Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: The Road, Cormac McCarthy

I don't usually post the jacket copy when I review, but it's just so perfect I can't help myself:

A man and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food--and each other.

The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which a father and a son, 'each the other's world entire', are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

There's no names in The Road--the characters are simply 'the man' and 'the boy'. There's very little punctuation either. All apostrophes and unnecessary commas and capital letters have been stripped out, as if the niceties of polite punctuation have been obliterated. In contrast the man and the boy are achingly polite to one another. The man is determined to keep a brave face for his son. Conversations are clipped and brief, often utilitarian, sometimes soothing, and even, on occasion, funny. I didn't expect to smile much reading this book, but the man's gentleness with the boy often gives way to exasperation at the boy's naivety and stubbornness and their circular conversations. There are some genuinely amusing moments.

The man insists to the boy that they are the 'good guys', and they have to be on the lookout for the 'bad guys'. The euphemism became clear as I read: the bad guys are cannibals. The pair are traversing the bleak landscape to search for other 'good guys', i.e. other people who don't eat people. The boy is very young, perhaps five, and the man tries to protect him from the horrors of the road, often unsuccessfully.

I've read many post-apocalyptic books, often set during the disaster or just after, or thousands of years in the future, but never one just a few years after. McCarthy has envisaged humanity's darkest hour, a time when everything is dead, even the sea. Trees fall over, dead. There are no birds. The sun is obliterated and the nights black as pitch. It's impossible to be unaffected by the world he's described, especially seeing it through the eyes of a dying man desperate to care for the survival and morality of his young son. The reason for the destruction of the world is a great fire, cause unknown to the reader, but it is a metaphor for ecological disaster of any kind. It's chilling to imagine that this could be our future.

The Road is an ungodly place, or as McCarthy puts it, 'coldly secular'. In this book, God can be interpreted as God himself, or as a metaphor for goodness and humanity. At one point the man thinks of Death, the Grim Reaper, and imagines a time in the near future, when Death will find himself alone, having reaped every last soul in the world. The Road is a wasteland, physically and spiritually. It's a heavy-going read, but recommended. As the man says to the boy at one point, you can't take things out of your head (horrible things) once they're in there. It's good advice: there are several horrifying moments in this books, and once they're in your head, they'll stay there. The language can be obtuse also, one of the reasons why this book didn't get a perfect five on Goodreads. Some of the description lost me, and one scene meant little to me until I read up on it on Wikipedia.

It feels funny to say 'I enjoyed this book', but I did. Have a good think about whether you're ready for it before you pick it up. Once it's in your head, it won't go away. It's worth reading for the last paragraph alone, one so beautiful and so shaming. (Don't cheat and just read the paragraph. People who read the last lines of books without reading the rest of the book first are disrespectful book criminals!)

The Road won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006.

The film is out in the US on November 25, 2009, UK on January 4th 2010, and Australia on January 28th. I think it will make a great film, and probably be more shocking and more heartbreaking than the book. Something to look forward to, no?


  1. Oooo, I read The Road over the summer, and was definitely disturbed by it. I don't mean disturbed in a terrible way, but in the way that I couldn't stop thinking about it, and I definitely agree with you on the last paragraph.

    Also, my book jacket is way lame compared to yours, the one I have his just the title and author name. :-(

  2. I read The Road when it first came out and all I remember was reading it with this sick, anxious feeling in my stomach. I wanted to put it down at points but I couldn't. I thought about it for days afterwards too. Such a powerful book.

  3. I know what you mean about saying 'I liked it.' There are so many scenes in this book that will be in my mind forever. The writing, the relationships, everything - it was all too perfect. Heart-wrenching and painful - but perfect. Definite modern classic.

  4. haha I agree re: disrespectful book criminals! talk about stealing a book's soul.

    I read The Road two years ago and it still resonates with me. I cant say I enjoyed the story as you did - it was desolate I felt very alone afterwards. but im guessing ol' mccarthy wanted it that way...
    the movie might be a bit too depressing for me, but of course it should be amazing

  5. Great line - "disrespectful book criminals," indeed! I just purchased this last week, in preparation for seeing the film (and because I really should catch up on contemporary literary fiction). Can't wait to read it!

  6. This book certainly stays with you--I had to read another book before I could write the review for this one as I just couldn't get any perspective on it so soon after finishing it.

    Aimee, Celia--I watched the trailer on YouTube today. Looks a leetle disaster-porn compared to the book, but I'm very curious to see it.

  7. alright, you've sold me! I'll get around to reading this book, maybe around the holiday break (not this one, next month's).

    I definitely want to watch the movie. Thank you for this review, Rhiannon.


  8. Excellent review!
    One of my all time fave books-although the story is dark the relationship between the boy and his father is absolutley pure. It's a story that will forever stay with me. I can't wait to see the movie!

  9. I'm glad that you liked this book. My boyfriend also liked it. I, however, hated it. I found it extraordinarily frustrating to read. After the fact, I remember nothing about it except how extremely bored and, well, frustrated I was while reading it. And also, I suppose, that I thought the relationship between the boy and the father was over-played out, if that makes sense.
    I just went and re-read the last paragraph (it's okay, right? Because I already read the book), and in retrospect, it really is quite beautiful.
    I wonder why this book seems to have so much staying power for so many people and yet had next to none for me. Hmmmm. . .
    Perhaps I just wasn't ready for it. . .