Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Ariel/Pour of Tor's review of "The Road"

[The following review may contain some spoilers, the most extreme of which (dealing with the book's ending, will be marked. But there is this to be said: it is not really a book one reads for the plot.]

Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was? (27)

An apocalyptic world, shrouded in an ashy haze that blocks out the sun, populated by cannibalistic cults and terrified stragglers. A man and his young son (unnamed, everymannish, distanced by third person narration) follow the road, the remnant of a civilization that disappeared within the last few years, towards an unknown hope. It seems they might be seeking others like them, for whom there are still basic laws of morality (you shall not steal from the living, you shall not eat human flesh), but every encounter with another human being sends them spiralling into violence and terror. They scavenge for food, struggle to stay warm, try to keep moving, and the father is coughing up blood.
Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it. (110)

This is not, I must warn you, a jolly book. It is a book about survival, and the remnants of morality in an apocalyptic landscape. It is an exploration of how one negotiates love amidst hopelessness. McCarthy's prose is plain and action-oriented - the majority of the novel is taken up by flinty, curt descriptions of the basic actions of life: searching the surroundings for danger, acquiring food and water, protecting yourself and your family from cold and detection, trying to read the landscape for any indication of where you are or what to do next. From time to time, a surreal (and often dream-based) passage will burst forth, but to be honest, these sections are not as beautifully written or as gripping as the intense focus of the plainer prose.

But even more striking is the almost choric use of dialogue: father and son say little to one another, but they retread the same conversational ground repeatedly, in exchanges which point to the uncomfortable impossibility of ever really knowing someone else's interior life. What are you thinking? -the father repeatedly nudges - Aren't you going to talk to me? And from the son: Are we going to die? [No.] Are you lying to me? [No.] Would you lie to me about this? [Maybe.] Which is kinder, the novel asks us, a lie which comforts in the moment, or a harsh truth that prepares you for the future? The son, who stands in for an absolute, naive, and implacable moral idealism against his father's pragmatism, would have the truth. When they encounter others on the road (a man who has been hit by lightning, a little boy among the ruins of a city, or - most horrifyingly - a cellar-full of people caught by the cultish cannibals), the son is the voice of empathy (against the survivalist demands of self-interest), the morality that asserts the absolute necessity of acts of kindness and altruism for the survival of humanity. And it is this voice which is always disappointed, always crushed, but always willing to remind the father of the compromises he has made in his soul to gain the questionable gift of survival.

The plainness of McCarthy's plot and language make this into a modern allegory, in which the Road comes to play the same fraught and contradictory symbolic role (it is destiny, leading on to a hopeful future, rewarding their devotion with the promise of enlightenment, but it is also fatalism and entrapment) as it has in stories going back to the work of Chaucer, Bunyan and Spenser.
I think we're about two hundred miles from the coast. As the crow flies.
As the crow flies?
Yes. It means going in a straight line.
Are we going to get there soon?
Not real soon. Pretty soon. We're not going as the crow flies.
Because crows don't have to follow roads?
They can go wherever they want.
Yes. (132)

His prose is plain, but shows the almost baroque love of unusual and archaic language amidst this plainness that I have always heard associated with him (this is my first finished McCarthy novel). At a certain point in the novel, it was teaching me an average of one new word per 8 pages: discalced (unshod!), fire-drake, lave, mastic, rachitic, siwash, skift, claggy, quoits. The boy picks up clichés out of nowhere, it seems, magically resurrecting conventions of language that died in the cataclysms of his pre-speaking life. From time to time, a turn of speech will seep through from our time, revealing the possibility that this is an allegory for our politically embattled world:
[Speaking about the possibility of meeting other fugitives]:
And they could be carrying the fire too?
They could be. Yes.
But we don’t know.
We don’t know.
So we have to be vigilant.
We have to be vigilant. Yes. (182-3)

You can see here the trace of an aspect of the novel that made me slightly uncomfortable: the religious overtones that drive their survival. Why keep going in a world of suffering? To “carry the fire.” (At one point – p.143 - they encounter a sort of a holy man named “Eli” on the road, devoid of all sympathies and beliefs, pure in his faithlessness. He tells them “There is no God and we are his prophets.” Which seems to me to be an apt summary of the book.) Is this religious striving simply a self-deluding justification for the callous acts that guarantee each day of continued life? Or is the father’s belief that his son has this flame, and must survive to carry it on, more than just an evolutionary imperative, a reflection of the boy’s supernally keen empathetic abilities?

