Unless we refuse to follow the better angels of our natures and we continue on `The Road'into the abyss.

message 5: by brian (last edited May 10, 2008 10:12AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

brian   yeah, this review is way off. it seems, almost, as if its author actually chose a deliberately simplified response to the book. nonetheless, check it:

1) "The entire book seems to stem from the premise that under difficult situations, human beings simply fold in on themselves and give up. The book is mostly empty of any sense of hope, or joy, or anything but bare bleakness."

really? this is what you were left with? i truly have a hard time understanding this at all. fold in? give up? need i mention that the boy and his father did anything but give up? that the mother, who did give up, is dismissed in the opening pages of the book? that the entire book is predicated on the idea that man does not give up in the face of even the most horrible fate?

empty of hope? whaaaat? beyond the ending which many dismissed as even TOO hopeful, the book is about (and, really, i can't even imagine someone arguing this) how -- to reduce it to a cliche -- love and hope will prevail in the face of supposed absolute hopelessness. how one man will do anything in the hope that he will find salvation for his son and, by extension, perpetuate his bloodline, thus safeguarding existence for all men. empty of hope? were we reading the same book?

2) "The author ignores a possible wealth of stimulating visual imagery and emotional content in favor of unrelated metaphors."

uh, yeah... this is also why you objected so strongly to the 'laundry list' description of the water. just as bresson does with the cinema, mccarthy deliberately chose to leave out 'stimulating imagery and emotional content' so as to get at something different, something deeper and larger. i, for one, greatly appreciated the lack of high drama and creative visual imagery, which would serve merely to showcase the author's imagination rather than enrich character plot or theme. i suppose you'd suggest that bresson shoot his scenes to feature more spatial depth and emotional charge from the actors?

in the same vein, mccarthy's distant and detailed description of something as simple as unscrewing a water bottle takes on a significance that simply cannot be understood by anyone in our world. again, your complaint is similar to complaints levied against Bresson for showing, for several continuous minutes, scenes of a man doing something as simple as, say, tying a knot with his bedsheet. there's a reason, man. get with it.

3) "Unfortunately, since the boy's psychology is so simplistic, and since he has no hope or joy, he cannot seem human to us, let alone a sympathetic character. "

hmmm... well, lemme see... a young boy is born into a world marked by his mother's suicide and some kind of horrible unknown apocalypse. yeah, i'd expect him to be more hopeful. and joyful. that'd be the way to play it. bad choice mccarthy! over-psychologize a five year old in an effort to make him 'sympathetic' -- make him one of those precocious young kids that always seem too smart. hey! model him after the boy from Jerry Maguire. that's always a crowd pleaser.

and i'll tell you what NOT to do! don't indicate that beneath the boy's solemn veneer exists a hurting hoping yearning young boy. just tell us! don't create a scene in which the boy sees a child younger than himself, and obsessed throughout the book about what's going to happen to this child in an effort to show that the kid is aware and hopeful and compassionate. naw... that ain't the way to do it. even though the kid would probably have some kind of wildly stunted emotional growth as a result of well - THE END OF THE FUCKING WORLD! - it'd be better to really put it out there cormac. or at least to put us in his head and let us really know that he's a smart kid who experiences joy and hope. you really should know cormac that we require sympathetic characters and MUSTN'T have to work to get at the core of who someone is. we want to be told! we want to SYMPATHIZE! bad cormac! bad!

-- well, i keep a few copies of some faulkner and melville novels in which i've underlined some truly horrible passages. clumsy metaphors and dull, repetitive descriptions, etc... yes. even from the masters. i was gonna answer a few more of keely's wrongheaded attacks and then go on to list a few of herman and willy's most offensive passages to make the point that while, yes, mccarthy can certainly turn an awkward phrase, the listing of these non-contextual phrases -- particularly when the book contains so many gems -- seems somewhat unfair.

but i'm exhausted. so am gonna stop. the best i can say is that if anyone didn't get from this book what i did... i guess it sucks for them. donald says it best up above with his whole 'howl from the abyss' thing. it truly is. yes. a mad screaming demented hopeful compassionate howl.

message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Tracy,you know I love you, but you are just wrong wrong wrong!

Ruth I agree with you both, Donald and Brian. It may be best post-apocalypse book around. I liked that McCarthy reduced his usual linguistic exuberance for this one. It's pared down, just as the existence of the man and boy is pared down to the basics of survival.

