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October 8, 2007 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | October 8, 2007 |

It is difficult to write something about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that hasn’t already been said before. Every word that springs to mind (breathtaking, masterful, genius) seems trite and overused in comparison to this work. Quite simply, this is a book that should not be left unread.

I’ll be up front and admit that I have something of a girl boner for Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian changed the way I look at writing, and, while I haven’t read everything he’s written, I’m pretty sure he can do no wrong.

If you haven’t yet heard about The Road (which would be quite a feat, with all the press it has received since its publication), I’ll briefly recap the plot: an unnamed father and son travel south after some tragedy (never fully explained, but most likely nuclear in origin) has destroyed America, maybe even the entire world. There are, of course, survivors, and that is where the real fear comes in: as with most apocalyptic literature, the reader quickly feels that the lucky ones died in the attack.

This brings me to one of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard levied at The Road: that the apocalyptic novel has been done before. Well, of course it has. So has the “two people meet and fall in love” novel, the “individual fights the constraints of society” novel, the “individual encounters a world where nothing is as it seems” novel. There are no new stories under the sun; the newness comes in the telling.

And it’s in the telling that McCarthy truly shines, although this is, perhaps not surprisingly, the second aspect for which many people criticize him. McCarthy’s writing is like Guinness, like tripe, like one of my drunken favorites: potato chip sandwiches. (Whatever, don’t knock it unless you’ve tried it.) In other words, he’s an acquired taste. Upon first encountering him, I needed some time to warm up to his style, but once I did, I found his prose to be both stark and poetic, both empty and full at the same time. Those wishing to improve their own writing would do well to study how McCarthy constructs his sentences — although I warn you that, after awhile, his prose slowly begins to hypnotize. For anyone unfamiliar with the poetry of his prose, I offer you the opening of The Road:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.

The opening immediately establishes the main focus of the novel: it is not the apocalypse that is central to the novel, but the relationship between father and son. McCarthy uses this strongest of relationships to ponder some important questions about humanity. In a world that kills the weak, how can a man continue to love another person, especially his son, when it is that very love that makes him vulnerable to destruction? When all is lost, why continue to struggle for survival? Why struggle to be human, when giving over to the animal within is not only easier, but will most likely ensure survival? In this way, McCarthy echoes Camus, who argues that, in the face of certain death, it is our very humanity that must compel us to struggle for a higher good.

This message is reinforced by the ending. I won’t give it away, although I’ve read other reviews that have; instead, I’ll simply say that McCarthy ends on a positive note. While this scintilla of hope might seem out of place in the larger context of a work that seems entirely bleak and hopeless, the reverse is actually true. The fact that the novel ends positively is essential to McCarthy’s message, which is all too relevant today: there will always be love, always something to fight for, even when there is nothing left at all.

Bibliolatrist possesses extraordinary powers that enable her to read tall books in a single bound. As Jennifer McKeown, she spends her days as a mild-mannered English teacher living outside Philadelphia. She blogs over at Bibliolatry.

Simultaneously Empty and Full

The Road by Cormac McCarthy / Jennifer McKeown

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