Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

I don't think I have seen a more restrained, some might say boring, cover for a novel. There is another version: the UK cover is an image of a road disappearing into a ghostly blue forest, but I don't mind the starkness of this one.

The road of the title is, of course, the one being taken by the man and his son (their names are never revealed). Nor is their purpose, really. Yes, they're fleeing the cold of the north, but why have they taken this road which, it is revealed, takes them to the coast? Do they hope to find anything? How have they survived so far? What keeps them going? - I don't think I would. The mother did not: she went outside soon after giving birth with a very sharp piece of obsidian and was never seen again (except in the recurring memories of her husband).

The novel is set some ten years (I'm picking that to be the age of the son) after:
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn't anser. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power is already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway, cradling her belly. What is it? she said. What is happening?

I don't know.
This is how McCarthy writes of the end of the world: the entire book is written in a cold, flat unemotional way, with paragraphs that start off with a banal detail but end with mentions of babies being roasted on spits. There are no chapters, just small chunks of narrative which provide an account of a particular episode. As a curious contrast, words that most people have never heard of ("richitic" anyone?) are sprinkled liberally through out the text, along with quite brilliant images - apricots "long dried to wrinkled effigies of themselves" and interstate exchanges "like the ruins of a vast funhouse".

Little more is said about the events that stopped the clocks: no more precise identification of what it was or who was responsible for it, just that the "frailty of everything was revealed at last":
People sitting on the sidewalk in the half dawn half immolate and smoking in their clothes. Like failed sectarian suicides. Others would come to help them. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. What had they done? He thought that in the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime but he took small comfort from it.
There are very few people about: all are to be feared. The man assures his son that "we are the good guys", and maybe they are, particularly the son, as he's willing to share with those they encounter who are in an even more desperate plight than they are. But it is ten years on and society has not regrouped: there is no sign at all of any form of productive work being done, all who survive do so by scavenging or forming themselves into marauding groups or (an echo of Steinbeck?) "phalanxes" ("blood cults consuming each other") and taking what others have. If they have nothing, then the people themselves get taken, for use as food. And most have nothing: this walk down the road takes the man and his son through several cities, which have been stripped bare. There are no birds, no apparent animals, trees have largely been burnt, and it is unlikely that there is any marine life (or life anywhere else on the planet). Even the snow is grey.

The man and his son do seem to be extraordinarily lucky: just as they are at the extremes of their limits in terms of hunger and fatigue, they find food - in one case, an entire bomb-shelter of it. They do suffer at the hands of the gangs and the desperate: twice they are robbed, once the man has to kill.

And so after who knows how long a trudge through this destroyed world, down a road on which "there are no godspoke words", they do hit the coast. But from the very first pages, the idea of the father's death is present: we're told of a fine spray of blood in the snow when the dad coughs. I'm pretty sure that although he wants his son not to know, the boy knows: he is very protective of his father, doing what he can to make sure his dad does not expend all his energy on the boy, but keeps some for himself. But it will never be enough:
... Two more days and they may have traveled ten miles. They crossed the river and a short ways on they came to a crossroads. Downcountry a storm had passed over the isthmus and leveled the dead black trees from east to west like weeds in the floor of a stream. Here they camped and when he lay down he knew that he could go no further and that this was the place where he would die. The boy sat watching him, his eyes welling. Oh Papa, he said.
But maybe his sacrifice was worth it. despite the fact that every person they have met so far is either beyond help or "bad", the novel might actually end on a high note when the boy is taken in by a small group of good guys who claim to have been watching out for him for some time. That's they way I like to see the thing finishing, anyway.



Blogger piksea said...

I took the ending to be the same. I couldn't bear the thought of having followed this poor little boy, living a life on the run, filled with nothing but suffering and fear and depravation and have him wind up not orphaned, but also in the clutches of the bad men. It was reeling from the story as it was.

7:12 AM  

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