The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthyI don’t really know why this book gets such high praise in literary circles, or rather, I do know why but I don’t understand the blind acceptance of its flaws.

The Road is a post apocalyptic tale of a man and his son walking down a desolate road seeking the ocean, or maybe food, or maybe other people, or probably just death because that’s all that’s left.

The biggest flaw of the book is McCarthy’s artistic sensibilities which make the book difficult to read and overweight at only a couple hundred pages. He refuses to give the two characters names. They are The Man and the The Boy, which gets confusing when they meet other men and boys. There are also no dialogue tags. McCarthy eschews the use of such pedestrian phrases as ‘the man said’ so that the reader can tell who is talking, which becomes moot eventually as every conversation is a variation on the first one, the boy is scared, the man reassures him, the boy is still scared, the man doesn’t listen to him. McCarthy seems to also be above punctuation. When you’re Cormac McCarthy you don’t need to follow the rules.

Using detail to tell story can be a powerful tool, as anybody who has read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien can testify to. However, McCarthy falls victim to using the detail in such repetition that it becomes unplanned self parody. Each fire that must be lit, each drink of water, even the tying of shoes must be described in detailed, short sentences so that every action could be painstakingly recreated by future generations.

The Road is often used as an example of a literary author dipping his toes into science fiction. If this is the result I’m not sure it’s worth it. McCarthy is blatantly vague about the cause of the apocalyptic collapse, or even of how long it’s been (about as long as the boy is old, which is never stated). Instead of a story about how humanity deals with disaster or the survival of the human race in the face of devastating adversity, or even a metaphorical exploration of the condition of human refugees (which the story is trying hard to be) it comes across as a dry and humorlessly depressing treatise on the hopelessness of life caused by sheer over attention to detail.

Now spoilers, for those who care.

The boy in the book exhausts every conversation, page after page, too scared to explore abandoned houses in case people are there, asking his father not to go looking for food because it’s too dangerous. Then, when his father dies and a crazy wild man hops out of the woods to save him and adopt him he shrugs his shoulders and goes along, suddenly over his fear of strangers now that the man is dead. It felt like an unfair change of character in order to offer a sliver of hope at the end of a story of hopelessness. Which, if the hopelessness that the book spent so much time packing into the open wounds of despair was the point, then it is undermined by this ending. If the point was that you just need to trust people then the lesson falls flat as every other person up to that point in the story has tried to betray or kill them for personal gain.

I can’t really recommend this book if you’re looking for something entertaining or something to teach you about humans or raise questions about human nature. If you like McCarthy’s over indulged ‘artistic’ style then you’ll probably like this one as well.

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