Bad News Comes in Threes: The Road

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November 21, 2013 by carlywont


I have to say I’m a little bit proud of myself now that I’ve finished a Cormac McCarthy book. (It’s finally replaced the shame of giving up way, way, way too prematurely on Blood Meridian.)

As slow moving as I found Blood Meridian, The Road was actually surprisingly very easy and quick to read. I did not think this would be the case when I first opened the book. I have to admit I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to experimental writing style/structure and as soon as I saw those tiny paragraphs, no dialogue, and lack of chapters, I thought “Aw, hell no.”

Convention and structure are my BFFs when it comes to reading (and writing, too, although I could brush up on my CMS rules). In fact, in college I was the pantoum’s number one fangirl. In fiction especially I like to see a complete sentence, roughly equal-in-length chapters, adherence to globally accepted punctuation standards, and a nice, logical structure. (In case you missed my rant on a single misplaced chapter in Into Thin Air, check it here.)

So, reading anything a bit off structure-wise can be a challenge for me. Lots of the time it ends up being a wonderful, awesome, rewarding challenge. But it can also end in tears, disgust, and throwing the book out of a third-story window (I’m looking at you, There But For The).

Happily, the experience of reading The Road was the good type of experimental writing.  McCarthy does an amazing job of keeping you in the moment with the father and son characters. His sentences are staccato, brief, unyielding. This gives the book an eerie if-I-don’t-keep-reading-this-I’m-going-to-die-and-so-are-they feel.

Unlike most apocalyptic fiction, the cause for the end-of-days is never revealed to the reader. All we know is that most species are extinct, everything on Earth is covered in thick ash, the sun can’t penetrate the clouds in the sky, and the father character has a bloody cough. One can find lots and lots of speculation online about what McCarthy was trying to imply with these subtle clues. As I was reading it, I personally assumed it was either a giant meteor or nuclear war, but apparently a massive volcanic eruption is a popular theory with other readers.

No matter the cause, I love the fact that McCarthy doesn’t bother giving the reader any explanatory passages related to the Armageddon. Everything is general and uncomplicated by the detailed sci-fi plotlines/background usually found in apocalypse books. The characters have one main goal: To walk the road to the ocean and not die/be eaten by cannibals on the way. The result is an amazingly grim and sparse narrative.

Now let’s talk about the characters in The Road. There are two: a father and son. We don’t know their names, location, background, anything really. With these two characters, McCarthy sets up a sort of archetype for the idea of empathy/compassion vs. no-holds-barred survival. For the most part, the father represents survival and is willing to do most things to continue on with their lives (although it is important to note that he is distinguished from the evil cannibalistic tribal characters). On the other hand, the boy can be seen as standing for compassion (he constantly wants to help other travelers of the road) and art (his flute).

The main thing that I thought was a little clunky with that setup is the boy’s empathy. From what I gleaned, he grew up in a post-apocalyptic world. This survival is all that he knows. The father is very distrustful (and at times ruthless) of other humans they meet along the way and I can only assume he has been like that since the apocalypse (AKA all of the boy’s life). Yet, the boy is concerned for others throughout the book and is also very curious about animals, as evidenced by his desire to find a faraway barking dog. He wants company, too. In one heart-wrenching scene in the book, he believes he sees another young boy and begs his father to help/find the boy. I guess McCarthy is making the point here that empathy, kindness, and caring for others is innate in the human spirit. Otherwise, how would the boy feel any of these things? It’s probably the only small sliver of hope in the book.

One thing I thought about before starting this Three Books in a Tub series was the possibility (or impossibility) for a realistic book about the apocalypse. Most books set mid- or post-apocalypse have a huge sci-fi element for an obvious reason (the obvious reason being that the apocalypse has obviously never happened). They’re pretty much all set in the future and they pretty much all envision some sort of epic collapse of the world. The Road is different. Here Cormac McCarthy gives us a realistic narrative of the apocalypse. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. The world is our own. The people are like us. This really makes for a fascinating and unique exploration of the apocalypse. (Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker fits that bill as well.)

Finally, The Road gave me probably my favorite apocalypse survival tip: when the apocalypse is nigh, immediately fill all your sinks and bathtubs with water. That’s a pro tip for ya right there. Thanks Cormac!


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