Keely's Reviews > The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
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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 251-300 of 756) (756 new)


Jonathan I must add that I find it highly elitist to suggest that one can have only one view of a book. To say that your view which perceives the underlying emotional elements and enjoys that aspect of text is the only view would be wrong.

Simply because something is popular does not make it good. Nor will everyone enjoy it. I admit that while I enjoy Keely's reviews that I will not agree with all his sentiments. That said I do not disregard those views because it tells me that Keely perceived something different from the book to myself.

I can see how one could enjoy the emotional aspect of this text but I personally found the book ruined by many other aspects I did not enjoy. Does that mean my view is right, wrong or the only one? No it simply means I have a personal opinion about the novel which can be substantiated and which will naturally differ with other readers.


message 252: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "You have been put on notice"

Sweet, sounds like it's on.

"Does that mean my view is right, wrong or the only one? No it simply means I have a personal opinion"

It's true, though part of the reason we discuss books is so we can come to a consensus and educate one another, sharing our views and trying to support them. I've had people who were able to show me something new about a book and change my mind by explaining what I missed. I certainly could be wrong about The Road, there could be some remarkable depth in there that I just didn't see, but I haven't seen that argument yet.


Jonathan Yes I have also experience opinions that were able to persuade me that I had missed a crucial aspect of the text. I am yet to see that argument for The Road myself.


Jonathan Again I think that what I would say is that here for me I see what McCarthy attempts to do with minimalist prose but it doesn't work for me. He doesn't pull it off to convince me of the book personally. I don't appreciate minimalist work in general actually because few minimalist works form enough framework for me to properly enjoy characters and plot. They end up half finished for me and I'm not someone who subscribes to the idea of: you're the reader finish the ideas yourself. An author I believe should put the ideas out there and let the reader observe them yes but not force the reader to create ideas from their work.


message 255: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely I don't mind a minimalistic work. I don't need the author to 'spell things out' for me. I enjoy reading a Petrachan sonnet, where the author has only fourteen lines to lay out a story and a philosophy. IF they do it well, a reader can write a hundred pages of criticism on just one poem. I appreciate an author who can make sparse lines rich.

Certainly, a reader has a task before them when they read: they must draw connections, expand implications, hypothesize and test. In that sense, it is our job to 'complete what the author started', but I don't think a reader should do any more than that. It is not for the reader to add things to the book that were not put there in the first place.

A reader should be putting the pieces of the puzzle together, but shouldn't be cutting them to fit or making new ones.

I also don't think the author is obligated to lay out a complete philosophy, or to answer all of our questions. It's fine for them to leave us with questions, or to create unresolved conflicts for us to consider.

What I appreciate most is when an author concentrates on the border between the known and the unknown, flitting back and forth across that line and connecting concrete reality with hazy notions which lie just beyond. I always get tired of empty profundity, gesturing to the completely unknown, which cannot be made to connect with human experience and knowledge.

I found the figurative language and terse implications of The Road too scattered and disconnected. I did not find much reward in trying to draw connections between, nor did I come away with the sense of a grand, deliberate structure--as you say, there did not seem to be enough framework.


message 256: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John You'd be better off reading the book than reading this baloney.

Pulitzer Prize.

Haters gonna hate.


Christine V Mae Gaskins I really get into the dystopia setting lately, so I tried this. I hated it. The lack of punctuation marks made me cringe. The boy was so trusting of everyone despite his knowledge of cannibals and thieves.
This is one that I shelved under "movie was better". The book had little action and the movie had even less. But I was not confused about where or who struck up a conversation. And yes when it comes to action in the post apocalypse I would not expect much. In the dead world left by nuclear wars I would not expect more than day to day surviving tech.
I say nuclear based on the description of the land.


message 258: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Lukas wrote "Pulitzer Prize."

Who needs to be discerning or informed when you can just accept the opinions given to you by authority?

I devote a significant part of my review to analyzing why this book got the prize and as usual, it seems to be a case of short-sighted politics. Award committees do not have a good track record in selecting great works of the future, they mostly end up rewarding the autumnal efforts of authors past their prime or pushing works for the sake of popular agenda. I think the choice of The Road demonstrates both proclivities quite well.

Christina wrote: "I really get into the dystopia setting lately, so I tried this. I hated it."

I haven't seen the movie, but I'll take your word. Thanks for the comment.