But yeah, the ending was a little too hopeful.

bryan >>The book is a classic; I have not a single, solitary doubt that it won't be read a hundred years from now.

There is absolutely no way to predict such things and besides, who cares if that comes to pass. Isn't it enough that it touched you and you got something out of it?

message 9: by brian (last edited May 10, 2008 09:37AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

brian   tracy! my love, my dear...

the only time i used 'wrong' was in the phrase 'wrongheaded attacks' -- not exactly the same thing.

but i get your point.

but, tracy, i do take issue with your complaint: we all proceed with the tacit understanding that what we all write in regard to books is our opinion. we try and bolster it with facts and other opinions and rebuts and refutals, etc... but ultimately we are writing what we 'think' and 'believe' to be the case. as painful as it is to most of us, writing and lit crit ain't a science.

it would get awfully clumsy to keep writing, "in my opinion" or "i disagree because..." or "i don't believe you are right because" or "i don't think that's the case because..."

keely's a big boy with some strong opinions -- in voicing those opinions, he's gotta assume some kinda 'rigidity' in return, no? furthermore, he - everyone - must know that when we write 'wrong' it translates to "i believe you are wrong".


that said: he's mathematically and scientifically WRONG!

message 10: by brian (last edited May 10, 2008 09:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

brian   and if i may answer for donald:

on the one hand it is surely enough that something touches you and you alone.

on the other, it means something when a work touches not only the people in whose time the author lives, but when he/she is able to stretch his/her hand out from the grave, across the years decades even centuries, to touch a soul in another time... it is one of the truly magical, even mystical, qualities of books.

all donald was saying, i think, was that this book which keely so smugly dismissed will stand the test of time and will touch hearts and minds for many years to come. it'd be nice to say, "i loved this book! that's enough! fuck the world!" -- but it ain't really like that. it's exciting to know that others appreciate what means a lot to us, yeah? it's why we dig, say, watching horror movies in full theaters... the community experience is too often put down as 'commercial' or 'herd like'... and, coincidentally, it's one of the ideas and themes of The Road...

message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

Bryan, as far as something standing the test of time I think I am on firm, but not unassailable ground. You need only look at McCarthy's current place in the Western Canon- beloved in America with some notable detractors- even more revered in Europe. I base this also on my own level of discernment, McCarthy's work doen't stink of momentary fad or obvious surrender to the marketplace or a transparent effort to capture the zeitgeist. When I `hope' for its(and all his works) survival as a cultural I do so because it is the sort of thing I would wish to survive. There is wisdom to be found here, high art, and an attempt to define what an ethical life would be at the end of all. Such things deserve to survive but I know damn well sometimes they don't.

message 12: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely I messaged Yulian in case she has no desire to return to this thread to find out, but fyi anyone who wants to retract a vote can do so by simply pressing the 'vote' button again. Needless to say, I have had people express this desire regarding my reviews before.

Brian, thanks for elucidating what it is you value about this book and the points you disagree on. I think what Tracy may be responding to is not your single use of 'wrong', but the general tone of your response in that it was rather flippant and tended towards ridicule and hyperbolous sarcasm.

As to your first point, there were times when McCarthy tried to put in elements of hopefulness, chiefly the ending, which is a bit convenient, and 'the fire', but I simply never got the impression that there was a sense of hope below these surface attempts by the author. The psychology did simply not seem to go that deep.

Though it's true that the character do continue on, day after day, their reaction to the world is marked not by a dogged resiliance and will to survive, but a resignation to simply keep on until they drop. There is never any end point expressed by the man, and he tends to dissuade the boy's attempts to create some 'better situation' which they might attain, even purely in the mind.

As to your second point, I wasn't critiquing the 'everyday' nature of the book. I love Chekhov and don't mind Hemingway, and they are exceedingly straightforward authors. What I am objecting to is that McCarthy ignores the wealth of symbols in the world in favor of using ungainly and awkward metaphors and the occasional Fancy College Word.

He is not sticking to the simplicity apparent in some passages, but waves wildly back and forth, not only between styles, but between internal and external authorial voices.

As to the simplistic passages themselves, they lacked the art to create further meaning. Melville managed to create mood and movement by the way he used his words, even as he was describing the amazingly mundane. I tend to maintain that it is less important what the book is about than how it is expressed. I haven't seen Bresson, but if he can frame and shoot his simple scenes in order to make them interesting, engaging, and meaningful, then I would certainly enjoy them.

