The atomic post-apocalypse, as a warning or as a story unto itself, originated roughly in September, 1945 and has been flogged so mercilessly since that time, it's become a field of cliché so barren of fruit that authors tread there at their peril. So here's Cormac McCarthy stumbling from general acclaim into the genre ghetto to explore those time-hardened paths. I admit to a certain skepticism about his effort, and his opening page, a gimmicky affair of stripped-down prose style, deficient of quotation marks and apostrophes but rich in fragmented sentences and filthy with verbed and adjectived nouns, supported my prejudice.* It took a couple of paragraphs to break down my cynical defenses, but by the time I got to "read me a story Papa," I couldn't pull away. This may be the best story of its kind that I've read.
McCarthy introduces us to an unnamed pair of protagonists, a man and his son, who are struggling to survive in a world gone empty. Their existence consists of struggling to find the last scraps of food on a murdered earth, as they make their way south, in the blind hope that maybe, somewhere, something isn't dead. The language, as I've noted, is spare. The conversations are minimal. There is background only as needed--the characters know no more about the fall of society than we do, and there's no one to really ask. The man and the son have each other and no more. The love there is so fierce in the face of cataclysm, and communicated in so few words ("read me a story") that reading about it feels like being struck. To the characters, this reason to live is no blessing.
The world that McCarthy presents is so depleted of life that it is hard for the reader to accept, but it's drilled in so remorselessly and constantly that it will get into your brain. There is nothing alive on that earth, no green, no color, no sun, no insects, no birds. It's filled with forests of dead, black trees and gray grass, drifting ash muddied with sterile rain, and unrotted human corpses. All that survives is the tiny handful of people who have been resourceful enough to sift through the sparse dregs at the very bottom. (Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was left wondering if the earth was so thoroughly poisoned to kill even the bugs, how it was that a rag-tag bunch of men were still breathing. So did the characters, no doubt.) Of those few that remain, most are beyond desperation. In a landscape where death is meaningless, McCarthy still finds some punch in human-scale terrors, showing tragedy as the father and his child would see it: in a furtive breathless glimpse, or with a horrified adult regret. Quickly, he pulls away from these scenes, as though he wants to show them as little as his characters want to see them, and races always back to the fragile pillar of love he's established between the man and the boy. The technique leaves a mark that is that much more indelible in its dreadfulness.
The two hold on, as they can, to the fire of human dignity. A book like this is almost purely character and setting, but still, there's a theme, an extra level of meaning, that emerges thin as hope, that turns this from a good book to maybe a great one. (If you're worried about spoilers, now would be the time to stop reading...) The man sickens over the course of their journey, both physically and morally. He's forced to make hard compromises to protect his family, and they are not always easy or pretty. The boy is more able to afford a sort of idealism--he'd help the more innocent people they encounter--and this, in contrast to his father, grows from naivete to something approaching holiness. It's a subtle transition--everything in this story is subtle relative to the obvious and gripping expressions of death and love--of the rewarded diligence sort.
McCarthy is also interested in the redeeming power of words. One of the smaller horrors amid the great ones is the death of language, and the man makes the boy speak and write during their few respites from starvation and flight. Late in the novel, sensing his own impermanence, the man finds he has no more capacity for stories, and tells the boy it's time to make his own, which he does to his father's satisfaction. Holding the flame indeed, and passing it here. The book also plays at least one other narrative trick, and it's a damn subtle light to be seen amid the ashes of the world. There is one paragraph in the middle of the story--right in the scene where the boy acquires his own conscience--in the first person, recollecting the boy's experiences. Surely, surely this ties into the ending.
Next up will be something uplifting, believe me.
* I actually think the opening riff was a mistake, though a minor one. It's a dream that's confusing in the context of the rest of the book.
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Title: The Road
Genre: fiction, science fiction
Wednesday, November 22, 2006