The Road – An Experiment in Bleakness

25 Feb

I enjoyed The Road by Cormac McCarthy a lot more than I thought I would. And by enjoyed, I mean I found it fascinating in a sick, addictive way.  I had to read some passages twice because the first time, my brain didn’t quite comprehend just how horrifying they actually were (“Wait, he didn’t mean….Ohhhh.”) I bawled like a baby at the end and nixed plans to see the film that weekend because I needed time to “recover.”

Naturally, I am recommending this book to all my friends.

The Road doesn’t have a particularly complex plot, and it doesn’t even leave you with many strong impressions of its two characters, a man and his son. It’s just got an idea that claws into your brain and won’t let go. McCarthy presents us with a post-disaster world so bleak that it automatically sets itself apart from any other disaster book I’ve ever read. His vision of apocalyptic America is one of all out nuclear winter (although he never really says what happened) – no plants, no animals, barely any sunshine. Just the occasional bit of leftover processed food (and it’s already been a few years, so even those reserves are dwindling), a charred landscape, and a few cannibals along the way.

You know pretty early on that McCarthy isn’t going to give his characters or his readers any easy outs. There’s no silver lining or hope of paradise around the corner. And he does not let us forget it. It’s impressive to see how many different ways there are to say that the view out there is (as he says) “hellishly bleak” and that the weather is (as I say) fricking freezing. The Road’s new guide to the American countryside includes choice phrases such as, “nights dark beyond darkness,” “cold glaucoma dimming away the world,” and “ashen scabland” (and this is just a very small sample).

Despite the aggressive sparseness of McCarthy’s dialogue (“I dont want you to get sick. / I wont get sick. / You havent eaten in a long time. / I know. / Okay.”) and his stingy attitude towards apostrophes, the man’s got a vocabulary under his belt. He’ll write five pages of monosyllables, and then come out with a head-scratcher like “cauterized terrain” or “cold autistic dark.”

This book is special because it makes you completely believe in its version of the future. I’m still obsessing over it weeks later and haunting wikipedia on bedtime topics like “nuclear winter” and “existential risk.” Between this and Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and the Canadian government’s disaster survival website (“Is your family prepared?”), I’m just one award-winning dystopian novel away from building a damn shelter.

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11 Responses to “The Road – An Experiment in Bleakness”

  1. Laura February 25, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    Yeah I read this book for my book club last year and the imagery that he describes still is stuck in my head.

    Especially when he talks about how he didn’t want to sleep because of how good his dreams were and how that meant that he was close to death!

    Here’s one of my favourite quotes:

    “You forget what you want to remember. You remember what you want to forget.”

    • Lija February 26, 2010 at 9:56 am #

      He hits as with that dream/death talk right at the beginning, too!

      How did the rest of your club feel about it? Anyone completely hate it?

  2. savidgereads February 25, 2010 at 10:44 pm #

    Its an amazing book in all the ways you said. Its not a book you can say is enjoyable to read and yet its an impressive and amazing book. Its also one that stays with you indefinitely. Its in my top 40 for definate.

    • Lija February 26, 2010 at 9:59 am #

      I think that’s why I find it so impressive. I don’t normally like books that are “good” but not “enjoyable” in the conventional sense and I don’t even normally like books that focus more on scene description than dialogue, but somehow this one works.

      Also, I think I’ll read this again sometime, so that’s saying something.

  3. winstonsdad February 27, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

    i really must get to reading it at some point ,more so now the film is out

    • Lija March 2, 2010 at 9:13 am #

      And I do think this is a book first, film second situation. I wouldn’t want to go into the book already knowing everything – it’s more effective to let it all unfold while half of your brain is still disbelieving.

  4. Sonja March 2, 2010 at 4:41 am #

    Wow, this story sounds terrifying but I really want to read it now.

    By the way, I took a tip from the disaster survival website and am now storing some bottled water and a flashlight away in a cupboard… just in case.

    • Lija March 2, 2010 at 9:14 am #

      Good! I was stumped by which way I’d walk out of the city if I’d have to.

  5. Bill March 8, 2010 at 10:04 am #

    I must be one of very few people who wasn’t that impressed by The Road. Maybe there’s a club I can join. It’s been quite a long time since I read it but the things I remember that bugged me were:
    A vague feeling that I was being used.
    The “aggressive sparseness of the dialogue” is a good way to describe it. It is aggressive, and somehow phony, a very self-conscious way of speaking in a novel I think. It didn’t work that well for me.
    And then he launches into these indecipherable literary descriptions of this bleak world. Again it’s a writing style that seemed too conscious of itself and what it was attempting to do to its readers.
    And finally, I seem to recall that he resorts in the end, to that good ol’ American old-time religion, supposedly leaving us with some hope, by leaving the son in the hands of God fearing folk. I think he could have completely salvaged this novel for me had he ended it in many other possible ways, happy or sad, but something more creative, or forward looking.
    I wonder if anybody else out there feels the same way?

    • Lija March 8, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

      Interesting comments.

      Used in what way?

      I thought the sparse dialogue worked because it drew attention to the fact that other than where they were going next or what they were going to eat, they didn’t have too much to talk about.

      I agree that the ending could’ve given us something more, but I don’t think you can say he really sold out with a happy ending or anything. And although I wanted something else to happen at the end, I wasn’t sure if that would’ve made it better.

  6. Kerry March 11, 2010 at 12:28 am #

    Great review and definitely captures the feel. It is bleak, in a good way. While I do not agree with those who hail it as the best book of the last 10, 20, or 50 years, it is a very good book. One I can recommend without hesitation. I enjoyed your novel, particularly the smilingly desperate ending.

    Excellent review.

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