It was not that I detested a 'lack of high drama', as much as I felt that Cormac was alternately trying to have a simplistic, straightforward story, and trying to create a high-drama, sympathetic work. One or the other would have been fine, but in conjunction they tore one another down.

As to your third point, I would certainly agree that the world is bleak enough and frightening enough for the boy, but that his constant fear and unknowning is not, in my experience, accurate. If he had come from the time before and been thrust into this, then he certainly would have behaved that way, but people born into difficulty do not come to resent and fear that difficulty because it is their everyday life.

People in cival war-torn third world countries are not, as a rule, depressed. They go through hardships, but take them as they come and try to move on. They are not always frightened or hopeless, but tend to attach themselves to other ideas, such as god or family, in order to do what needs to get done.

We get the impression that the boy has been crying and screaming in fear the entire handful of years he's lived. It is simply difficult for me to believe that these everyday occurences continue to frighten him so. As to when he finds the dead infant, I found it exceedingly odd that the boy would react so strongly. Cormac seems to forget that people have thrown babies in dumpsters, enjoyed attending executions, and held high society parties where beating to death a cat in a bag was the chief entertainment.

If death is what surrounds you, then death will become a mundane thing. One might argue that the father has somehow imparted to his son this sense of life value and this understanding of what is right and wrong, but if so, the boy would be learning this from the father's own interactions with the world. We see that the father's response to the boy is never to express a deeper thought, but always to use something simple and straightforward. He also rarely reacts to the things around him with horror, but remains calm and emotionless. Those two things being the case, we must wonder where the boy has learned to act any differently than his father.

I could see a lot of things McCarthy was attempting to do, such as to create this bleak world with people moving through it on desparate hope, trying to create some original figuritave language, trying to build a psychology and mood from a very basic textual representation, and trying to tell a different sort of story. I'm merely saying that these elements did not come together as they could have to create a better work, but rather sputtered and clashed against one another to create merely a picture of McCarthy's intention, and not his success in that.

message 13: by Ama (new)

Ama Donald, I think you fell prey to a double negative- "I have not a single, solitary doubt that it won't be read a hundred years from now" would mean that you think it definitely will *not* be read in a century. I believe you meant to say you had no doubt "that it will be read 100 years from now." Unless, of course, you meant the reading public of the future will be filled with Phillistines, uninterested in (what you perceive to be) classic literature, which is completely possible.

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

Thank you, Ama. I've corrected it. This falls under the very large category of examples of me being not as smart as I think am.

A category that young Mr. Keely apparently hasn't bumped up against yet.

message 15: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Nor old Mr. McCarthy.

bryan >>There is nothing WRONG with using WRONG in an animated, or even heated, debate about art.

No, I guess not, but why bother? Instead of saying something as empty as "your assessment/opinion is wrong" why not say, "Oh, you didn't like X? I loved it. Here's what I got out of it..."

Yesyesyes, being strident in one's view and taking shots at others can be fun. But it's ultimately a pointless exercise about grandstanding and lording one's opinions over another than real dialogue.


message 18: by brian (last edited May 11, 2008 07:51AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

brian   bryan and tracy...

it's not nice to say 'wrong'? it'd be better if i wrote out the obligatory "oh, you didn't like X, etc..."

with all due respect (and a nod to jason):


(and y'know tracy, i do love you with all my heart)

nobody's being mean here. nobody's being rude. in fact, keely put it best (and, i must admit, totally pegged me) when he wrote that i was flippant and hyperbolic and sarcastic. that i am.

we're here b/c we're passionately devoted to books. we're not normal folks. how many people out there can get worked up over cormac mccarthy? i say that the people that can get worked up over books... they should! it's practically their goddamn duty!

should i include an obligatorily polite preface so as to soften the edge in telling someone i think their opinion sounds like it's coming out of their asshole?

message 19: by Jessica (new)

Jessica (Aahluv yoo guysh....!)

message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

Robert, Tracy: Get a room!

message 21: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Yeah!

A big room with lots of space for the peanut gallery!

brian   you guys are all huge dorks.

but you already know that.

message 23: by Adam (new)

Adam Mother recommended this book to you, Keely?