The stripped down quality of the language yields a sort of interpersonal blurring: long patches of dialogue yield no character attributions (i.e. “the boy said”) to guide us, and because virtually all the characters are male, pronouns frequently seem self-reflexive when they are not. How much distinction is there between the man’s sense of self(-preservation) and his sense of his son?

At its best, this stripped-down, hard-as-rocks language, focusing on the most basic actions, gestures of survival, yields a cynical philosophical symbolism that recalls Beckett:
What if I said that he’s [the boy] a god?
The old man [Eli] shook his head. I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true. Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
They will?
Sure they will.
Better for who?
Everybody. (146)

These moments are my favorite ones, the ones I have most often quoted throughout this review; instants of perfect mundanity, and perfect poetry.

“The Road” (USA 2006)
Cormac McCarthy


And now, a few questions for those who have also read “The Road.” In other words, glaring SPOlLER ALERT from this point until the end.

1) On p.74, there is a sudden shift in narrative voice – while the rest of the novel is in the third person, a single paragraph at the top of the page is in the first person, in the father’s voice. What is odd is that this passage deals with memory and seems to “correct” the central narration: “He doesn’t remember any little boys.” What is going on here? Does this happen at other points in the novel, points that I just missed?

2) What did you make of the ending? I must admit that I found it slightly disappointing (all but the last paragraph, about brook trout, which was so spontaneous and unaccountable that I found it oddly thrilling), rather too steeped in the scantily fleshed out religious component of the novel, and rather too pat (as if it were just the playing out of the man or the boy’s fantasy of a happy ending). Also, if the road has a larger allegorical (or spiritual, or historical) significance, what does it mean that someone has been following them, and that the boy turns back and retraces their steps. What does it mean that when his father dies, he does not keep going? What does it mean that he identifies his father (who was loving to him, but uncomfortably harsh with others) with God?

The original version of this post, including a number of links, can be found on my blog.


Wendy said...

Fabulous review! I didn't read the questions because I haven't read the book yet (I'll save those until I've finished my own read). This is definitely a book I want to read, just don't know when yet!

Ms. Jaroch said...

*Only read this if you've finished the book.*I couldn't put this book down. It was like poetry and suspense put together. After finishing, I stepped outside of my apartment to walk to the grocery store and felt as if the most mundane things were suddenly steeped in eerieness and that everything was transitory.. This is not a normal reaction for me after reading a book, I must say. But I've always loved Cormac McCarthy, loved his bare, stark prose that says so much by saying so little. I don't know what to make of the ending, except that I love that the little boy's version of living gets a glimpse of hope and validation--they were being followed, but it was "the good guys." I, too, learned many new words. The hardest part for me was when they found that bomb shelter, packed with all the supplies they could imagine... like a dream come true. The father knew they couldn't stay there--too dangerous--but I felt desperately sad that they couldn't just stay. McCarthy gives us haunting hints about the "rosy glow" outside the window, at the beginning of the bombing, when his wife is pregnant with their son; when he thinks of the fire that melts the blacktop and burns people in their cars. I wanted so much more information on what came before, but again, it was probably much more effective as a narrative because of the parts left out.

kookiejar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kookiejar said...

ms. jaroch--I, too, wanted desperately for them to stay in that bomb shelter.

Ariel--I do not recall the perspective shift that you referred to, so I couldn't tell you if it is significant or not. My feeling is not.

If 'The Road' is a religious allegory then you must take it to its extreme conclusion. Perhaps the boy represents people who need religion and his father, those who do not.

When the catastophy happened mankind was left on its own and God appeared dead to many of them (I can only think of the biblical 'Oh God, why hast thou forsaken me?') and when the man died the boy was left on his own.

