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The Road: Literary Kryptonite (spoilers enclosed)

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message 1: by Ann (last edited May 22, 2009 05:47AM) (new)

Ann (akingman) | 2097 comments Mod
Today's post at Books on the Nightstand ( is a guest-post from reader and GoodReads member Taueret (real name: Hope).

In that post, Hope talks about the concept of 'literary kryptonite' -- books that you find so disturbing that they change your worldview.

Hope's original post included a footnote that explained her strong reaction to The Road. Because it includes poilers, I removed the footnote from the blog post and decided to post it here, so that others can respond and discuss without spoiling it for those who have not read the book.

Here's Hope's footnote:

"In the past, my annihilation fantasies always had an element of romance to them. Governments would fail, the world would be plunged into nuclear winter... but even if the Earth shrugged us off, life would go on. Maybe without humans, probably without our society, but on. Billions of humans on Earth- somewhere a few would survive, society would re-evolve and gradually we would repopulate the planet.

 'The Road' recalibrated a lifetime of what I thought was pessimism. NOW I am pessimistic. Before I was just deluded. Removing the Earth from the equation changes everything (in The Road, as far as the protagonists and readers know, the planet is completely dead, including, terrifyingly, the ocean). Government evaporates, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Slavery and cannibalism are the lines with which the author savagely sketches a picture of perfect despair, a hell realm, darkness visible. There is no redemption in this tale, no triumph of the human spirit, not even nature is allowed a deus ex machina (ashamed to admit that I peeked ahead and read the book's closing lines at some point, hoping for a hint of relief, and thought I saw it in the Ted Hughes-esque description of a mountain trout hovering like an angel in a clear mountain stream... little realising that this was only a memory of the world that was lost). 

"What about 'the fire'", you're saying. Okay, I concede that 'the fire', the side of human nature that is capable of saying "we don't eat our children" was kept alive in the Boy- who in spite of never knowing any world but the Road, has a loving, compassionate, impractically generous heart. The people who he encounters the morning after the Man dies are also bearers of the light. So... I suppose there is hope, and this is really the first time I've seen it. (I knew it would be therapeutic for me to write this.) If, and it's a big if- there is absolutely no foreshadowing of it in the book- the little group of fire-bearers somehow manage to survive until the earth heals and starts providing again... well there is some hope. Hope for human beings surviving as a species, but more importantly hope that the humanity of humans, 'the fire', would survive, and not just the dark, atavistic nature that is only an empty stomach away.]


What do you think?

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I think I have to read The Road!

I read Mudbound by Hillary Jordan a few weeks ago and the way she wrote of the racism that existed post WWII affected me in a way I didn't anticipate. I was mad reading about Ronsel's treatment from the moment he returned home -- Hitler may have been conquered, but similar hatred still existed in Ronsel's backyard.

message 3: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyreadsandcreates) | 116 comments I read The Road and found it completely engrossing. I couldn't really put into words how I felt about it but I can say that, as with Hope, it blew me away. It has gone onto my favourites shelf. In other groups I've been in though, it's had a mixed reaction. Some people loved it, other people not so much. I love books that can spark such a debate.

message 4: by Ann (new)

Ann (akingman) | 2097 comments Mod
The thing that I find most interesting is how I came away with a sense of hope, and the conviction that (as I've said before and you may be tired of hearing it) if every single person in the world read THE ROAD, we would likely be much closer to world peace. That realization of what could happen, as so chillingly described by Cormac McCarthy, is what I think may save us in the end.

And yet, I fully get where Hope is struggling with it.

The book is brilliant.

message 5: by Gavin (new)

Gavin (gavin9) I read "The Road" two years ago and, after reading Hope's post, realize I need to read it again. At the time I found it astonishing but could not really express why I felt that way, what it was about the book that took my breath away. I just knew it was one of the best books I had ever read. And I agree with Ann, if everyone on the planet read the book we would likely be closer to world peace.

But first, I think we'd have to turn to each other, face the devastation of our collective past, grieve and move on.

message 6: by Taueret (last edited May 22, 2009 06:10PM) (new)

Taueret | 42 comments I am reading everyone's comments with great interest! Thanks for the discussion. I am also writing and deleting a lot of lengthy comments of my own. I think for now I'll say that I totally agree that _The Road_ is a book that could save the world- which I now think is different to merely preserving the human species.

Also, as a bit of a history geek, it the Road completely stripped any romance from my imaginings of what the dark ages in history must have been like.

->edited to sub "preserving" for "saving".

message 7: by Sonya (new)

Sonya | 16 comments Thanks for sharing, Hope -- are we acknowledging the irony of your name, or is that way too obvious?

I read The Road over two nights, in a fever. It was my first Cormac McCarthy book, and I went on to read All the Pretty Horses (also in a fever), and hope to get to Blood Meridien next. The Road unclogged a reader's block I was having -- something that happens to me periodically, in fits of restlessness. So, weirdly, as ugly and frightening as it was in many ways, it was like a balm to me. I suppose on some level there is great comfort in reading something that is true, that speaks truthfully, that cuts through all the levels of nonsense and emptiness we ingest every day in our material/media-saturated culture -- no matter how dark that truth or those truths may be.

The philosopher Cornel West talks about the difference between hope and optimism. Optimism says, "Things will get better." Hope says, "Things may not get better, but I have faith anyway." His hope is a Christian one, but a rather unconventional one -- he talks about love much more than sin, for example. Love seemed to me the heart of The Road. Love equaled strength to go on, clarity, even skillfulness in surviving. Love equaled courage. Love in The Road was everything it's not in a schlocky romance novel or TV sitcom (don't get me wrong, I'm all for entertainment, as long as we understand that there is not always/often truth to be found in entertainment, except, perhaps, the truth of laughter). The father's sacrifice for the boy was basic, fundamental, almost thoughtless. I think it was the stripped-downness of that which was the balm for me. If that kind of pure love can be conceived of and expressed in fiction, then that in itself seems hopeful to me.

I'm going to be thinking now about what I consider my literary kryptonite!

message 8: by Taueret (new)

Taueret | 42 comments Yep, I have thought a lot about the Fire- it's a recurring trope for Mcarthy, as is the idea of fathers passing the light to sons (thinking of 'no country for old men' specifically but also think it's also found elsewhere?) You're right- it's what the Boy has- impractical compassion, beyond quid pro quo faux-altruism. That's probably as good a definition of love (philos) as any.

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