Well, there's your problem right there. Never trust Mother.

message 24: by Jerometed (new)

Jerometed Why don't you love cormac's books? You must be confused; the cool thing is to direct your energy into finding something to praise him for, not to look for aspects of his work to criticize.

Think of Tefulsdroch's criticism of Voltaire in Sartor Resartus. Then barf into oblivion.

Richard Keely,

Aside from the fact (note: not my opinion) that you didn't give this book chance, as is quite clear from your insistence upon what is pointless in this book and what it lacks in terms of reality, and still a clear fact despite your later assertion that you needed to give the book 'a fair shake.' Not only do you not give this book a true chance, but it seems that you do not give the art form of literature itself a chance in your tunnel-vision of how the how the world works and what writing should do.

I can put it no better than it's already been put, so I'll quote Flannery O'Connor.

First: "Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you." The same holds for reading fiction.

Also: "People without hope not only don't write novels, but what is more to the point, they don't read them."

Understand these, my friend, and you'll have learned something valuable.


message 26: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Have a care the heights from which you condescend, and may god help you if you didn't wash your feet before springing to the shoulders of such a fine lady.

It seems a precarious perch, indeed, as for the humanity and hope you miss the mark, though Cormac will give you double helpings of dust.

Richard "Have a care the heights from which you condescend, and may god help you if you didn't wash your feet before springing to the shoulders of such a fine lady.

"It seems a precarious perch, indeed, as for the humanity and hope you miss the mark, though Cormac will give you double helpings of dust."

It is obvious from this response that you are just too ridiculous to discuss this matter with. More so, I get the feeling that you get some kind of warped ego out of disagreement with your short-minded review--possibly you think that spite from others is proof of some kind of free-thinking or intellectualism on your end.

But alas, in the end, I think your shortfall is merely this: you read what you want to see and not what is presented to you. Flannery O'Connor (whose shoulders I hadn't presumed to jump onto, hence the attributed quote) was equating dust to humanity and hope. Your silly remark doesn't seem to take this simple conceit into account, nor do you consider this in your assessment of McCarthy's book--isn't the entire conflict throughout the struggle of a father trying to keep himself and his son human in a world where it seems that the concept has otherwise disappeared? (A rhetorical question, by the way, in case you missed the technique.)

As for your perception of being condescended to--there might be reason why you think that others are belittling you.

message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

Well, there are things in this world worth belittling.

message 29: by [deleted user] (new)

Yes, but sometimes contempt for something like a humble little book points to a larger contempt. A lack of empathy that is inhumane. An aesthetic that is so rarified that it denies any shared experience of our pilgrimage of pain, death and suffering. What is initially perceived as mere bullshit may in fact point to a larger spiritual or psychological milady: The lack of a soul.

message 30: by [deleted user] (new)

Enigmatic response, but great music.

message 31: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely The reason I assume I was being condescended to is simply the line "Understand these, my friend, and you'll have learned something valuable".

The indication that you harbor some profound understanding which I lack is to take a stance of superiority against me, and condescention is merely unjustified superiority. I am afraid your ability to quote a great author is not justification enough.

The aside 'note: not my opinion' could also be taken as condescention, as you are either indicating a desire to quote some other supported source, or to state it as an absolute fact. Your superlative restatement in the next sentence indicates the latter case.

I do take away an understanding of Flannery's words, and I appreciate her sentiments. My response was to question whether these could apply to McCarthy, since his book invests as much in hope as it does in commas.

To restate it again, and more simply: you bring up hope, humanity, and dust: I maintain that McCarthy fails to engage the first two but excels absurdly at the last.

The quotes themselves are also presented in a form of condescention, as both of them are statements about who should be allowed to read or write, and indicating that you (through Ms. O'Conner's grace, of course) are the supreme judge of such.

It is rather humorous that you would firstly attack my 'tunnel-vision of how the how the world works and what writing should do' and then so strongly indicate that you, yourself, have the perfect clarity to know the same. That is the height from which you condescend, and to drag a great author into it makes it even more insulting.

I am not sure how you expected me to respond to such a tone of superiority without any argumentative support (or explanation for the included quotes except to indicate that I should devise my own meaning for them), but gratitude and sympathy was not my first instinct.

Perhaps we just play at the old roles, ourselves, here, but I am afraid I must demand something more insightful than the tautological stance before I sit to learn. Especially when that stance is so self-concerned that basic respect is absent.

