Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Road -- Dewey's review

Cross-posted at my blog.

This is my first book for this challenge, and I feel awkward giving an at least partially negative review to such a widely-loved (and critically acclaimed) book my first time posting. Don't hold it against me, please! :)

If I were Cormac McCarthy's editor, here is what I would have said to him: I realize that your stylistic choices in this book are meant to reflect a world so barren that it doesn't have the luxury of such frills as apostrophes, commas and complete sentences. But your post-apocalyptic setting is stark enough, your characters are traumatized enough, your spare prose is Hemingwayesque enough that you don't need to resort to twee gimmicks to get your point across. Stop that.

Well. I feel better now! On to the review.

It took me a long time to warm up to The Road. I could not become immersed in the story because I was too busy working out why some contractions deserve the dignity of apostrophes and some don't. I mean dont. Because it's only the negatives who are forced to walk around naked without their punctuation. Even my favorite sentence of the book, a thought the man has while watching his sleeping son, was ruined for me by McCarthy's aversion to commas: If he is not the word of God God never spoke. God God sounds like something God's mom called him when he was a toddler. When I'm being moved by a father's love for his son and a pretty metaphor, I don't want to be distracted by the idea of God as a toddler with a mom, you know?

If you stripped this novel of all the tedious ash ash ash, walk walk walk, forage forage forage, rain rain rain details, it would be a good short story.

But I did say I eventually warmed up to the book. At about the middle of the novel, the man and the boy find a hatch in the ground, fully equipped and left behind by someone with forethought, but without the luck to have survived long enough to use it. After the man had rested and eaten well, suddenly he thought in paragraphs! He had complex ideas! Now this was some damn good writing, but I stopped and had a WTF? moment while I tried to figure out why the style had changed so drastically.

And then I got it. The man and the boy, on the road, are far too exhausted and hungry to say more than "Okay" and "I don't know." Their thoughts are simple despite their obvious intelligence because their more basic needs are unmet. Their world is nothing but ash ash ash, walk walk walk, forage forage forage, rain rain rain. When their basic needs for cleanliness and sleep and food are met, they become more than just nomadic animals with minimal communication skills. Brilliant! I decided I loved this particular technique.


Is it cold?
Yes, it's freezing.
Do you want to go in?
I don't know.
Sure you do.
Is it okay?
Come on.

He turned and looked at the boy. Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he. He tried to remember the dream but he could not. All that was left was the feeling of it. He thought perhaps they'd come to warm him. Of what? That he could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own. Even now some part of him wished they'd never found this refuge. Some part of him always wished it to be over.

Still spare, still treating commas like McCarthy is a black coffee fan and commas are the whipped cream on some frou-frou Starbucks beverage -- and what more can you expect from a writer who calls semi-colons "idiocy?" But the man is desperate, even suicidal, so I can accept spareness. At least it no longer reads like first grade primer.

Through the entire first half of the novel, the starkness was distracting and irritating, and I found myself reading just to finish the book. After the respite in the underground shelter, when the point of the style clicked for me, I was more ready to accept devices like the tediously simplistic dialogue, though I still felt irritated by the crazy punctuation.

In spite of all this distraction from the actual story, I found myself frequently thinking about the characters when I was away from the book. I absolutely love the relationship between the father and the son. I love the son's intrinsic ethics, which the father doesn't want to squelch, and in another time wouldn't have to, but which he fears are dangerous on the road. And I love that McCarthy got so many of the emotions of parenting just right.

There were three big questions hanging over my head throughout the book.

1. How old is this boy?
2. What the hell happened to the world to make it this way?
3. How did these two survive when most people are dead?

These questions went without any definitive answers, but I found myself absorbed in watching for clues of the boy's age. I settled on seven. He can read in spite of a life without books, but he's still very vulnerably young. I have no idea why I fixated on figuring out the boy's age. He was my favorite character (not that there was much competition) and I think I was given so little information about him that I needed to ferret out more to make him feel more real.

