J.G. Keely's Reviews > The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
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's review
Apr 01, 2008

did not like it
bookshelves: novel, fiction, reviewed, post-apocalyptic, america
Recommended to J.G. 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 '96, NYU Professor Alan Sokal submitted a paper for publication to several scientific journals. He made it so complex and full of jargon the average person wouldn't be able to make heads or tails of it. He wrote a conclusion that 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 these trusted judges. 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). Unlike Sokol, McCarthy didn't do it purposefully, he just writes in an ostentatiously empty style which is safe and convenient to praise.

Many have lauded his straightforward prose, 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. Precise and purposeful? Hrdlt. The Road is as elegant as a laundry list (if not as well punctuated). Compiling a long and redundant series of unnecessary descriptions is not straightforward, but needlessly complicated.

We're supposed to find this simplicity profound--that old postmodern game of defamiliarization, making the old seem new, showing the importance of everyday events--but McCarthy isn't actually changing the context, he's just restating. There is no personality in it, no relationship to the plot, no revealing of the characters.

Perhaps it is meant to show their weariness: they cannot even muster enough energy to participate in their own lives, but is the best way to demonstrate boredom 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. In another 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 world's blandest cyberpunk anthology.

Another 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."

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".

Often, 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, since his awkward prose harms human ears.

Sometimes, smack in the middle of a detailed description of 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), 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 (it was years before the movie), but they had to assume it was one hilarious road, with a busfull of nuns hiding a convict in disguise on the run from a bumbling southern sheriff and his deputy; a donkey is involved.

Without mentioning 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 up, neat and tight. It certainly bears out McCarthy's admission on Oprah that he "had no idea where it was going" when he wrote it. We can tell, Cormac.

As you may have noticed from the quotes, another notorious issue is the way the book is punctuated, which is to say, it isn't. The most complex mark is the a rare comma. It's not like McCarthy is only using simple, straightforward sentences, either---he fills up on 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 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 to a ridiculous scene.

It's 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. 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, punctuating every conflict in the book, like a bad horror film. Cannibals and dead infants are an okay (if cliche) place to start when it comes to unsettling the reader, but just having the characters react histrionically does not build tension, especially when the characters are too flat to be sympathetic in the first place. 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 boy with an AK can see how 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 PTSD, 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, 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 black, so it doesn't mater how many more black strokes he layers on top: they will not stand out because there is no contrast, 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 they 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 insight 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 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"

To any genre reader, this book will have a familiar and unpleasant taste, the same one LeGuin has often lamented: that of the big name author slumming. They pop into fantasy or sci fi with their lit fic credentials to show us little folk 'how it's really done'--but know nothing about the genre or its history, and just end up reinventing the wheel, producing a book that would have been tired and dated thirty years ago. Luckily for such writers, none of their lit fic critics know anything about other genres--any sort of bland rehash will feel fresh to them, as long as you have the name-recognition to get them to look in the first place.

So, McCarthy gets two stars for a passable (if cliche) script for a sci fi adventure movie, minus one star for unconscionable denigration of human suffering. I couldn't say if McCarthy's other books are any good; I will probably try another, just to see if any part 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 no longer has anything worth saying.

"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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Reading Progress

02/06/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 101-150 of 812) (812 new)

message 101: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Dacia, could you really look at that handsome little guy in your picture and say, "dont worry, honey, you'll get used to it?" I rather doubt it, and not simply because he's probably seen other babies.

Catherine, I agree with regard to different tastes; and it is part of what makes this site interesting. That said, I tire quickly of lazy Me-tooisms, whether positive or negative ones.

message 102: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Mike wrote: "That said, I tire quickly of lazy Me-tooisms, whether positive or negative ones."

Well, I agree with you there.

message 103: by Keri (new) - rated it 2 stars

Keri Me too! :-* ...I'm sorry I couldn't resist.

message 104: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Keri wrote: "Me too! :-* ...I'm sorry I couldn't resist."

Everybody's a comedian.

message 105: by Maciek (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek I guess not everyone can appreciate Cormac McCarthy's complete disregard for grammar and punctuation, his yoda-like sentence structure, one dimensional characters and horrible, repetitive dialogue, all of this written in perhaps most tedious prose ever. I don't know, maybe you have to do drugs or something.

message 106: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma You could be right--as his writing style is in that same insufferable tradition as Melville, Faulkner, etc.--a totally undistinguished line.

message 107: by Maciek (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek So, you're saying he's ripping them off? It would explain the popularity of this book - since it worked once, it would work again. LOL!