As for Donald's "aesthetic that is so rarified that it denies any shared experience", I must say there is little that would better sum up 'The Road', which felt more like an exercise in how little emotional connection could be sustained than an exploration of human experience.

I guess when you state that your question is rhetorical, you indicate I shouldn't respond to it or the point you've brought up? I'm not sure how that corresponds to rhetoric.

The Road does attempt to address those ideas you presented: the father and son trying to keep their humanity in this awful world. However, The Road fails to make a full and honest exploration of these concepts.

I am less interested in what the book attempts to do than whether it succeeds, except that the vaster the gulf between those two ends, the deeper the author's hubristic failure.

message 32: by Adam (new)

Adam I'm confused. Why are all of you wasting so much time and energy arguing about early 21st-century literature with a time traveler from the Elizabethan Era?

message 33: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely I know modern authors would like to escape the legacy of Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, and Petrarch; but this is only because, with scattered exceptions, their pens are not quick enough nor their thoughts grand enough to write them from under that shadow.

A man may do all he can for himself, but it is only the error of history that can make him great.

Kameronborland I know that most of these volleys were made several months ago, but I wanted to put in a word or two even though fellas like Keely and Brian are far more apt than I am at literary analysis. My shabby and somewhat sappy effort to articulate:

I'm not a literary person. I do read quite often and listen to audiobooks pretty much all day as I work alone at a stone quarry. When I listened to The Road at work, I didn't even know it had won the pulitzer prize. As I listened, there were a few moments when I stopped working and sat and wept. This is not a common occurrence for me. Few novels have moved me as this did. The subtle relationship between the father and son felt very relevant to me. I suppose that's what I value in any form of art. Personal relevance. What does this painting/novel/music do that brings me closer in touch with my own humanity and an understanding of others? This very personal and subjective nature of art makes critical analysis somewhat unappealing to me (though I do see it's value). While I do try to think my way through life, I try even more to feel my way.

It often seems that stating opinions becomes, as Bryan stated, about "grandstanding". It becomes more about pushing your opinions than about sharing them. Some people enjoy this. I don't. Different strokes, right? It brings me back to the fact that it's all subjective. Something that seems ridiculous or awkward to one person feels completely relevant to another.

One more thing directed to Keely concerning the boy (this will be a bit hypocritical of me, considering the last couple of paragraphs but oh well): To try to fit the little boy into a box of who he should be and what should and shouldn't scare him goes blatantly against the variety of human personality and nature. That would be like me asking you about yourself for an hour, then putting you in a situation. Then, when you don't make the choice I thought you would make, I decide you aren't a real person. We have limited knowledge of the boy - of his early experiences, of his fears, rational or irrational, and WHY he fears such things. Just because he doesn't act like the majority of post-apocalyptic little boys you've somehow interviewed and studied psychologically doesn't mean he's not a possible human reacting in possible ways. Just not necessarily ways you identify with.

Kameronborland yikes that WAS hypocritical of me. Just know, Keely, that you're one of the most articulate people I've seen on here. Though I didn't share many of your sentiments, it was almost a pleasure reading them if only for the clarity of your thoughts. Maybe that makes up for some of my hypocrisy...

message 36: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely I don't mind that the boy might act differently or have a different psychological reaction, but I do demand that it be reasonable and well-supported. While I might think up a number of reasons that a boy could possibly feel this way, I didn't see any of them well-supported in the text.

When a reader has to scramble to explain character behavior just to make sense of the story, then it is not a complete story. I enjoy an alternate character workup and exploration as much as anyone. Indeed, the responses of people to situations are often the opposite of what we might expect. Nor do I require a full analysis of the character's thoughts within the text; a strong hinting will do. The more minute the explanation, the greater the skill of the author must be to pull it off.

When I looked for an explanation for the behavior of the characters in relation to the thematic movements and tone of the story, I did not find a warped or recursive mental process. By Occam's Razor, it seemed more likely that the author simply wanted to write these characters and situations, and gave little thought to explaining or supporting them.

It was this sense which led me to conclude that McCarthy was writing from a belief in his own talent and genius; that he felt he didn't have to explain himself or provide due diligence to his readers: that they could pick up the pieces and should be thankful to do it.

There is a modern current through writing which seems to support this type of reader/author relationship. The more confusing, inexplicable, and difficult a work is, the more it gets praised. This doesn't mean a complexity of reference, like with Eliot, nor an alternate syntactical system, as with Milton, both of which could be learned and unravelled with study.