Jonathan I haven't seen the film either but I can imagine that the film would be better.


message 260: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Sure, that could be true. I mean, you could tell which characters were talking in a movie, you'd have actors putting distinctive inflection into all those repetitive lines, and you'd get rid of all the plodding description and purple prose--I like the book better as a script than as a novel.


Jonathan Perhaps again that is why The Road comes up short in my eyes. Simply because it comes across as not suiting the method chosen by McCarthy to write in. And also because I have read books on the same topic which addressed it in far grander ways and also explored incredible philosophical questions.


message 262: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John Keely wrote: "Lukas wrote "Pulitzer Prize."

Who needs to be discerning or informed when you can just accept the opinions given to you by authority?

I devote a significant part of my review to analyzing why thi..."


Haters gonna hate.


message 263: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Right, get your opinions from authorities and your argumentative techniques from bitchy teens. I think I have the rote answer to this thought-terminating cliche, let me see, oh yes:

"Don't hate the player, hate the game."


message 264: by Maciek (new) - added it

Maciek People still dissing this review? The question of truth is not a majority vote. Keely is as entitled to his own opinion and review of the book as are the old white men of the Pulitzer commitee, and everybody else on the face of this planet. There's one thing in discussing books, sometimes intensely and passionately, and another in saying that one person's opinion or review is inferior to another's because he or she is somehow less priviledged. Lots of people like this book? Well, lots of people love Miley Cyrus, which makes her the best pop singer in history, right?

As for me, I was extremely disappointed in this book upon reading it for the first time, especially because of all the praise it got. Over time my disappointed has sort of cooled down, but I still agree with Keely and his sentiments - it's still neither very original, innovative, groundbreaking or moving. If you enjoyed it then that's perfectly fine, but attacking another person and accusing him of bigotry because he doesn't follow the opinion of the majority is just silly.


message 265: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John Keely wrote: "Right, get your opinions from authorities and your argumentative techniques from bitchy teens. I think I have the rote answer to this thought-terminating cliche, let me see, oh yes:

"Don't hate th..."


Haha, you haven't a clue, I'm afraid. I can sound like an aristocrat too!

Haters gonna hate! Keep on keepin' on!


message 266: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Pablo wrote "150,000+ reviews on Goodreads with an average 4 our of 5 star rating."

Neither populism nor awards are arguments for the worth of a book. If you find yourself saying the same thing the average Twilight fan does in response to people who dislike that series, you are probably not doing a very good job.

"But YOU know the truth, right?"

Nope. I just wrote out my thoughts. If anyone wants to present an opposing case, the review's right there.

Maciek wrote "lots of people love Miley Cyrus, which makes her the best pop singer in history, right?"

Yeah, the pervasive, unironic use of the populism argument is rather inexplicable. You'd think if a book were actually that good, it wouldn't be so hard to produce real arguments to defend it.


Jonathan Maciek wrote: " The question of truth is not a majority vote."

I fully agree. After all look at Duchamp's toilet for a fine example. It staggers my belief that you could call that art. It's just like me taking a table and going: look here we go it's a piece of art. But does that mean those people who can see it as art are wrong? No. But they still must convince me that it is art. There is no situation where any piece of art (which is what writing is) can be simply put down before an audience and they must accept it as art. It is the job of the artist (whether they be painter, singer, songwriter, author etc.) to convince his audience that it is art and worthy of admiration. And The Road does not do that for me because as mentioned I've read work I enjoyed more and appreciated the use of writing conventions with. I don't think one can be elitist and say that this book is the best or the worst. I think each person should examine and determine for themselves if this is a book worth enjoying.


message 268: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John Pablo, you made a great point. Keely had nothing to say good about this novel. How can you possibly give a professional work, from an established writer no less, a mere 1 star?

I think that is just ignorant. Perhaps you are jealous, Keely, for writing with such arrogantly aristocratic prose yourself, that someone with simpler words can move an entire generation of readers.


message 269: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "Dozens, if not hundreds of magazines, peer-reviewed journals and website covered this book. The vast majority of them wrote glowing, in some cases masturbatory reviews about this book."

You know, a very common comment in this thread is "You're wrong about the road, Bloom thinks McCarthy is a genius". Yet I've looked and I've never seen a Bloom review of The Road. The closest I found was an interview about Blood Meridian where he had said he read The Road once, but wasn't sure what he thought and was suspending judgment.