message 108: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma 'In the tradition of' implies ripping off? Interesting take. When I look over the reviews (and reviewers) of this title, it's the readers of popular fiction who find his style so troublesome (ooooh, it's hard to read. ooooh he doesn't use quotation marks. oooh, I have to think too much to know what's going on).

message 109: by Maciek (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek I think so, yes. It's basically a thinly veiled "he writes like XXX so he must be good, mkay?" And let's be serious, The Road is not a hard book to understand. Though I can totally see why there's no punctuation or quotation marks - they take up precious space which could be used for repeating "okay" approximately five million times.

message 110: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Just be glad he didn't use Stephen King's editor; it might have been four times as long or serialized into five volumes. What was McCarthy thinking?

message 111: by Maciek (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek You mean McCarthy has an editor? And he'd let him print this book, on paper and all? The world is sure full of surprises.

message 112: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Yessir, on paper and all.

message 113: by Maciek (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek I can't believe it. What did he do, kick out a stray comma or apostrophe?

message 114: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma I think what he succeeded in doing was 'kick out' the genre readers of popular fiction.

message 115: by Maciek (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek Yeah. I too think that they are too stupid to understand all that exposition and repetition and the big budget Hollywood adaptation was just for the selected few noble minds that surely exist somewhere in the States.

message 116: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma You put words in my mouth. The big budget adaptation barely made back its budget (in the US and GB). I'll defer to your judgement with regard to noble minds, wherever they happen to be.

message 117: by Maciek (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek Well, if you're going to spend 25 million dollars on two people walking down The Road, then that's what happens. LOL!

I'm sorry for putting words in your mouth. Wherever I read elitist comments I just have to poke some fun.

message 118: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Elitist? lol. You obviously don't know me or haven't seen me at home. Elistist isn't even something I aspire to--I suspect it's time-consuming, and I'd rather be reading. I appreciate you're poking fun; I have from the onset (onslaught?) of our exchanges.

message 119: by Maciek (last edited Oct 02, 2010 07:52AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek I'm sorry if I offended you. I just found your comments about The Road being too difficult for some readers to be a classic example of elitism, the last step in clutching at straws - the book is not bad, it's you who doesn't get its genius! Seems to pop up every time.

message 120: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Not offended at all.

message 121: by Phil (new) - rated it 5 stars

Phil I disagree with this review.

The first time I read the book, it caught me off-guard. It was the first time I read a book in McCarthy's style.

Although the book was bleak over-all, it did not lack emotion and hope. The affection between the father and the son (specially for the father towards his son) struck a cord in my heart. And as far as I am concerned, I have seen glimpses of hope in the book when the characters found what they needed when they really needed it most (bunker filled of food, apples, etc.)

message 122: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma (pssst, careful, Phil, this is one the genre-readers get pissy about; they didn't like it, and neither should you. welcome to the site!)

message 123: by Maciek (last edited Oct 10, 2010 08:57AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek Yes, "non-genre" writers are excused from all possible plot holes and can use deus ex machinas as they please.
"What? Food? I'll just make them find a hidden fallout shelter full of stuff. Or a boat. He He He I smell a Pulitzer for my compassion!". Gotta love the subtle division.

message 124: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Maciek wrote: "Yes, "non-genre" writers are excused from all possible plot holes and can use deus ex machinas as they please.
"What? Food? I'll just make them find a hidden fallout shelter full of stuff. Or a boa..."

I KNEW I could count on you.

message 125: by Maciek (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek I'm ready to strike at any time.

message 126: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Maciek wrote: "I'm ready to strike at any time."

Always alert! Ever-ready for the McCarthy-appreciater. The One, The Only, Maciek!

message 127: by Maciek (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek Always ready to correct anyone's profound misunderstanding of the title we're now discussing!

message 128: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Maciek wrote: "Always ready to correct anyone's profound misunderstanding of the title we're now discussing!"

One helluva guy! (I'm really beginning to wonder how we agreed on as many titles as we have; when, exactly, did you drink the kool-aid?)

message 129: by Maciek (last edited Oct 10, 2010 09:15AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek I'm the Kool-Aid guy. I also wrote The Road. Cormac McCarthy is one of my pseudonyms. I also wrote hardboiled crime fiction in my spare time, you may know some of these books, they had to do with foreign falcons or something like that.

message 130: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Maciek wrote: "I'm the Kool-Aid guy. I also wrote The Road. Cormac McCarthy is one of my pseudonyms. I also wrote hardboiled crime fiction in my spare time, you may know some of these books, they had to do with f..."

I'd have to be Sam Spade to figure that one out.

message 131: by [deleted user] (new)

Fantastic review. I loved this bit: "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." That's it exactly! And I confess that I didn't finish because I got tired of feeling emotionally manipulated by the bleakness of it all.

