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The Road – Andy takes a walk in the dark with Cormac

May 21, 2012

The Road would have to be one of the most notoriously depressing books of recent years, spawning a movie version that, allegedly, is only marginally less grim. Netty read it for her book group a few years ago and claims it left her depressed for weeks (well, maybe a week). Another member of the group refused to have a copy in her house. That’s a pretty extreme reaction, I think you’ll agree.

My response is less visceral, although I’ll acknowledge it’s a grim, brooding read, testament to what must be an immensely black view of humanity on McCarthy’s part. While the novel’s conclusion is not actually as dark as I’d been led to believe, the reader is nevertheless not left with much that could realistically be described as hope. It doesn’t come to the brutal end I feared for much of its length – perhaps such a place was too dark even for McCarthy – but that end seems very likely for the characters left standing and, by extension, for the remnants of the human race itself.

What’s remarkable, given just how pessimistic The Road is, is the lyrical quality of McCarthy’s prose. There are passages of this book that might rank among the most beautiful I’ve ever read, even if what he’s describing is not itself beautiful. Take this:

“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, as someone else might’ve put it, “Ages ago not far away he saw a falcon kill a crane.” I read that paragraph I don’t know how many times, initially because its lack of punctuation meant I hadn’t quite picked up what he was saying, and then because I was so amazed at the way he’d said it. There are other similar passages and, like a few other books we’ve read on the Challenge over the years, they leave you wondering why anyone would bother picking up a pen or sitting down at the keyboard and try to write.

McCarthy’s structure is interesting. There are no chapters but the narrative is broken into short, sometimes bitesized sections. Rarely does a scene stretch for more than a page or two, in fact many of the sections are less than a page long – sometimes there are three or four to a page. It’s been suggested to me, and the idea has a lot of merit I think, that McCarthy did this to smooth the dark impact of the material. With such short sections it’s much easier to put the book down if it all gets too much (and I’m guessing for most people a barbecued baby would be too much), and put some space between the reader and the darkness.

The book is dedicated to McCarthy’s son, John Francis, which initially seems completely surreal given the story’s nature. It’s been described as a love story for his son. I wonder whether there’s an allegorical level here as well, demonstrating just how brutally dark McCarthy’s vision of humanity is – that The Road the man and his son follow is simply life itself, that life is full of horror and cruelty and selfishness, and that it’s the role of a father – or any parent – to get their child through that horror and cruelty as best they can. Immensely pessimistic, and certainly not reflective of my worldview, but a more convincing explanation of the novel, I think, than George Monbiot’s rather simplistic description of it as the most important environmental book every written.

I had one or two trivial issues with some repetition – I wonder if the book, short as it already is, could’ve lost a few very similar scenes and maybe 50 or so pages.  As is often the case with the Challenge, though, I came away from The Road hungry to get stuck into more of McCarthy’s work.

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