People also bring up Hitchens' love for McCarthy, but again, I haven't found anything written by him about The Road. I did find a review by James Wood after his name was mentioned, but when I read it, I was struck by how often he mentioned the same flaws and problems in McCarthy's writing that I had found:

"Hard detail and a fine eye is combined with exquisite, gnarled, slightly antique (and even slightly clumsy or heavy) lyricism. It ought not to work, and sometimes it does not."

"McCarthy's third register is more problematic. He is also an American ham . . . not merely antiquarian, a kind of vatic histrionic groping . . . an ostentatiously obsolete lexicon."

". . . the placement of what looks like a paragraph of religious consolation at the end of such a novel is striking, and it throws the novel off balance, precisely because theology has not seemed exactly central to the book's inquiry. One has a persistent, uneasy sense that theodicy and the absent God have been merely exploited by the book, engaged with too lightly, without enough pressure of interrogation. When Ely says that "there is no God and we are his prophets," the phrase seems a little trite in its neat paradox of negation."


He still comes off as positive about the book, but I didn't find a pervasive argument for its worth.

I've been through all my friends' reviews here on GR, and a number of the top reviews, and it's not that I find it a complete mystery that people would like this book--I see reasons that people would like it--but I haven't found explanations that account for what I see as the fundamental flaws of the book: the repetitive tone, the ill-fitting psychology of the characters, the shoehorning of optimism onto the story, the conflicting styles, and the insularity. I don't mean to harp on these things, I'm just trying to be clear what I'm referring to.

A lot of people have commented on my review, and most look something like this:

"The Road is a great book. It has won awards. Harold Bloom loves it. It is extremely popular. There are lots of positive reviews of it out there."

So that's two appeals to authority and two appeals to populism. Nothing about the book, or about my arguments, nor any links to these 'great critical analyses'. What is the purpose of such a comment? Who would it impress, what could it possibly achieve?

Then I check the reviews of the commentators, but usually find that they haven't even reviewed the book. How is this meant to change my mind--what about it is convincing? These are the exact same appeals made by every fandom. The Road is not anything like Twilight, yet their fans post the same comments to defend them. None of these generic appeals are refutations of anything I have actually said.

Who has the burden of proof? Sure, atheists can find poetry in the Bible, but it isn't their job to prove that Allah really is Akbar. Is it really fair to ask me to search through the internet for these 'great reviews' which no one has actually linked to? If they're out there, it shouldn't be hard to say "here are the five best reviews I found that make new points and contradict what you've said", or to just write a comment which presents these insights. Yet it simply doesn't happen.

I don't think the world is full of idiots or aliens, and I don't think people who like The Road are idiots or aliens. As I say in my review, The Road is the product of the American writing tradition. With its dark, insular themes, focus on personal existential crisis, and allusions to the styles of Melville and Hemingway--it is very centrally American, and I can see how that would appeal to people.

However, I think the theme is a poor fit for the setting, the writing styles do not mesh, and the overall philosophical bent is at odds with the story. It is fundamentally American, but for me, that also means that it is fundamentally out of touch. It's a colonial work that adopts the quintessential voice of America sixty years ago, a voice which is no longer revolutionary or prescient.

As the article I linked to implies, it received the Pulitzer because it represents the last gasp of an insular America that is already dead--a dream of American centrality that the prize committee is clinging to in the face of an increasingly porous world. For me, the choice of this book for the Pulitzer parallels the discussion of Net Neutrality in congress: it's an attempt by a bunch of the old guard to maintain control over a world which they no longer fully comprehend.

Now, I think the Nobel has gone too far in the other direction, romanticizing foreignness and political subversiveness for its own sake, but I digress.

Is it possible I'm wrong? Of course--it's certainly happened before. My general assumption is that I am usually wrong, so I put out what I have and see what I get back. Sometimes I get thoughtful, convincing comments that help me rethink things, but often I just get angry, cliche internet arguments.

And I'm not some elite '1%'--I'm just some guy posting his thoughts on the internet to keep track of them. I have met plenty of people who are more knowledgeable and better at criticism than I am. Bloom is almost certainly one of them, and maybe someday he'll write an analysis of The Road and I'll be able to read it and discover what I missed.