Rather, this new 'aesthetic' is to create something discombobulated and unstructured and hope that anyone who doesn't understand it will assume it is because they lack the mental capacity.

One of the hallmarks of this 'new style' is writing without any sense of prosody, grammar, or rhythm. In the same way that ideas are presented without explanation, so is the writing itself made to be inscrutable. This is not a poet's act of playing with language, these writers do not subvert convention, but seem entirely unfamiliar with it.

It is by convention or the subversion of such that we create understood meaning. The error of the Dadaists is the same: that without a mutual system of meaning, information cannot be imparted. Despite Jung's assessment, universal inherent meaning seems to be widely lacking.

It is ironic that 'simplicity of style' and accessibility have been brought up in defense of McCarthy, when he has done all he could as an author to remain obscured and difficult to the reader, and without allowing experience and knowledge to lessen the confusion.

If you listened to it on tape, then you naturally wouldn't have the same problems with his syntax, but I would suggest the pointlessly shifting tone, meaningless repetitions, unsupported character psychology, and tacked-on ending would all serve the same purpose of obfuscation.

If a younger author tried to do what McCarthy does with his punctuation (i.e. absent it), the editor would disallow this and try to save the reader from having to do the author's work for him. However, this new movement embraces anything which makes the reader's journey a more painful one, all in the name of sanctified genius.

I'm not saying genius isn't a sacred thing, I'm just questioning whether anyone can be a holy genius while also trying to play their own high priest.

I did not address that the work might have an emotional impact, except to say that McCarthy often tries to force one with shifting extremes and gross-outs; but emotional reaction to a work is not a sign of its value per se.

My mother lost an infant child, so any work dealing with that theme will provoke emotional response, whether it be a Bergman epic or a Lifetime Original.

A good work will cause emotional response to many, and if you think this work was of that ilk, then that would speak to its value. I wouldn't argue its value to you, for if it connected with you, all I can do is try to understand why, and whether that is an effect of the author's abilities, some shared cultural imagery between Cormac and yourself, or even just a coincidence of characteristics and happenings.

I also listened to the book on audiotape at work, and while I never cried, I did find that during the most dour and melodramatic parts, I would laugh out loud at my desk (provoking none-too-few puzzled and judgemental looks on the parts of my co-workers). Perhaps there is something of a shifting zeitgeist at work here; I cannot say.

Thank you for your thoughts on the subject, and helping to increase my understanding of this work as a whole.

For more on the 'incomprehensibility movement' in modern literature, any interested parties may look to B.R. Meyers' "A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose".

Tippi It looks like I'm weighing in on this discussion a little late, but I just wanted to say THANK YOU Keely for properly articulating everything that's wrong with this book. I found it boring, pretentious, and shallow, but I'm far too poor a writer to express that in a review the way you have.

Danielle Your review was very helpful! I was debating about whether or not to read this (I do love post-apocalyptic fiction), and reading the few exerpts you provided pushed me into the land of Don't Touch This Book, Ever!

Danielle Also, I'm really late to the discussion, but...

Richard wrote "I think your shortfall is merely this: you read what you want to see and not what is presented to you"

Isn't that part of the experience of reading? Though Keely didn't like the book, YMMV. Reading is such a personal experience, and it relies upon the individual's experiences to make a connection. Regardless of what the author is presenting, it will appear differently to each reader. How do you know that you were reading exactly what the author intended? What a ridiculous and misplaced argument.

In Keely's review he pointed out reasons he didn't enjoy the book. I agree with these reasons, so I will be avoiding the book. Thanks for preventing me from wasting my time on a book that I likely won't enjoy when I have so many other books I want to read.

Tracie Thank you for this review. You articulately stated everything I didn't like about this book. I think you did give the book a chance. If you hadn't, your review would've been much less in-depth and whiney. Also, for the other people, it's his opinion, one that he gives convincing arguments and support for. I found some redeeming aspects in the book but, for the most part, it was a dull, monotonous, bleak read.

message 41: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Thank you very much for your kind thoughts. I'm glad that my observations on this book resonated with others' experiences.

It was my intent to present text-supported observations instead of opinions, since observations tell you about the book, while opinions only tell you about the reviewer. It isn't the reviewers but the books that we come here for.

