Monday, May 21, 2007

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

I've never read a novel by Cormac McCarthy before, though I've long meant to, and the huge buildup of acclaim and hype eventually made me take the bait on his latest, The Road, even though I had the impression it would depress the hell out of me. Well, I would be lucky to be so depressed again very soon. It's a profoundly powerful story. In fact since I've read it I've been longing for an equally compelling story that would make me feel just as involved. I felt privileged just to be reading it.

It's a story of the end of humanity. The world seems to be in a state of severe nuclear winter, and what little life is left on the planet is in the process of dying. As depicted, that end could be in the recent past, the near future or the distant future, and I found it an extremely convincing vision. We don't get much information about what calamities have produced this world (just a few tantalizing details), and it doesn't really matter to these characters now. A man and his son are following a road and hoping to find...somewhere to survive? a community to join? What they hope for is actually a major question of the novel.

The style, especially early on, is breathtaking. The language has a Biblical power and beauty, and rather than using chapters for structure McCarthy shapes the entire narrative into short sections separated by white space, intense passages which are often just a paragraph and rarely exceed 2 pages but which each feel necessary. McCarthy's diction is a wonder. I often write down words I don't know when I encounter them in fiction though I don't always get around to looking them up, but here I recorded and looked up dozens of words which I not only didn't know but had never before seen. Simple yet unfamiliar words sometimes of the Anglo-Saxon variety, like gryke and woad, bollard and claggy; sometimes more Latinate or Greek in origin, like mastic and isocline. McCarthy names things which I never knew had a name, yet I didn't feel he was showing off. I simply felt he (or his narrator) cared enough to be precise. As if he were taking the time to savor the names of things before it's too late.

I'd describe the novel as literary speculative fiction. I wouldn't feel correct in labelling it as science fiction even if it does bear some comparison with the dystopian 1984. After all, the story focuses on the collapse of civilization, not some technologically superior totalitarian future. For a long time even after I finished it, I found myself wondering if the novel were meant to function as a warning about where society is headed or about threats to the environment. Those may be some of the author's purposes, but in its radical extremity of vision the novel forces us to take a new look at reality. In showing us how much it's possible to lose, the novel makes us appreciate what we have, especially those things we all tend to take for granted. One expects dystopias to make us aware of our problems, but instead they often primarily make us thankful for what we have. Which makes me wonder if McCarthy's purpose is really simply to give us a fresh perspective on life.

To that end, McCarthy excels in his sparing use details, giving you just enough information to make inferences about his world, to spur your curiosity until you're scouring every sentence for what you can glean between the lines. It effectively lifts the story off the page and into the reader's mind where it becomes an exceptionally vivid experience. It's masterful technique.

And in Bush-era America, in which whole nations have been labelled as Evil (versus others which are presumably Good), it's interesting to see McCarthy's young character ask, "Papa, are we still the good guys?" "Good guys" is such a core concept in our national narratives and though McCarthy illustrates the concept as a rudiment in a child's moral education, it's clear the idea still stands for something powerful for the man, too. One of the features of the novel that moved me most was the boy's sense of justice, despite the chaos and hardship. There are times he acts like a court-appointed defense attorney arguing with his father the harsh judge, advocating leniency and mercy towards some savage but desperate people. It gave me the idea that in McCarthy's view, for all his pessimism, our modern institutions of justice derive from something eternal in human nature. The love between father and son is a more obvious way in which The Road, as rough an experience as it is, is tempered with some hope.



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