If the people who followed them to the beach were indeed good people, there is hope for mankind in the end. The boy, went with these people hoping they were going to care for him, despite everything he had seen on the road.

He needed the direction and leadership that these strangers seemed to offer in the absence of the guidance from his father. (Like so many people need from their god.)

I think the father felt forsaken by God and man both, and never would have trusted these people. He was the one who wanted to leave Eli behind without speaking to him at all. He was determined to do the best he could for what was left of his family with no help for anyone, God or otherwise.

I don't know if I'm making myself clear or not, but those are my initial thoughts to your questions.

However, I felt that the people who took the boy probably were not good people and will most likely end up eating him.

Pour of Tor said...

wendy - I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book when you get a chance to read it. I know the time crunch is intense - three challenge books were just recalled from me by the library ("The Road," "All Aunt Hagar's Children," and "Twilight of the Superheroes"), leading to a mad dash to finish what I can before the 26th!

Pour of Tor said...

ms. jaroch -
I agree with you entirely about the bomb shelter, and think that there was an even deeper layer of sadness there (as in so many encounters they have with relics of civilization throughout the book) - the people who had prepared so meticulously for disaster didn't even survive to make use of their own shelter.

Pour of Tor said...


kookiejar - Intriguing ideas!

Is it possible for a single paragraph to be written in the first person when the rest of the novel is written in the third without there being some significance (especially when it gives a different version of events from the normal narrator)? I am hoping not, because that would be pretty sloppy writing. Also what does this shift to first person say about the position of the father vis-a-vis the narrative/text of the novel, since he is in fact dead when it is told? Is he correcting the story from the vast beyond?

Also, I am very interested to hear that you found the ending sinister, with the people who take him in being cannibals. This certainly would make the ending distinctly less saccharine than I found it, so I would be very relieved to hear more details about what prompted your (in my opinion, more satisfyingly cynical) reading.

Ms. Jaroch said...

I think McCarthy provides enough clues about the man at the end to allow us to safely assume he is one of the "good guys." I don't have the book in front of me, but I didn't get a whisper of doubt that the boy would be okay with them.. but for who knows how long? I can't recall the perspective shift either--where does it occur? I'd like to find it.

kookiejar said...

Ariel, perhaps you are right about the shift in perspective being significant (especially with the narrator of said paragraph being dead, which I hadn't stopped to consider), I just can't think of how. Why would McCarthy do such a thing? I'm stumped.

I'm a cynical person by nature, and it occured to me that if push REALLY came to shove, the father would have resorted to cannibalism himself to feed the boy. He was just very lucky to be able to scare up some food and still had enough human decency left in him that he hadn't had to kill for food yet.

I don't think, that in that world where people are barbecuing babies and storing other people away for food, that complete strangers are going to voluntarily take up another mouth to feed. Plus the overall grim and dark tone of the book made me feel that a bright and shiny interpretation of the ending was not appropriate.

My husband (the eternal optimist) felt, as you did, that the people would be the boy's salvation, but then I had to ask...where do you think they are they going? Why would they have food and safe haven when nobody else did? What would make you think that the boy's life with the strangers will be any better than it was with his father? Either way, I think that kid was doomed.

Pour of Tor said...

I think it is really a testament to how powerful this book is that, although it is very simply presented in one sense, it raises so many intriguing questions that I too am stumped to answer (but very glad to ponder!).

The perspective shift occurs on page 74 of the American hardcover edition I have, Ms. Jaroch. I would love to hear what you think - I too am a little baffled about what its implications might be. It occurs just after they have seen a little boy and a dog in an abandoned city, and the paragraph begins, "The dog that he remembers followed us for two days. I tried to coax it to come but it would not..."

This reminds me of something -


I assumed that the man who followed them and takes the son back at the end of the novel was the father of the little boy who the son saw in the ruins [Is this the impression that others got?] - the little boy who obsesses him right down to the end of his father's life (p. 236 - "Do you remember that little boy, Papa?"), but who his father never saw and didn't really believe existed. In fact, in the strange paragraph of first person narration, the father says of his son (weirdly): "He doesn't remember any little boys." This is rather baffling, and leads me to believe that the end of the novel (or perhaps the whole novel), encompassing the father's death and son's "rescue" is in fact one of the improbably happy stories that the father manufactures (and which the boy resists, preferring stories which stay true to life, in all its grimness). This would account for the very different feel that the end of the novel has, a sort of fairy-talish feel, by comparison to the grittiness of the rest of the novel.

