Thursday, November 3, 2011

Book Review--The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
~Robert Frost
Poignant. Harrowing. Deeply moving. Compelling. Powerful. Disturbing. Tender. Exquisite. 
I decided to read The Road after it was highly recommended by a friend. I was immediately drawn into the story by McCarthy's command of  language. The Road contains some of the most achingly beautiful prose I have ever read, though it is sparely written. McCarthy doesn't waste words; those he does use are carefully and purposefully chosen. The writing has a powerful effect upon the reader through the emotions, thoughts and images it evokes.

A man and his son are traveling a road through the devastated remains of America. The book doesn't go into detail about what exactly caused the devastation but my thoughts were that the descriptions seemed very in-line with what I have read about nuclear winter. There is no life. All the animals and plants have died in the aftermath of the destruction. Everything is bleak, barren and gray--gray sky, gray water, gray snow, gray ash covering everything. The only color is the occasional orange-red of a fire burning out of control. It is bitter cold (just reading the portrayal of the gaunt landscape and harsh conditions  was almost enough to jump-start my seasonal affective disorder).
Sign for a fallout shelter in western New York.
 The man and his son are traveling a mostly abandoned highway to the coast. They have nothing except a few dirty blankets, the clothes on their backs, a rickety shopping cart with a few cans of food and a gun with two bullets. They are the "good guys"--possibly the only ones left (though the father assures his son that there are probably others)--and they are "carrying the fire".

By around page 44 or so, even though no major events had happened yet, I began to really feel the tension mounting. I felt cold and weighed down and took the book out into the sunshine to read.  Around page 73, I had to stop reading for awhile. I was feeling real anxiety. My husband was at work very late that night. I put the book down, went around and shut and locked all the windows, double checked that the doors were dead-bolted and looked in on my sleeping kids. I was afraid that I might have nightmares. 
"What he could bear in the waking world he could not by night and he sat awake for fear the dream would return." (page 130).
I didn't exactly understand my reaction at the time. There was no gratuitous violence or gore. The book is almost anorexic in its dialog and description, but I felt real horror. My husband pointed out later that the book might not be slasher horror but it is definitely psychological horror.

I've read a couple of post-apocalyptic novels and I've seen a couple of movies of the same genre and for the most part I have liked them. I do have an irrational fear of zombies, (irrational because I know they aren't real or even plausible) but a fear nonetheless. After reading The Road, I can now say that I emphatically believe that cannibals are way worse than zombies. The apocalyptic event must have happened some time ago, because all food is scarce--even the canned goods have been mostly scavenged and starvation is a real threat. Bands of depraved men scour the countryside looking for helpless people to harvest for food. The scenes involving the cannibals were deeply disturbing to me and there are certain parts of the book that will haunt my memory. Still, McCarthy takes these horrible depictions of depravity and bleakness and intersperses them with little glimpses of color, warmth, cleanliness and light. The juxtaposition is remarkable.

McCarthy's gift for language and expansive vocabulary are evident but used reservedly. He is able to construct an emotionally evocative work of lyrical prose in which he portrays the starkness of the world without vulgarity. Part of the book's power lies in the fact that it is written such that you are willing to suspend your disbelief. You start thinking about how these things could happen. It's not all that far fetched. It's not zombies. It's people; people that have become so degraded as to be almost inhuman, but people. As a reader you start to ask what would happen in such a scenario? Who would be "carrying the fire"? McCarthy's commentary on humanity is frightening but ultimately strangely hopeful. 

God and heaven are recurring themes in the book. In the face of all that the protagonists are presented with, sometimes faith waivers. As a reader my own faith in the outcome flagged. I could not see how the ending could be anything but devastating.  Without giving away too much I will say that I thought the resolution was surprisingly redemptive and the most moving part of the book for me. Despite the prevalence of wickedness and ugliness, goodness does still exist. 

Is The Road bleak, stark, heavy, sad, frightening? Yes. But it is also exceedingly beautiful. It is hopeful, triumphant and magnificent.

Other post-apocalyptic reading:
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (read)
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (to-read)
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (to-read)
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (read)

Have you read The Road or any of the above mentioned books? I'd love to hear what you thought.


Thelma said...

I couldn't finish The Road. I love reading too much to read books I am not enjoying. I have heard good things about it but couldn't finish. I've read Hunger Games (after a long time or putting it off...I didn't think I'd like it but I did). Have you read Matched by Ally Condie? I think it could be considered from the same genre. I liked it.

Mistylynn said...

I read The Road some time ago and I couldn't put it down. I began reading it aloud to my husband and he became hooked. I finished it without him and then he picked it up. He actually stayed up reading it until the wee hours of the morning and called into work :). I agree that it was all too close to what could POSSIBLY happen. Made me want to build a bunker and build up a 10 year's supply. So hard to read in parts but such a great book. I read it again recently and it wasn't as intense...knowing what was going to happen. I definitely looked at it in a different light.

Mistylynn said...

Oh, and read'll love it.