The Road

the road“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”

~Cormac McCarthy, The Road

* * *

I read about half this book two years ago. I have no idea why I put it down and never finished it. In Salem, MA, at this great bookstore, Harvin unearthed this movie tie-in addition of The Road. I bought it a) because it was half-priced; b) because I’d always intended to finish it, and this summer seemed like a good time; and c) because Viggo Mortenson is on the cover.

This book is a post-apocalyptic novel about a man and his son continually walking, searching for food, shelter, and safety, and fighting to survive in the vast remnants of a bygone civilization.

Stylistically, the book is fascinating. There are no chapters–just one continuous narrative with hundreds of short, intense sections, such as the one above. It’s the perfect book for the ADD reader–if you have five minutes while you’re stuck in traffic or standing in line in the grocery store, you can pull it out of your bag and read a few sections. Or you can sit down and become so engrossed that you read it in one shot–as I would have done had I not had Boston to keep my occupied. Even with all our fantastic activities in New England, I still managed to read this book in about two days. Additionally, note the sentence fragments–perfectly representative of the fragmented world in which the man and boy live. I think that, stylistically, this book could be as representative of the postmodern era as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is for the modern era.

As I was reading the next-to-last page of this book in our hotel in Danvers, MA, Harvin turned to me to show me something in the Longfellow poem she was reading. I shushed her and ignored her until I could read the last paragraph, after which I threw the book down on the bed. The ending is superb–but it leaves so many questions open-ended, which I think is actually quite a good thing. In reading the book, the reader never actually learns what caused civilization to end. All we know is that most people–seemingly worldwide–are dead, and the few who are left are slipping into madness or are on the run from those renegades who embraced crime and violence. It’s been years since civilization ended, as we discover that the man’s wife was actually pregnant with the boy when the disaster happened. The boy is now old enough to talk, and to grasp some huge concepts about civilization and the past vs. the present. In addition to knowing that years have passed, the only thing we really know is that whatever disaster occurred left the world covered in ash. The man and boy must wear face masks so as not to breathe in the ash, and everything is coated in gray. Was it fire? Flood? Famine? We never know for sure. In the book, however, that doesn’t matter. What matters is life after the tragedy–how does the man continue to live in this hopeless existence? He has his son–and some hope that perhaps someday the world can be a better place for his child.

The reader can imagine and fill in those blanks in the story. If the reader understands that the world ended in some great fire, then that works. If it was a series of natural disasters (like The Day After Tomorrow), then that works, too. There’s also more to the story after the reader closes the book. What happens to the characters after the events that conclude the novel? Does civilization return to some semblance of normalcy? There’s tension in the unanswered questions, but there’s beauty in the unknowing, too. Much like life, the story could take so many different directions.

Now that I’ve read the book, I am, of course, super excited about the film (ahem…Viggo Mortentenson as the unnamed man…yes, please). The film will be released on October 16, and after watching the trailer, I’m very intrigued to see how the filmmakers handle the issue of what exactly caused civilization to collapse. It seems that they deal with it somehow. Perhaps they merely chose some specific disaster and incorporated it into the plot. They also seem to deal a great deal in the backstory of the novel. All of the narrative of the book takes place on the road. The man and the boy are the two main characters, with a few minor characters that they meet along the way. The man also has flashbacks to life before the tragedy, and I think that’s where Charlize Theron’s character will appear. Anyway, it will be very interesting to compare the film to the book, especially since the filmmaker was asked to make a film version of the story before the book was even published in 2006. You can watch the official movie trailer here.

* * *

“The road crossed a dried slough where pipes of ice stood out of the frozen mud like formations in a cave. The remains of an old fire by the side of the road. Beyond that a long concrete causeway. A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss. The silky spills of ash against the curbing. He stood leaning on the gritty concrete rail. Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.”

2 thoughts on “The Road

  1. Harvin says:

    I actually prefer that McCarthy *doesn’t* tell you how the world was destroyed–if he did, the reader would probably become to caught up in the “how” and “why: rather than wading through the “what now?” Plus, giving a reason opens the door to a superficial political/environmental/spiritual agenda for the cause of the world’s end.

    Though I didn’t throw it down quite like you did, I do remember reading and reading and then thumping into the end of the book. So many questions! Frustration was the first response, but that unknowing, as you said, became a beautiful thing that inspired more thought.

    And a new movie + Viggo = a must see. =D I’ve seen the trailer and have my doubts but will probably see the flick anyways.

  2. […] McCarthy is a brilliant contemporary American writer. The Road is one of the best post-apocalyptic books of all time, and one of my favorite pieces of […]

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