There were more clues to the answer to my second question. The setting seemed to be the southeastern U.S. suffering from the effects of nuclear winter. They couldn't see the sun, it was cold, and there was ash everywhere. So I'm assuming there was a nuclear war, though it could have been some enormous natural disaster, maybe caused by global warming.

Not answering the third question seemed to me a flaw in the narrative. I really want to know what allowed them to survive. Had they found safe shelter? Were they just lucky? It seems essential, because if they survived due to their own cunning, that allows the reader to accept that they could keep surviving on the road.

Before even starting the book, I ran into a spoiler that revealed to me just how it ends. Knowing that ahead of time, combined with the unwavering hopelessness throughout the novel, prepared me for the unbearably sad ending. In fact, the book was so depressing in general that I found myself despairing over the pointlessness of life. Fortunately, I prescribed myself some chocolate chocolate chip Haagen-Dasz and an episode of Family Guy, and I was cured and ready to face life again.

I want to avoid spoilers, but I have to say that in I was even more disappointed by the deus ex machina ending after the sad part than I was by the stylistic oddness. I haven't seen anyone else mention this, either in blog reviews or print reviews, and I'm not sure if that's in an attempt to avoid spoilers or if people just didn't mind it.

is an amusing account of Oprah's interview with McCarthy.


Joy said...

Thanks for sharing the Oprah interview. I loved that. :)

sally906 said...

I loved your review - it was very well thought out and articulate. You brought out some facts that never occurred to me - the most significant being the difference in grammar before being well fed and after. I feel almost ashamed for not picking up on that.

I never hold anything against anyone when it comes to books - we are all too different and too much of an individual to agree about everything willy nilly. You have given a wonderful argument and I am in complete awe of your talent :)

Dewey said...

I agree, Sally! Even if it's one of my favorites ever and someone completely trashes it, I don't take it personally. But I've seen people who do, so I'm wary!

Dewey said...

Well, I was right! Someone who clicked through to my blog from this one left a comment calling me a pedant for only liking this book instead of loving it.

Which is interesting, because I'm reading the chapter in So Many Books, So Little Time called "Eating Crow" in which she talks about the heartbreak of loving a book a friend hates or hating a book a friend likes. And I don't get that at all. I have friends who love celery and hate dark chocolate, and that's somehow not a threat to our friendship.

But I understand even less the choice to let oneself become offended when complete strangers have a different opinion about books (or movies or TV shows or how to make orange juice, a debate I recently saw become ugly on one blog).

Pour of Tor said...

I thought your review was great, Dewey - far too witty to ever be pedantic.

On the question of the ending (SPOILERS AHEAD) - I have an increasingly firm conviction (discussed in the comments elsewhere on this blog) that the novel is in fact the father's tale, told to help the boy come to terms with the reality of their struggle and the possibility of his death... a happy ending of the sort that (if I remember correctly) the father tends to in his stories and the boy shies away from. This very loose theory is based on oddities of narrative voice in the novel, which we have discussed elsewhere as well. But I think that it might account for the "deus ex machina" quality of the ending, which I also found quite unsettling - it feels like a forced act of fiction-making because it IS a forced act of fiction-making (on the father's part).

Wendy said...

First of all - great review here, Dew! I love when people can have some disagreement on certain aspects of a book - for me, it improves my understanding and appreciation of the story. To think someone would get nasty about someone else's book review is just...well, silly! It never ceases to amaze me the petty things people will write in comments on blogs.

Ariel, that is an interesting take on the ending! I intend to re-read this book at some point and I've been making notes of the ideas set forth so I can pay closer attention. But, you are right that it would explain some of the changes in 'voice' in the novel.

For such a simple little story, there is a lot of depth and complexity woven throughout.

Dewey said...

That makes sense, Ariel. It is just the kind of ending the father gives his stories.

This does feel like a book that you need to read more than once, doesn't it? I know that I want to read more of McCarthy and then come back to this another time. Wendy, you call it a simple story with a lot of depth woven in, and it reminds me a bit of The Stranger in that respect.