Imagine a world of neverending death, bleakness, destruction. This is Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a grim post-apocalyptic novel of a father and a son travelling across the burned out and destroyed land of what was once America. Doubtless you have already heard of it before: I have never seen a book with so many ratings of it on Goodreads, and it appeared on the Hundred Most Important Books list from the BBC. But I live under a very large rock: I didn’t hear about it until a coworker loaned it to me to read. Perhaps he has a love for tales of woe, given that the other book he recommended was just as brutal and miserable. If you are going by a ranking of how miserable of a world you can encounter, then surely The Road wins the title: unfortunately in my eyes little of the rest of it measures up to this picture.
It’s an atypical book: for one, we can only refer to the two characters, save for the appearances of a fleeting few other individuals, they are the only ones we know. And yet their names are never given, not even when they do talk to the smattering of other characters in the world. Is it that they are universalist, portraits of anyone, intended to be molds into which we can pour ourselves, to make it that we can draw on the mask of the characters and put ourselves into their shoes. But this very effort also makes them generic: they are nameless, and while often when one reads a book, names fade into obscurity of a feeling of the character, the names even without constant recollection are ties to them. Even at the end of the book, the two characters feel distant – distant from both ourselves and from each other.
Two themes marry together in what seems to be one of McCarthy’s crucial points: father and son and the death of god. In a world without life, mentioned time and again is in a certain sense god has died. Who is the god in the book, the provider and the shepherd? The father of the son. It’s the traditional Christian motif: the father is god, the son Jesus. It’s too emphasized to be happenstance, but it also seems such a trite and meaningless structure. What’s particularly Christlike about the son? He has a vague sense of horror at the world and rebellion against its brutality, a desire to help others – but he can’t fully explain why, can’t say why he wants to help others. He doesn’t seem like a special person: just a confused, frightened, often helpless child.
A style that seems out of place in the world he is in. The wonderful and terrible thing about children is that they adapt: we can see child soldiers in wars around the world who become just as brutal as any adult. The soft, weak, innocent, crying, helpless child: this is a product of a sheltered childhood, shielded from death and harm. The son in this book seems to have never experienced such a world: rather he is constantly on the run, hunted, forced to survive, forced to confront head on the world and its brutal evil. So why does he continue to be, frankly, so cringing and weak? He would in the circumstances he lives in become hardened and brutal too. This softness of his personality makes the relationship with his father curious: they are so very distant, their conversation a constant refrain of the father saying something and a monosyllabic statement of yes or no from the son. They don’t feel in the slightest like close
And what of the world they live in? This is both one of the strengths which the book has and one of its weaknesses. The apocalypse which led to the husk of a world which they live in is never stated: there are vague mentions of searing flashes of light, and there are clearly vast amounts of ashes which were produced, by searing fires. The world is cold and dark. Mutants seem to exist. There are vast die offs of animals. The most likely explanation seems to be nuclear war, but if so, why is there no mention of radiation?
The world which they inhabit seems timeless, to lack seasons, when by virtue of being constantly outside in the world, travelling, dealing with rain and snow, the seasons should be an intimate part of their life. And yet they never think of seasons: when they discover a survival shelter prepped with massive amounts of food, supplies, and even a chemical toilet, the seeming perfect hide away to stay in until life outside recovers somewhat back to normal, to wait for whenever summer might come, they only stay a few days and then move on. It seemed puzzling, that the idea of simply waiting out the disaster is never mentioned.
Making sense of it can only be explained by some type of nihilism, hopelessness, despair – all perfectly natural sensations which grip them in such a abominable place and time. They have to grip to a single objective, to reach the sea, although why they wish to reach the sea, how the idea was even initially conceived, is never given. But it raises the question of how they go on: the book is devoid of any hope, of any sense of triumph, of any love of beauty or marvel. Even books on the Holocaust will note little temporary triumphs which serve to keep people going: Night by Elie Wiesel has the choice of the Jews to fast upon Yom Kippur, and little moments of beauty pop up even in the worst situations. And yet there is nothing but unremitting darkness in The Road.
This darkness by extent of the constant travails, misery, the suffering, death: at a certain point it becomes repetitive, even farcical, the world separated purely into either sudden, miraculous, gifts (finding massive untouched food caches), and the horrible daily reality. There’s nothing in between. There are no days where the sun shines while their bellies are still empty, no days when they reach the top of a hill and see beauty laid out below them. Only death and horror stalk its pages, and even in the greatest evil and misery, there is always a spark of joy and light. In order to go on, humanity needs this.