Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This is surely one of the bleakest books I have ever read. It has two main characters - the father and his son. The mother comes in only as a memory. Other people appear only transiently but rarely last long enough to develop into characters. The only exception being an old man. The overall effect is that of an experimental play. There are just two players and all the rest is a derived from the interaction between players and audience. It is terse and astonishingly mesmeric.

It's the sort of writing that makes you slightly breathless at the beauty of it. That may sound a bit of an exaggeration but for me it is literally true. Somehow Cormac McCarthy manages to use exactly the right word - and it is so right, so perfect, that it feels like something to be treasured.

The book is set after some global catastrophe - exactly what that was is not made clear. There is an impression of heat, of burning, and the idea that the structure of civilisation is gone. Nothing useful has survived except inanimate things - cans of food, bottles and jars of oils. Everything is dessicated. The ocean is still there but it seems to flow thickly and even that is grey and lifeless. Contrary to the predictions I've heard - in this world it is not the rats or insects that survive but the sly conniving humans - because only they are clever enough to search out supplies and open tins.

I kept wondering what the book was about. Maybe it is simply, like the Lord of the Flies, an exploration of humanity and what can happen to us all when everything is taken from us. Civilisation, is after all, a veneer easily rubbed away or shed. Without it society breaks down and dreadful things happen. We regress. Of course we regress - there is plenty of evidence for this even in today's world of plenty.

But I think there is more to the book than just a description of doomsday. The boy, for instance, seems to act as a conscience to the father. He tags along questioning everything in such short sentences that after a couple of hundred pages (and there aren't much more than this) I began to wish for something longer. After a while I began to think that the book is too terse, too bleak. There is no let up, no opportunity to relax. I began to want the hint of something green - perhaps a blade of grass through all the greyness and ash.

The boy is scared - this is something he says again and again - so repetitively that I began to feel some of the man's impatience but perhaps this is the point. The relentless terseness and repetition drives home the points like a hammer on a recalcitrant nail. Do we have to do this? And if we are the good guys who are the bad guys - and how do we know? Is it enough just to declare yourself good? Gradually, through sulks and questions, the boy brings his father in line. In order to be one of the good guys you have to earn your place. You have to be unselfish. You have to make ridiculous sacrifices.
'Is it okay for us to take it?
Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like we would want them to.
They were the good guys?
Yes. They were.
Like us.
Like us. Yes.
So it's okay.
Yes. It's okay.'
The end is sad, affecting and inevitable. It is a book that through its repetition and gloom changed me and made me think. There could be no blade of grass, or, if there is, it is something that belongs to the future and must remain just a hope. It is a great book, something that grew in my mind after I'd finished it. Like a minimalist play it seemed to me to depend on an interaction between audience and player; it is only somewhere between the two that something can begin to grow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

good review, glad you like Cormac. i do feel that however bleak he is, when he grants the occasional consolation or bright touch, it really means something, you know it's not just an incidental aside, but has meaning - just as the dark has meaning, or at least has undeniable force & effect. Just to have the father care for his son is something, in such a world.

Sun Jul 29, 07:08:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elberry: This is the first Cormac I've read but I'm hooked now - really the sort of writer I love. And yes - I agree - in such bleakness each light touch will glow even brighter. I suppose that must be part of the point. I hadn't thought of that.

Sun Jul 29, 07:27:00 pm  
Blogger Anne S said...

Great review Clare. Glad you found the book as affecting as I did. I would recommend reading The Mouse & his Child as a complete contrast. There is however something akin to The Road in the Hoban book.

Mon Jul 30, 12:18:00 am  
Blogger Andrew said...

On similar lines, have you read the extraordinary "Riddley Walker", by Russell Hoban, Clare? For me, the great book of the last 40 or so years.

Mon Jul 30, 06:15:00 pm  
Blogger Andrew said...

Only just see that Anne S has recommended a separate R Hoban book. Strange coincidence.

Mon Jul 30, 06:16:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks very much Anne. I just ordered The Mouse and His Child - after it had been on my wishlist for ages. No idea when I'm going to read it but I'm dying to...

Andrew: didn't we 'meet' over Riddley Walker - the competition using phonetic spelling? Maybe you're a different Andrew...or maybe it wasn't Andrew at all. Brain is going to mush these days.

Mon Jul 30, 07:02:00 pm  
Blogger Andrew said...

I think it was a different Andrew, Clare. Though maybe it was me....however shot your memory may be, I guarantee mine is the more befuddled. I don't spend inordinate amounts of time trying to find things; I spend inordinate amounts of time tryng to remember what it is I'm looking for.

Mon Jul 30, 08:45:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, me too, Andrew. I read a report in the newspaper that the average person forgets things four times a week. A week! Surely they mean an hour...

Mon Jul 30, 08:56:00 pm  

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