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?
Son: Are you sure?
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
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