There are some books which literally sweep you of your feet and leave you gasping for breath. As one grows older and the reading palate more jaded, the chance of finding such a book becomes rarer and rarer; so the actual discovery of one is all the more delightful.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is such a book.
By all means, the story ought to have been a cliché: it explores the hackneyed dystopian theme of a group of people moving across a blasted landscape. The fact that it turns out to be one of the most powerful reading experiences instead, is due to McCarthy’s narrative power, and the story’s focus on the father-son bond rather than the horrors of the road.
The unnamed protagonists are moving south across an America of the future in search of warmth and food; a land which has been destroyed by a massive cataclysm which is never described. Some kind of deflagration is suggested (maybe nuclear). There are no animals left, and dead and charred trees dot the landscape. The sun is seldom seen, and it rains ash almost constantly. Nightmare people populate this nightmare landscape: cannibals who keep people penned up in basements for meat and roast infants on spits.
The strength of the novel is that most of this information is incidental. McCarthy does not dwell on the horrors, but mentions them in passing and moves ahead. The focus is always on the man and the boy, and their stubborn will to survive.
The cataclysm has occurred suddenly: the man remembers a time when everything was “normal” (in our everyday sense of the word). For the boy, this is “normal”. Both father and son have adapted to their dismal environment seamlessly. Their lives are reduced to the basics of any living organism: food, shelter and the avoidance of death. As the story unfolds, we find the man slowly moving towards an animalistic state of existence; all vestiges of altruism, of “humanity”, are stripped away. He will do anything to survive, even if he destroys other human beings in the process. The only person he cares about, other than himself, is his son.
As the story moves towards its resolution, the mood of quiet desperation mounts uncontrollably, reaching a crescendo on the father’s death: however, the author does not let us down. The small flame of hope kept alight throughout the novel is left burning at the end, so that The Road ultimately proves redemptive.
There are no chapters in this novel. It is written in short sections, and perfectly parallels the endless procession of nights and days of the journey. The dialogue is staccato, repetitive and Hemingway-esque. I found McCarthy’s signature way of writing without punctuation apt for the subject matter. The many dialogues between father and son, mostly consisting of the word “okay” repeated many times (when things are definitely not “okay”-nice bit of tragic irony here) revolve around a single theme: the father assuring the son that they are not going to die, and they will find the “good” people. Instead of being boring, the repeated theme is strangely effective.
The man’s sense of nostalgia for a time irrevocably lost and his love for his son comes across with an emotional force which is almost painful. In fact, the child is almost deified. Consider the following passage (which is sheer poetry):
In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a travelling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.
The boy takes on mythical overtones here (Krishna with his flute or Pan with his pipes): a remnant of a pastoral idyll which has been sadly burnt away. We know instinctively that the child will survive. Because, as the man says in his dying speech, he is the carrier of the fire…
You’re going to be okay, Papa. You have to.
No I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find good guys but you can’t take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?
I want to be with you.
You cant. You have to carry the fire.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I dont know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.
This is the true Promethean fire, burning forever inside mankind’s heart, even while suffering eternal punishment at the behest of gods. This is the fire which is passed down from generation to generation, igniting the mind of the scientist, the artist, the writer and the revolutionary. As long as one knows one has passed it on, one can die peacefully.
This novel is an emotional onslaught which will rip you apart, will shatter your world so that it can never be reassembled together in the same way again (I was in tears by the end). Very highly recommended.