Thanks again.

message 42: by Lara (last edited Jul 10, 2009 07:51AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lara Keeyly: I loved your review of The Road! I finished it the other day and could not come to a conclusion as to how I felt about it. I could not stop laughing at your comments because they are on the spot: his "style" is pretentious and the repetitions detract from evoking any emotion or feeling in the reader. I found myself not caring about whether the boy and the man ran into any cannibals--and I did not really feel for anyone. The darkness was not described well at all either, nor was the sense of cold with the snow.

I also don't understand why so many reviews, professional, not just on this site, describe McCarthy's language as "beautiful". When I think of a beautiful novel, I think of The House of Mirth or Portrait of a Lady, not this nonsense.

Anyway, I appreciated your review and am officially NOT into the McCarthy mania.

message 43: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely I'm glad that it spoke to your experience. It also took me a while to figure out how to say why it wasn't very good.

It's funny, I had every reason to like this book: I like post apocalyptic stories; I like terse writing; I like complex, slow-paced descriptions; and I like dark, tragic themes. If only I liked stilted pretension and mixed messages, this would be the perfect book.

message 44: by Mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

Mark Howell If only I'd come across this review a month or so ago before picking up the
I'm not finished with it yet, but already I'm seeing a LOT of what you spoke of in your review. Particularly the "style"--Hemingway immediately came to mind... apparently bad grammar done deliberately makes for automatic "great literature" status?
In that case perhaps I should just write my entire review whenever I finish the book in one big long run-on sentence and everyone will love it and me for my astounding literary grace and ability and then the egomaniacal bloviates will be lining up to fellate me for my amazing insight and perhaps nominate me for Goodreads Reviewer of the Year...
*rolling eyes* Yeah, right.
But hey, the book won a Pulitzer and is being made into a movie, so it MUST be Greatness Literate, right? Sure. And in that case, handing Hitler a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize would make him a Great Guy, too.

message 45: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Yeah, a lot of critics these days can't seem to distinguish between purposeful exploration of grammar and the eccentricities of a flagging ego.

I like your review idea. You'll be a shoe-in for the Pulitzer for online book reviews. The bastards have been overlooking me for years. It's all politics, you know.

message 46: by Dr M (new) - rated it 1 star

Dr M The work is simply tragedy porn, as cliche, overplayed, and melodramatic as a romance novel. The entire point seems to be to get jaded suburbanites to cry. Why some people consider this more artistically valid than making them horny, I'm not sure.

I have not read this book, and consequently hold no opinion regarding it. However, I would suggest, as a general principle and regarding any and all forms of art, that the art rarely, if ever, lies in what feelings you raise in your audience, but in how you do it and in why that particular feeling is evoked.

message 47: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Yeah, I agree. I've noticed some fans of the book point to its dark, tragic tone as an example of its depth and originality. However, I don't see tragic escapism as being any more valuable than the escapism of romance or adventure.

I suppose that's why I kept getting the 'whiny goth' vibe from this book: it presented sorrow not as an emotion, but as an affectation.

It makes sense, in a way, that this book seems to appeal primarily to tough-guy Americans, for the same reason that Romance Novels appeal to Suburban housewives. These guys are glad to find a safe outlet for their repressed tears the same way those women find an outlet for their occasional desires.

It really is a 'manly' Old Yeller sadness, one that doesn't impinge upon the emotional depth and inherent human weakness of the characters. After all, if a somber, stoic man can't cry when the world is dead, cannibals roam the streets, and (worst of all) he has a whiny, annoying son, then when can he cry?

message 48: by Stone (new)

Stone thanks for posting this review - u've really summed up what i think. this seems to be a book that everyone SHOULD like, perfectly summed up by the undiplomatics telling you your WRONG.

DANIEL MAYORGA Totally agree with you, Keely. Although the narrative of the book it's interesting, what a boering book to read and let you without hope.....

message 50: by Nate (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nate You reveal your ignorance of McCarthy's work when you refer to him as a "Hollywood" writer. He's not. Just that simple.

As far as the book portraying sorrow as an affectation, I'm not quite sure how to respond considering the book wasn't portraying sorrow but hope amidst despair. I felt sorrow was an emotion that had long left the world.

As far as "tough guys" liking this book similar to suburban housewives liking romance novels, I'm impressed. You must have quite a major data and polling apparatus at your disposal to make such a claim.

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