I’m not quite sure how I obtained a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It must have landed on my bookshelf in one of two ways: I picked it up on the swap table downstairs in my building, figuring I should read it, or someone lent it to me, and I took it, figuring I should read it (if this is the case, this person should come forward to reclaim their book). I definitely did not ask for it for Christmas nor did I buy it myself–it was an obligation read, an everyone-has-read-this-so-I-should-get-with-the-program read. What was my problem? I’m sorry to say I just assumed it would be a super male book; generally I feel like post-apocalyptic stories contain action scenes, bombastic speeches and fuzzy overly symbolic flashbacks. I just wasn’t into the idea of it. I was expecting something in between a Stephen King book (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and that disaster movie with the Aerosmith song. I can’t remember seeing a trailer for the movie based on The Road, but perhaps I did and my (unfair) impressions were based on that.
In reality, I liked The Road. The construction of the novel was simple and straightforward, matching the plot: a man and his son walk through the charred remains of America–the coast is their vague destination–trying to stay alive. Their motives for survival are equally simple: their love for and dedication to each other (especially the man’s for his son). Dialogue between the two of them is almost entirely unattributed; their back and forths appear on the page, their voices alternating, almost never taking up more than a line each. They are, more or less, the only two people left in the world–there isn’t a lot to say.
Mr. McCarthy’s language is economical, well-considered and designed to push the narrative forward. He uses its directness to create the spareness of the landscape, the black and whiteness (the little boy asks constantly if the people they encounter, or fear they may encounter, are the good guys or the bad guys–he worries–agonizes–over their own status, confirming and reconfirming that they are still good guys when they are pushed to extremes to survive) and the greyness–there is no sunlight, the ocean is not blue, there is rain and ash and the smell of ash in everything. So when Mr. McCarthy does want to get poetic, he really goes for it. Near the end of the book, the father and son come upon a cluster of burned corpses–far from the first they’ve seen. He gives a perfunctory description of their shrunken, dried bodies, then writes: “A thousand dreams ensepulchered within their crozzled hearts.” A line like that reminds the readers, as well as the characters–who may have become somewhat inured to the horrors of the Road–what exactly we’re dealing with here.
Well, but what are we dealing with? Who knows. There’s no more sun, almost no more food, no more loved ones–they’ve committed suicide, been murdered, been roasted on a spit and eaten–and that’s the important part, not the why or the what. The man rarely references the way the world used to be, what his life was once like, what sorts of wonders the boy missed. When he does, his thoughts and remembrances serve primarily as signifiers to the reader that the world he came from is our own. There are nearly no flashbacks nor fully realized scenes of the world pre-apocolypse with which to compare it in its present state. Mr. McCarthy succeeds in drawing the reader more fully into the book by deciding to exclude the framing of our world, the lost world–we are forced to imagine our own flashbacks for him, drawing experiences from our own lives to imagine his. It’s not a big jump to imagine his fate as ours.
Which brings me to this: the experiences of the father and son in The Road, I couldn’t help but realize, are incredibly similar to those of Valentino Achak Deng in What is the What. The father and son trek through a ruined, ravaged landscape, starving, alone, having lost everything and everyone around them. Valentino spent much of his life doing exactly the same. The descriptions of endless walking, the searching for food–the incredible relief at finding a small, pathetic supply to sustain themselves–the similarities were unsettling, heart-wrenching.
The Road is a quick, sad, satisfying read, but I fount it is hard to reconcile it as post-apocalyptic fiction when its characters’ journey is so close to journeys real people have been and are being forced to undertake in our pre-apocalyptic world.