I'm also not alone in my opinion of McCarthy: I link to several articles and books in my review which tackle similar concerns, and my review of The Road is the top review for the book on this site. I'm not saying that makes it good or makes me right, but I'm hardly 'railing solo against the world'.


Jonathan wrote: "does that mean those people who can see it as art are wrong? No. But they still must convince me that it is art."

And therein lies the problem. Anyone can claim that something is good, and that there are great arguments in its favor, but no one will be convinced by that claim--it takes much more than that to actually defend a work.

Luke wrote: "How can you possibly give a professional work, from an established writer no less, a mere 1 star?"

Plenty of established authors--even great authors from the canon--have written crappy books. I'm reviewing a book, not an author's reputation. As I say in my review, I gave it two stars for a somewhat plodding Ballardian story, minus one for the belittling of human suffering.

"Perhaps you are jealous . . . that someone with simpler words can move an entire generation of readers"

I didn't find his style simple, I found it pointlessly complex.

I read this book, and I didn't like it. The reasons are all in my review, so there's no reason to accuse me of some secret malice. I went into The Road hoping it would be a great book, and I was disappointed. I read it long before it had won any prizes or become a movie, so I had no preconceptions. I knew nothing about McCarthy beyond the movie No Country For Old Men, which I enjoyed.

If you want to contradict my arguments, you're free to do so. If you need clarification on a point, let me know--written communication can be a fickle mistress and we're clearly not getting onto the same page.


message 270: by Michael (new)

Michael Herrman Anyone who appeals to authority around a work of fiction is probably a fanboy with a bruised ego. Here's good advice: don't hitch your own ego to another person's work.


Jonathan Randy wrote: "Anyone who appeals to authority around a work of fiction is probably a fanboy with a bruised ego. Here's good advice: don't hitch your own ego to another person's work."

Yes don't build your identity around books like that. In the end it's just a piece of fiction.


message 272: by Asel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Asel Hi, Keely. Not sure if this has been addressed already, but regarding the child's innocence, don't you think it could be explained by his role as a certain god? He is constantly referred to as "a golden chalice good enough to house a god" and as a "voice of god"?


message 273: by Michael (last edited Mar 06, 2012 08:15AM) (new)

Michael Herrman Perhaps you feel a need to suggest that my heart is 'a void' in order to make it easier for you to disregard me

That's a trend I've noticed in these debates around this book, with the extreme spectrum of fans pulling out the sort of rhetoric a religious fanatic might use: "you're a woman," (!) or "your heart is too hard," (to be touched by God, or, in this case, Cormac) or "you're a Philistine". One of my favorites, seen on another board some time ago, was "you are an enemy of art".

Obviously, since you don't connect with a story that has over two billion served (and at least half that many bags of smug-by-association swinging from the sideboards), there must be something wrong with you as a human being. You might be insane, even criminally inclined.

MacCarthy indulged in manipulation when he wrote this book, and the associations that he chose are exactly what made it tick. That's why the story is scant and that's why the whole is really just a large impression. The form followed the substance and people who were of a mind to receive the suggestion took it in and nurtured it. The vessels (those 2 dimensional characters) were perfect to reflect the projections of fathers who have young boys, or for parents in general, to act as a condenser for the natural fears that parents have for their children -- even suburbanites who have no daily experience of misery, want, or peril. It's possible that the reaction was even more intense around that demographic because it opened a gate through which to imagine themselves (and their children) in that sort of situation, so I can understand the visceral reactions.


message 274: by Michael (last edited Mar 06, 2012 10:47AM) (new)

Michael Herrman I'm learning to steer away from judgements of fiction as good or bad...or I'm trying to. The idea of a key that either fits or fails to fit the reader's sensibilities might work. For instance, the ashen monotony of the tale, for which readers proclaimed MacCarthy to 'inhabit the apocalypse', was precisely what alienated other readers. So, rather than say it was good or bad, I recognize that it was necessary. It was an example of the story's form following its function.

There are positive things about the book, even poetic images that I'll never forget. I recognize this, now that my reactions to the reactions (to the reactions) have finally passed. The process took a few months but it's been enlightening, a testament to the power of art. I have to respect MacCarthy even if I do have a standoffish relationship with this particular book.

Honest vs. cynical might be better extremes of description.


message 275: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Randy wrote: "Here's good advice: don't hitch your own ego to another person's work."

I don't know, I don't always think it's a problem. It's something we all do, to a degree: we find things that we like and we hold them up as models for how things should be done.