There is certainly no strong or blatant indication that this is so, but the incredible ambiguity surrounding the appearance of the boy in the ruins, the way the son talks of him (as if the boy in the ruins were his more unfortunate double), and the incongruously happy ending in a world marked by relentless cruelty* all make it seem like a more symbolic fable world than the "real world" of apocalyptic harshness that overwhelms other parts of the novel.

But this is just a developing idea. I am not quite sure what to make of it yet.

*kookiejar - the only thing which keeps me from wholeheartedly agreeing with your darker reading of the end is that the man allows the boy to keep the loaded pistol when the boy offers it to him, a gesture of trust that would surely stand in the way of overpowering him.

kookiejar said...

I agree with you Ariel that the fact that a book written in such simple prose can lend itself to several wildly different interpretations is a real testimony to the strength of McCarthy's writing.

I tend to think that the 'boy in the ruins' was a figment of the boy-in-the-story's imagination. He saw what happened to other children and probably didn't want to think he was the only child left--maybe inventing a friend for himself, the way children do. The father was very vigilant about strangers and I think he would have noticed another child wandering around.

I think the man on the beach let the boy keep the gun merely to gain his trust. Knowing the boy would be suspicious of strangers, but also suspecting the boy wouldn't want to be alone the man on the beach did what he had to do and said what he had to say to lure the boy into coming with them. How many of us, in times of crisis haven't desperately wanted to believe the pretty lies that someone tells us? The boy has to fall asleep sometime, doesn't he? It wouldn't take much to overpower an outnumbered little boy worn out from hunger and fatigue.

Ms. Jaroch said...

Kookiejar, I still think it would be incongruous for an author (esp. one like McCarthy) to follow this plot point:
The father can't bring himself to kill the son as he is dying, as he'd promised himself he would do, when the time comes...
..with this assumed future plot event...
the boy is killed and eaten by "the bad guys."

Neither do I think that the boy's life is now going to be easy street. Like I mentioned before, I think that he still has "the road" ahead of him, and who knows what it holds? Certainly death, eventually. Let's not forget that the boy's mother killed herself, but the father couldn't ever bring himself to that end. In this bleak landscape, that's about as embracing of life as you are going to get. Churchill: "If you're going through hell, keep going." I don't think the end of the novel would stray from that pretty consistent message.
Ariel, thank you for the page #. I'm going to reread the perspective shift. And thanks for this blog! I've been eager to discuss this book!

kookiejar said...

ms. jaroch, I see where you are coming from, but it seems strange to me that at the end of so much horror and bleakness there should be a happy ending. (Well, as happy as can be for this story). Perhaps I just read too much Stephen King.

My husband is convinced the people on the beach are good because they didn't eat the boy right there and then, and they didn't strip the meat off the father's carcass. Perhaps you are all right and I am wrong (it wouldn't be the first time), but I'd be dissatisfied with a 'happy' ending here. I just didn't trust the man on the beach and I didn't want the boy to go with him (like he had a choice).

3M said...

I thought that the people at the end were the "good people". But to me, it still wasn't a "happy" ending. They would still face hunger and untold dangers.

The ending, though not "happy", was one of hope. Without hope, what reason do we have to go on living? That was why the boy's mother committed suicide. She had no hope. The father did, or at least enough to be unable to kill his son or himself. If he didn't have hope, I believe the story would have ended with that very scenario.

I believe the father did believe in God. He demonstrated this when he said that God gave him the job to take care of the boy.

As I said in my update, I listened to this on CD. While it was a good reading, I felt I must "really read" it to get the full impact of the book.

3M said...

I have a theory about the paragraph on p. 74!!!! I just got the book in the mail. Could it be the mother talking?! I think it's the father remembering a conversation with the mother. The gun still has 3 shells, and the speaker sounds pessimistic--like she was.