Jonnythrombosis i loved the book & though it is bleak, as a post apocalyptic world indeed most likely will be, it moved me to tears in the final pages - & me a grown man riding on a bus in the evening rush hour

& i think mccarthy's stripped down prose hits all the right buttons

message 133: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Jonnythrombosis wrote: "i loved the book & though it is bleak, as a post apocalyptic world indeed most likely will be, it moved me to tears in the final pages - & me a grown man riding on a bus in the evening rush hour


Careful, Thromb, there's an army of naysayers who'll be all over you.

message 134: by Maciek (new) - rated it 2 stars

Maciek They're around every corner.

message 135: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma okay

Patrick Well I do agree with some of your points. The writing was a bit overdone at times, but I found the book to be very engaging and interesting. I felt quite intrigued by the post-apocalpytic world that he created and the scenes of hope and dispair. I found the work to be bold and emotional, but I can definetly see where you're coming from. I'd give it a 4 or 5.

J.G. Keely Hey everyone, sorry I've been absent from the discussion. I guess if you miss one email update you don't get any more until you look at the review again. Great to see all of the debate that's gone on here without me.

I'll just say a few things to those of you kind enough to leave your thoughts here:

To Mike: never once in my review do I use the word 'trash'. I am critical of the book, but you have to admit there is more to my review than simply stating opinions about its worth. I present arguments, details, quotes, and conclusions, and while you certainly don't have to agree with them, they are there.

You ask how many dead babies it would take before they would cease to be horrifying and the answer is probably fewer than we imagine. That's the horror of war and death, that it is so easily made meaningless, that we can become numb to things that once would have shocked or disgusted us.

That was my point about the child soldiers. Certainly, as you say, they still feel fear and horror, they still have emotional reactions, but for them, war is the normal state of things, and things that would horrify us they might not bat an eye at.

A friend of mine went to Egypt and while driving down a desert highway, saw a smear on the side of the road that he recognized as human remains. He turned to the local man next to him in shock, but the man only shrugged. To him, it was neither unusual nor terrible, it was just a part of life.

People bathe, drink, and wash next to floating corpses in the Ganges every day without giving it a second thought, and that's what makes it horrifying. That's what is disturbing about this article, not that the locals are aghast, but that they take no notice of it.

That's why the constant fear and screaming in the Road felt more like a slasher film than an imagined apocalypse to me. What would have disturbed me is seeing the characters becoming used to their world, not feeling artificially separate from it. For me, it was just another sign of the lack of depth and progression in McCarthy's characters.

Certainly they can have emotional reactions and feel terrified, but being terrified of everything, all the time, is simply not realistic. People learn to deal with the world they live in, and not because of a magical, undefined 'fire', but through denial, acceptance, and numbness. Sure, the people break out of that sometimes and realize the horror they are living in, but McCarthy's characters felt more like average suburbanites seeing death for the first time rather than hardened survivors always on the run from cannibal gangs.

That's what struck me as being similar to a romance novel: the characters were empathic vessels for the reader and were surrounded by scenes which were meant to be emotionally manipulative, providing an emotional rush, not insight. It's like how writers of historical fiction tend to write modern characters in historical settings. It's disingenuous and unrealistic.

I also don't think you need to 'warn people off' about McCarthy's detractors in the thread. We're all adults here and we can have a discussion without worrying about being contradicted. That being said, no one has need to bait you, either.

To Maciek: interesting point about the oxygen, it would have been interesting to see him work that in there. I think the oxygen would last for a while without trees, especially if there were no animals and few humans left to breathe it, but the combustion event that killed them would have also used up a huge amount of oxygen, and would have filled the air with dangerous inhalants.

All in all, I don't think his world-building was meant to be convincing and scientific. It's there to drive the story along, we're not meant to question it and McCarthy doesn't seem interested in making it detailed and realistic. It's more like a fantasy novel in that regard.

And to Dacia: I'm with you on the 'literature/entertainment' debate. I don't think there's any clear delineation. Not all literature is difficult to read, and not all books that are difficult to read are literature. Some are just inexpertly written, which was how I felt about The Road.

Thanks again for the comments, everyone.

message 138: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Keely wrote: "never once in my review do I use the word 'trash'"

You're quite right; you didn't use the word 'trash'; my apologies for making it look as though you did. My post, which actually may have been my very first post on goodreads, was in reaction to your review and the thread, an unfortunate conflating of ideas made in the zeal of the moment. I hope I've become better at using the Reply button and/or addressing reviewers directly than I was at first. I'm not a fan of having words put in my mouth either. Thanks for the response.

