“The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
– William Butler Yeats ‘The Second Coming’
The first thing you learn when you open Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is about the lack of visibility. “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.”, McCarthy writes. “Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” And it is this atmosphere of gloomy nearsightedness that is the keynote of his new novel.
Indeed, there is a sense in which The Road is a novel that centres entirely on atmosphere. The plot of the book is simple indeed – in a world devastated by some unspecified apocalyptic event, human civilisation (as well as animal and plant life) has been entirely destroyed, and the few humans who remain have turned to scavenging and cannibalism, eking out a miserable and shortlived existence among the stripped remains of their past. In this hellish landscape a man and his son are on a nightmare journey to nowhere, or rather to anywhere that they can get to, their only real objective to keep body and soul somehow together.
The Road is a description of a few months of this journey. Braving the rain and the cold, desperately searching for stray remnants of food in long abandoned houses, avoiding the parties of cannibals who roam the countryside looking for their next meal, the father and son team heads south, constantly accompanied by physical deprivation and the very real possibility of starvation and disease. But their real challenge is a moral one – for their continued existence is little more than prolonged misery, they have nowhere to get to, nothing to hope for, and lucky finds and narrow escapes notwithstanding, death is approaching and inevitable. How long can they escape the human predators who hunt them? How long can they continue to live off the scattered detritus of canned goods, of the rapidly dwindling supplies of a world long dead and being systematically stripped of all nourishment by its few hungry survivors?
It is perhaps the very gloom that envelopes these two that keeps them from seeing the emptiness of their horizons, and McCarthy’s story thus becomes an allegory for the way we cling to life, dealing with the everyday business of survival with a fanaticism that borders on the religious (in the novel, the father tells the son that they “carry the fire”) without allowing ourselves to think about where we are eventually headed. Is it worth it, this desperate clinging to life? The main protagonist of the novel certainly thinks so. McCarthy’s own view is less clear – he is careful to offer the protagonist’s wife (who kills herself when their fate becomes certain) as a counterpoint, and seems to be more interested in setting up the question then addressing it.
The trouble with The Road is that all this gloom and suffering and doomsday atmosphere gets, well, depressing. This is a novel built around repetition. Again and again the same scenes repeat themselves. The weather turns against the pair and they risk a fire / shiver together in the cold, using the warmth of each other’s bodies to stay warm. They come upon a seemingly deserted building and the boy doesn’t want to go in, fearing it may be a trap, but the father says they have to and ventures in. The boy asks his father if they’re in trouble / dying and the father says no, but then admits that if they were he would lie to his son about it. These patterns play out time and time again, with only the minutest of variation, leaving the reader feeling frustrated and even a little bored.
The monotony is, of course, deliberate. It is McCarthy’s way of reinforcing the bleakness of his dystopic future, of emphasising the soul-deadening sameness of the fear and misery that his characters must live through. In fact, reading The Road is, in many ways, like making the journey that McCarthy is describing. There are long intervals of anguished plodding, and then, just when you’re about to give up in despair, you stumble upon a description this beautiful:
In that long ago somewhere very near this place he’d watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose and blowsy plumage in the still autumn air.
or a dialogue this exquisite:
People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.
I guess not.
Even if you knew what to do you wouldnt know what to do. You wouldnt know if you wanted to do it or not. Suppose you were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?
Do you wish you would die?
No. But I might wish I had died. When you’re alive you’ve always got that ahead of you.
Or you might wish you’d never been born.
Well. Beggars cant be choosers.
You think that would be asking too much.
What’s done is done. Anyway, it’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.
It is writing like this that makes this a book worth reading. As anyone who has read Blood Meridian or The Border Trilogy knows, McCarthy is an authentic master of American prose, a writer who blends the terse ruggedness of Hemingway to the mystical vision of Emerson and the appetite of Faulkner – a writer of books that are at once macabre and poetic. His writing here is as compelling as ever, combining simple, staccato exchanges with grand yet lucid descriptions that create a vision of the world’s devastation that you would need a movie camera to do justice to. The Road is a relatively short novel (just over 240 pages, and that in fairly large font) but every sentence in it carries the weight of death and human despair. McCarthy is not one to shy away from gore, and the book is filled with gruesome detail (a sample description, pulled more or less at random, reads: “The mummied dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth”), but these horrors are merely the backdrop against which McCarthy wishes to show you the desperate and reluctant heroism of man’s struggle to stay human.
Yet it is this contrast that makes The Road seem ultimately false. McCarthy is a master at finding the beautiful in the savage – and his gift does not fail him here – yet unlike his other books here the brutality is artificial, a put-on, an act. This is a vision of horror expressly created to frighten us and as such it seems gratuitious. If the world really were as bleak as McCarthy paints it, then this would be a great book, but to manufacture a waste land simply to find beauty in it seems too convenient a trick. If the main protagonists’ desperate struggles seem less than compelling, it is because we know the world they are fighting is a stunt double, a fall guy. McCarthy is a great writer, but he should stick to what he knows. Telling scary stories may be all right when you’re dealing with wide-eyed children, but as faithful readers who’ve long admired the vividness of his story-telling we’re entitled to expect better.