The only problem with this, in my opinion, is when a person attaches themselves to a work they can't defend. That puts them in a very precarious place, because they have this instinctive need to defend it, but they don't have the arguments or techniques to actually do it. Most of them just end up trying to lash out and justify it to themselves, which doesn't hep anyone, and certainly doesn't promote their case.

". . . rather than say it was good or bad, I recognize that it was necessary. It was an example of the story's form following its function."

I guess that's part of how I define 'good' vs 'bad' writing, whether the writing has a purpose, and whether it achieves that purpose. You talk about the 'ashen monotony' as something necessary in the book, but I would ask whether this was the most effective way for McCarthy to get his point across.

Is giving a laundry list of description more effective than demonstrating from the character reactions the importance of 'the little things'? And if bare, repetitive simplicity is the best way to write this world, then why does McCarthy fill his text with archaic jargon terms and purple metaphors?

I'm sure you get the idea.

Alice wrote "regarding the child's innocence, don't you think it could be explained by his role as a certain god?"

Like, an actual god with miraculous powers? What do you mean, and why would this make him innocent?

Pablo wrote "I still disagree with your opinion, and for reasons of time (work, two kids, etc.) I won't refute them . . ."

I agree, it is difficult and time-consuming to come up with good arguments and discuss books. You have to put a lot of thought into it, and it's not easy.

But I can't help but think you might have recognized that sooner. Why enter a discussion in the first place if you don't have the wherewithal to see it through?

From the beginning, I've asked for clarification, argument, or refutation, and I haven't gotten it. Most recently, I lowered the bar to just 'show me some of these plentiful articles', and I get back 'not enough time'.

If you spend months in discussion without being able to produce a single example in favor of your case--and when pressed, find that to do so would simply be too difficult, is that not a sign that your conclusion may be unfounded? If you don't have the time to put forth a single argument or find an article in your favor, it makes me wonder how you had enough free time to develop a sophisticated opinion of The Road in the first place.

I'm not saying you're wrong and I'm right, I'm just asking you to look at it from my point of view. What part of your own comments would you have found thought-provoking or convincing in my place?

Then think about it from the pov of my followers and others who stumble across this review. A guy shows up, makes some brief, insulting comments, fails to provide any support for his position, then begs off. How does that make McCarthy fans look? If my review doesn't convince them, then comments like that certainly will.

That's part of the reason that my review gets upvoted every single time I get a negative comment. If you comment in defense of a work, then you become an ambassador for the author of that work, and it will affect how other people see them.

And this kind of nominal opposition is hardly good for me, either. Arguing without presenting a case is like taking a half-course of antibiotics: it only ends up strengthening the opposition. Every commentator who gets snarky but has no argument to back them up just makes me feel more justified in my position, and it starts to feel like the only people who disagree with me are people incapable of recognizing or producing an argument.

I know that isn't true, and that there are undoubtedly plenty of smart people who like The Road and who have great explanations for the book's worth, but I'm certainly not seeing much evidence of them.

Of course, you're welcome to do with your time as you like, and to decide what is worthwhile for you, and what isn't. That is everyone's right and I don't want to entrap you in a discussion you aren't interested in having. That won't help anyone.

But I have to point out that by dropping out now, you are not making yourself look good, and by extension, you are not making McCarthy look good. Before you decide to enter the fracas again, maybe it will help to do what I do: ask yourself what you want to achieve with your comments, and how you can actually achieve that goal with what you say.

"I appreciate the civil tone."

If what you really wanted was a civil discussion, then why start off with flippant insults?


message 276: by Michael (last edited Mar 07, 2012 10:53AM) (new)

Michael Herrman Fair enough.

I imagine the monotony was necessary for at least two reasons:

- Without subplots, and with only the basic outline of a plot, this would have been (and probably should have been) a short story. He needed filler to stretch it to the length of a novella. That was cynical of him.

- MacCarthy's relationship to the book certainly drew life from the reality that he is the father of a young boy at an advanced age. His horizon, like the man's, was severely limited while the child could stand in for any number of reincarnated dead gods from mythology. Hence the vague invocations around 'the flame'. Rather than 'the boy' he could have called him 'Horus'.

The mood fed on that fact, I suspect, and that mood was sustained throughout the entire work. An onerous accomplishment, and one I wouldn't care to mimic.