J.G. Keely No worries, just wanted to clarify.

Michael Although I disagree with you on some (not all) of your points, this is a hilarious review.

However, one may neatly replace 'the fire' with 'the plot' and see the effect McCarthy achieves.

This is my favorite.

J.G. Keely Ha, I'm afraid I can't take full credit for that line, my inspiration was Nick Lowe's excellent article The Well-Tempered Plot Device, where he plays the same trick with Stephen Donaldson.

Still, I think it's a damning sign of McCarthy's lack of skill as an author that the plotting of his nominally realist tale supposedly built on character psychology more closely resembles the artificial convenience of the average fantasy novel.

Michael While I will admit there's a focus on the relationship between two characters here, I think you could find a similarly simple and "plotless" path through As I Lay Dying, a book that is still respected by some people a long time after it was written. However, in Faulkner, this simplicity is the group of characters making a passage through symbolic struggles....a trial by fire and a trial by water, although I can't remember the order.

I think you have a similar situation here. The elements of the plot are much more understated than those of the average fantasy novel, and the "quest" they are on to arrive at the coast is symbolic of the need to keep struggling toward something, even in the face of immense bleakness, and a sense of hopelessness. I felt this journey was well done, although in retrospect I think you have a point about the boy's character. Given the life he's lived, it makes sense that he would be more adjusted to the environment than he was.

J.G. Keely I do need to get to Faulkner and Joyce to help my understanding of the authors they have influenced, McCarthy included. Perhaps that will help me to understand what I'm missing, here.

I am familiar with stories that use symbolic elements to represent arguments about the nature of humanity. However, I would suggest that the flaws in the construction of this story, such as the boy's fear, show that the structure of the story was not as well-crafted as it needs to be in order to be effective.

I'm generally wary of allegories because if the symbols and meanings of an allegory are not expertly matched, it can be easy for an author to make a story that supports their preconceptions without forcing them to present complete arguments for them.

This is common in fantasy because of its roots in Fairy Tales and Epic Poetry, both of which are fond of equating symbolic meanings with moral arguments. In modern Realism, it is often the result of figurative language being extended into conceit and motif, as in Metaphysical Poetry.

In my experience, those authors who have many small insights in their writing often have larger, more complex insights that come through in their structure and figurative language. Likewise, McCarthy's lack of insight on the small scale was not promising for the grander scale of a symbolic exploration of humanity.

J.G. Keely Well, sometimes the world of literary criticism feels like an alien planet, often complete with inhospitable atmosphere, too much gravity, and a whole set of complex terms used by misanthropes to describe it. Not everyone wants to take the journey to reach it, but it can be a very satisfying one.

But then it's not all that alien: we all read books, and we all react to them. When we like or dislike a book, that's a criticism, and even those of us who have had the chance to study literature can't always put those reactions into words.

Glad you had fun following the thread.

message 145: by Dr M (new) - rated it 1 star

Dr M Hey Keely,

I just finished "The Death of Grass" by John Christopher (also released as "No Blade of Grass" in the US), and thought of you and of this review specifically, since we agree exactly on the shortcomings of "The Road." I just commented on someone else's review of "The Death of Grass" that it is exactly what "The Road" fails to be. At 194 pages it is a quick read that I thought you might want to have a look at if you haven't already.

J.G. Keely Thanks for the suggestion, I'll keep an eye out.

message 147: by Cheryl (new) - rated it 1 star

Cheryl "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. "

This is the best thing I've ever read.

message 148: by Prabs (new)

Prabs I am going to avoid this book. Nice review!

J.G. Keely Thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

message 150: by Duffy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Duffy Pratt You are way too hard on grocery lists, at least if they are done right:

From Book 5 of Paterson, by William Carlos Williams, about a stanza in his poem Two Pendants - For the Ears. The dialogue is from an interview with Mike Wallace:

"Q. …here’s part of a poem you yourself have written: … “2 partridges / 2 mallard ducks / a Dungeness crab / 24 hours out / of the Pacific / and 2 live-frozen trout / from Denmark … ” Now, that sounds like a fashionable grocery list!

A. It is a fashionable grocery list.

Q. Well — is it poetry?

A. We poets have to talk in a language which is not English. It is the American idiom. Rhythmically it’s organized as a sample of the American idiom. It has as much originality as jazz. If you say, “2 partridges, 2 mallard ducks, a Dungeness crab” — if you treat that rhythmically, ignoring the practical sense it forms a jagged pattern. It is, to my mind, poetry.

Q. But if you don’t “ignore the practical sense” … you agree that it is a fashionable grocery list.

A. Yes. Anything is good material for poetry. Anything. I’ve said it time and time again."

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