Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bleak...quite bleak

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Road is being passed around my office like the flu. When one person finishes it, he or she transmits it on to the next host, who spends the subsequent 24-48 hours in a daze-like trance before communicating the book to its next victim. The specimen entered my hands at 2 p.m. one afternoon and left it at 10 a.m. the next morning – I’d spent the first hour at work reading it under my desk.

The Road tells the story of a nameless father and son who are struggling to survive a nuclear winter in a post-apocalyptic world. McCarthy doesn’t tell you what happened to the world, where the father or son are, or even where they’re going – the only thing the reader knows is that they’re pushing a grocery cart along the road to the sea. Ash drifts everywhere, almost all life is dead, and roving bands of cannibals are a constant threat. Trust me, it’s a real upper.

(But wow, do I love that phrase – roving bands of cannibals! Cool.)

The novel is hypnotic – dreamy, depressing, and grey. Everyone who’s read it so far has been completely mesmerized. As for me, I loved it…and hated it.

What did I love? Well, as I already mentioned, the novel is short and easily read in one sitting. And it’s definitely engrossing enough that you won’t want to put it down. Although I recommend that you don’t start it at night like I did. Your dreams will be of the more unpleasant variety.

What did I hate? Well, several things. Although McCarthy doesn’t overtly state it, The Road is a Christian book. The remaining denizens of Earth are divided into camps of Good People and Bad People, with the father constantly assuring the son that they fall into the former category. To me, it seems that the central conflict of the book is how to stay a good person when the only way to survive may be to do something truly horrible. The son often questions the father when he does something cold and cruel in the name of their survival, like leaving a young boy behind them without giving him food. “You don’t have to worry about everything, like I do,” the father once complains bitterly. “Yes, I do,” the boy replies simply. To me, the implication was that the boy was worrying about their souls – the only thing that really matters.

So the division of people into Good Persons and Bad Persons bothered me, with the underlying assumption that Good People believe in God, while the Bad People don’t – you know, because once you don’t believe in God, it’s just a slippery slope until you start to eat babies.

The other complaints are just general criticisms of McCarthy’s writing that I could apply to any of his books (clearly, I’m not one of those people who think he’s the only “real writer” we have today). I love good characterization and dialogue, and both are completely nonexistent in The Road. McCarthy is also deadly serious about everything – the man has no concept of a joke. I once read somewhere that he has a disdain for writers who don’t focus on death as their theme, since that is the only thing that counts. Personally, I like a little more wit and sunshine, even in my tragedies. How can a book show you true sadness until it’s shown you true joy as well?

And finally, the machismo is grating as always. McCarthy couldn’t write a decent female character even if you pumped him with estrogen, dressed him as a drag queen, and made him the triangle girl in a glam-rock band. He’s been married on several occasions, otherwise I’d speculate that he’s the classic case of someone overcompensating for their repressed homosexuality. Although I guess being married doesn’t necessarily make that impossible…hmm…

Still, I liked The Road much better than any of his other novels I’ve read (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and part of Blood Meridian). Unlike his previous efforts, which I forgot fairly quickly, The Road is going to stick with me for awhile. Although I guess it’s hard to forget a book when most of the dialogue goes something like this:

I’m scared, the boy said.

I know, he replied. Trust me. Nothing will happen.

This is really scary.

Don’t worry. Everything will be okay.

You sure?

Yes, I’m sure. Okay?


Okay. So, The Road isn’t as graphic in its depiction of the struggle to survive as In the Heart of the Sea (which has horrible research, but great cannibalism!), nor is it as deeply heartbreaking as Hotaru no haka (beautiful beautiful beautiful film). The Road is only a wee bit gross, and you won’t sniffle more than once or twice. But it’s still nightmarishly memorable, and since all the critics I’ve read seem to think it’s the book of the year, it’s definitely something to move to the top of your “To Read” list.

posted by Elizabeth at 9:31 PM


Blogger ket said...

"McCarthy couldn’t write a decent female character even if you pumped him with estrogen, dressed him as a drag queen, and made him the triangle girl in a glam-rock band."

Love it. Just wanted to make sure everyone caught that. :-)

10/11/2006 10:39 AM  
Blogger reyn said...

That was pretty awesome, but I really liked describing a book as a contagion, and the line "because once you don’t believe in God, it’s just a slippery slope until you start to eat babies."

10/11/2006 11:12 AM  
Blogger ~e said...

now i have to read this, depressing as it sounds.

it will be interesting once some of use actually start reading the same books, to get a comparison.

10/11/2006 12:12 PM  
Blogger Kat said...

Wow, this review has some pretty great quotes - particularly the ones already pointed out above. :) "slippery slope until you start to eat babies" - that's excellent!

I've added it to my "To Read" list.

10/11/2006 12:19 PM  
Blogger reyn said...

I keep thinking I've already heard about this bok somewhere, and they made a big deal of it, too--though without the cool quotable lines. That's how we get mentioned on real websites.

10/11/2006 12:26 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Regarding the "triangle girl" line, I must admit that I was listening to the Scissor Sisters' new album while writing this review, and since they and McCarthy are pretty much polar opposites on any spectrum you could possibly imagine, I couldn't resist bringing the crusty old cowboy into such a decadent world : ).

Good cd, by the way. Check.

And it seems that everyone loves the "eating babies" stuff. *grins* Just because they're hysterical (and provided me with great "further reading" recommendations), I want to share the comments left at my LJ:

From nineveh_uk: Thanks to teenaged years in which fiction for teenagers consisted almost entirely of post-apocalypse set books (plague? nuclear war? chemical war? we had ‘em all, including the one in which the hero looks down onto the smoking ruin of our school) I make a point of avoiding this kind of book.

you know, because once you don’t believe in God, it’s just a slippery slope until you start to eat babies.

In Waitrose at the weekend, prepared pork escalopes were on sale. Let me quote the serving instructions beneath the pretty picture of said dish:

Pan fry for 6 minutes
Leave to rest
Serve with a warm baby

spinach leaf salad.

Unfortunately the design of the packaging meant that the last line was easily overlooked.

And from ladyofastolat: Ooh... *shudders at the memory*. "Brother in the land"; "Plague 99"; "Children of the dust"... etc. I missed them as a teenager, but got traumatised by them in my first months as a children's librarian. I don't think I'd have coped if I'd stumbled upon them at the "proper" age.

I don't know about eating babies, but I do always think that baby changing units clearly work like waste disposal units. You flush away your unwanted baby, and swap it for a new, better one. I mentioned this to someone at work once. They looked at me as if I wasn't quite human.

Honestly, the "baby disposal" idea has had me cracking up all day!

~e - I caved and bought WWZ today. It's checked out of the LOC until November, and I simlpy couldn't wait that long! So we'll have at least one "multiple read".

reyn - Did you ever doubt that I was the legendary queen of snarky reviews? : ) I'm doing my best to make us legit! Although I think that ket's "pink flowers" background just made that task much more difficult! : ) : ) : )

10/11/2006 8:40 PM  

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