That infinite gray funnel worked for some people. Didn't work for me, but since I felt compelled to finish the book (and I have no compunctions about wall-hurling a book if there's nothing there to keep me) I can only cite curiosity about what made it tick. By midway I'd resolved to finish because CM was new to me. The style was something I hadn't seen before and there were patches of prose that pleased me. I hurled it upon completion, but by then it was too late. The act was akin to smashing an empty Blind Crow bottle against the wall.

To sustain that mood and actually give the story any force at all (and I doubt this is entirely a case of the Emperor's New Clothes at work) the slate --a world he would have had to paint, populate and infuse with meaning-- would have detracted from the fetish-focus, which was the dying man and the young boy.

If he'd had to do that, if he'd tried to fill the pages with complexities, with why the events took place, with how they actually lived prior to the events of the story (and the plot wouldn't pass muster, too many holes) in my opinion, the tension would have snapped the work to pieces and there would have been nothing left.

That's my mileage on the endless gray, anyhow.

As an aside, I hope you consider my request.


message 277: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John Keely wrote: ""Dozens, if not hundreds of magazines, peer-reviewed journals and website covered this book. The vast majority of them wrote glowing, in some cases masturbatory reviews about this book."

You know,..."


Haha, keep on hating then! (the belittling of human suffering? okay then, he really belittled that, ha!)


Jonathan Pablo wrote: "Wow. Your arrogance knows no bounds (nor does your myopia). I'm being instructed on my level of engagement on a social networking site?"

Perhaps you're just missing Keely's point a little? I believe he was simply trying to point out that from his perspective it looks bad that you're dropping out because you cannot complete your begun argument. His whole point has been that he cannot see the worthwhile arguments to enjoy this book (I and Randy I think can see something of faint worth but didn't enjoy the book). So when you admit you won't continue arguing it becomes further proof that you have nothing to say to defend the book. I'm not saying that's the truth but it's how many would see it. That doesn't mean he's arrogant. He has admitted he would be willing to change his point of view if a worthwhile argument were presented.


message 279: by Asel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Asel Keely wrote: "Like, an actual god with miraculous powers? What do you mean, and why would this make him innocent?"

Well, yes. The child, I believe, was written as a god of a religion that his father had invented. Granted, the idea that religion persists when every other sentiment in gone is arguable, nevertheless I think the religious undertones of this book are rather obvious. After all we never found out what caused the end of the world, it could have been an environmental catastrophe or a rapture, McCarthy personally imagined it to be a man-caused apocalypse.
I believe that the father made his child into a god and worshiped him since he needed that sense of the old world to keep living in the new one. We see the goodness of the child not only through the father's eyes but also by his treatment of other people they meet on the road. When they see Eli, it is the son that insists they feed him, when he imagines seeing a boy he promised he would share his food and finally when they took back their things from the thief and left him naked on the road, the little boy was incredibly upset and doubted their standing as the good guys. So my point is, perhaps McCarthy wanted us to see it not as an event to end the world, but as a event that ended the old world and a new one can begin that will still have the goodness of the old one. Maybe it's the optimist in me that sees it that way, I felt the last paragraph of the book (which, even you have to admit, was beautifully written) gave a certain sense of hope. And I don't know, isn't it the idea of every religion, not the politics of the religion, that it is innocent? I guess we can argue about that since I am not at all religious, maybe I have a skewed perception. :)



message 280: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Pablo wrote "So now I look bad because I don't want to enable your rambling AND I'm a proxy for McCarthy?"

No, it looks bad for the reasons Jonathan pointed out in his comment. It looks like you're pulling out because you have no support for what you say. I'm not saying this is necessarily true, I'm just asking what you intended to achieve with your comments and whether you think they were successful.

And no, you're not a proxy for McCarthy, but you made the decision to come out and defend him in a public forum, and you also chose the techniques you used in defending him. How can you engage in the public defense of a book without seeing yourself as a representative for that book? You entered this discussion of McCarthy's work and the fact that you've been at this for months and have not brought a single argument or refutation to the table is hardly going unnoticed.

If you are really trying to avoid 'enabling my rambling', why make flippant remarks and blanket statements? In your experience on the internet, has that ever shut anyone up or put them in their place? If you want to shut me up, you'll have to find something substantive to say.

Of course, you don't have to do that, it's not like there are rules of conduct for the internet. If you're too busy and want to go, then do what you need to.

"I know your kind. What's wrong with you is wrong all the way through you."

This last comment was the first time you actually quoted McCarthy--it was the wrong book, but we'll let that slide. You actually went to the text and brought his words into the discussion.

But all you did with them was sling mud. You flung them at me as if they were a rock. Is that all McCarthy's words mean to you? Is that how you use his writing? You didn't even use the quote to bolster an argument, but to uphold your own self-worth.

I know that when people get attached to a brand--be it a tech company or an author--they tend to see attacks on that brand as personal attacks, but it's rare to see someone actually try to use that brand to defend their own personal worth. You're supposed to use your ideas to defend books, not use their ideas to defend you.

You say you 'know my kind', but that could hardly be true. If you did, you would undoubtedly be able to refute me. You wouldn't have to assure people that you have knowledge. That's the thing about knowledge: it's self-demonstrative. If you have it, you don't have to make claims on it.

Luke wrote "the belittling of human suffering?"

It's all in my review, if you missed it.

Alice wrote "The child, I believe, was written as a god of a religion that his father had invented."

Ah, sure, I think he definitely stands in as an 'avatar of hope' in the father's faith in 'the fire', but that only explains the father's reaction, not the child's. It makes sense that the father would want to keep the child 'innocent' and good, but I don't see how he could actually do that.

The child is surrounded by death and destruction all the time, and since that's the only world he's ever known, he would begin to think of it as 'normal'. It's true that a lot of religions think of children as innocent, but anyone who has raised them or worked with them knows that they are little amoral, violent things until you teach them how to be human.

I understand that the father wants to raise the child in a certain way, but I don't see how he possibly could, in that world. He couldn't possibly raise a 'normal kid' in a situation like that, which is why I felt the child's normalcy didn't really make sense for how he was portrayed, psychologically.

It would have been interesting to see the father fight for that against the dying world, but that's not the story we got.

"I felt the last paragraph of the book (which, even you have to admit, was beautifully written) gave a certain sense of hope."

Actually, I found the last paragraph kind of awkward, particularly in terms of word choice. The most interesting parts, about the 'maps' on the fish scales and the 'deep glens . . . older than man' just felt like watered-down versions of these two lines from Moby Dick.

"And I don't know, isn't it the idea of every religion, not the politics of the religion, that it is innocent?"

I think it's certainly true that there's an elevated ideal of innocence in a lot of religions, but we can't take that at face value. They also cause conflict and war, they try to control people, and they assume that people are 'naturally sinful', which conflicts with the idea of natural innocence.

My problem with how McCarthy presented innocence was that he didn't seem skeptical about the idea of innocence in a world of bleak death, nor did he demonstrate how difficult it is to attain or to keep in such a place. The book has lots of skepticism and cynicism in it, but for some reason, it didn't seem to touch the boy, and I'm not sure why.

The structure of the book seemed to be in conflict with the idea of a symbolically innocent character. In a well-written book, stories and characters emerge naturally from the structure. I didn't feel The Road had this kind of internal unity, like how the ending was weirdly glowing and optimistic despite the rest of the book--I didn't feel that made sense with the overall presentation.

Thanks for the comment.


Jonathan Megalomania

1. A psychopathological condition characterized by delusional fantasies of wealth, power, or omnipotence.
2. An obsession with grandiose or extravagant things or actions.

Well since Keely admitted he's willing to change his point of view with a strong argument that's hardly megalomania. You're not coming up with the persuasive arguments.

"It wasn't the "wrong book," it was a different book with an apropos quote."

You cannot ever argue with statements along the line of: well you're just wrong. Arguments must have evidence to back them up. Keely's backing up his arguments whether or not you agree with them.


message 282: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely At first, I thought he was stretching. He was leaning against a tree, his feet in a wide-set lunge, his head dropped between his shoulders, staring at the ground. As I approached, he stood up, shaking his arms and puffing out his cheeks with exhalation, the look on his face determined but happy. He sat on a nearby park bench and put a bottle of water to his lips. His manner was disheveled.

"Hey, nice day."

"Oh, yeah, just workin' on this tree."

"I see." It was a fairly robust specimen, crowned with thick foliage.

"Yeah, I planted a rose," He nodded his head across the street, where a little house stood, a squat bush planted in its lawn, "but this tree shades my yard, and now it isn't doing too well. It won't flower at all."

"Ah, so you want to get rid of the tree."

"Yeah. I come out here every day, after work, and I push it. Sometimes I push it before work; I don't always have the time."

"Will that work?"

"Well, just look at it: how it shakes in the wind like that. It's clearly weakened. Not much longer now, I think."

"Why not just use an axe?"

He turned to me with a look of disgust "Are you some kind of fascist or something?"

"Excuse me?"

"Eh, I knew it. A fascist."

"How am I a fascist?"

"Guess I'd better get my dictionary--" He started to stand.

"No, that's alright. No need, really."

"Good, I'm glad you see it my way." He leaned back and took another sip. He stared past me now, across the street, at the little rosebush and its browned leaves.

"Well then, I guess I'll leave you to it."

"Yeah, shouldn't be long now."

As I turned and made my way once more down the street, I heard his final thought, spoken in a tone of soft resignation: "Goddamn fascist tree."



message 283: by Dakota (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dakota I completely disagree with your review. Writing a long review and filling it with pseudo intellectual will not make this community agree with you. Poor review.


message 284: by Esteban (last edited Mar 25, 2012 04:27PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Esteban del Mal I agree. The obvious goal of writing a review, aside from indulging one's 'pseudo intellectual filling' gland, is to get people to agree with you.


message 285: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Well, something must have convinced them, because this is the top-voted review for the book.


message 286: by Dakota (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dakota Then I guess you win, that is obviously the most important thing.


message 287: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely I figured you thought it important, otherwise why did you bring it up? I'm just responding to the only argument you put forth. If you'd rather discuss some more pertinent aspect of criticism, go right ahead.


message 288: by Dakota (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dakota I'm sorry, I can't take you seriously after reading your profile. Do you still live with mother?


message 290: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Eagle scout, check. Sweater vest, check. Spock bangs, check. Loves both the Bible and fantasy novels, check. Has a 'Dan Brown' shelf, check. Well, this guy is clearly an expert when it comes to living at home with mother.


Esteban del Mal I guess the Cormac McCarthy sex doll is implicit.

Photobucket


message 292: by Dakota (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dakota I'm sorry, eve your retorts are funny. You have lost any credibility you had with me.


message 293: by Dakota (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dakota You can't be further from the point Pablo...just let it go, the rest of us have.


message 294: by Dakota (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dakota We know what you wrote, but this comments thread is pretty dead at this point.


message 295: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Keely, you rule and I'm not going to give any argument or reason.
I'll just point to your review.


message 296: by Dakota (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dakota Hahaha, did you just make an account to comment on your own review? How sad!


message 297: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely So you've finally figured it out, have you? That's right, Dakota, you're not real, you're just a figment of my imagination. Like so many others, I created you as a satire of McCarthy fans--I've often wondered if one of you would gain sentience. It hardly seemed possible for self-awareness to arise from irrational self-contradiction--but then again, the evidence was always there:

First you declare that my style of reviewing would never be popular in the community, then in the next comment, you reverse your position and say popularity has no importance. No real human being would be so absurdly, naively hypocritical--it's too convenient.

Then there's Pablo, coming back month after month, raving about innumerable great arguments which don't exist, then accidentally engaging you in a heated reverse argument. Again, it's too perfect to be anything but a parody of actual McCarthy fans. But then, it shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the internet, who knows that every message board is just one guy with thousands of accounts arguing endlessly with himself.

'Stephen', however, was not one of mine--I never write a comment of fewer than three paragraphs. Though he could be a creature of your creation--it would only be natural for a content-free commentator created as a parody to develop his own parodic sub-personalities in imitation, just as man carves dolls in his own image and speaks for them in his own voice.

Patterns of ignorant denial lead only to further, convoluted spirals of denial--it's not the advent of self-awareness, its an even more fundamental rejection of identity--a child's game of play-acting, taking on the conflict so that it may become familiar, if never resolved.


message 298: by Dakota (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dakota I am not going to waste my time reading another long, useless post by you. Honestly, I did not read past the first paragraph.


message 299: by Keely (last edited Apr 03, 2012 10:01PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely I don't think anyone here will argue with the assertion that you haven't read something.


message 300: by Dakota (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dakota What a brilliant response...I am defeated by your masterful rhetoric. I really don't care. Move out of mother's house and stop nerd raging.


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