The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The RoadI have to thank Vanessa for lending me The Road and saying (after I first declined to borrow it) that it’s quite a good book but it’s also one of those books that you either love it or hate it. It’s always a pleasure to be surprised by the quality of a work when reading a writer for the first time and Cormac McCarthy is no different fortunately.

Wandering a Barren Earth

In brief, The Road is a post-apocalyptic story where a boy and his father journey from where ever they are supposed to be towards the south, to the sea. They seldom encounter life and when they do (or think they will) it’s usually someone in a much sorrier state than them or its the ‘bad guys’. As they make their way on foot, we get glimpses of the dismal surroundings, an occasional grotesque scene and the hardships of starvation, loneliness and uncertainty. The theme of hope and love is represented by the relationship between father and son.

Quick Prose with Subtext

What I liked here was the prose. While I’d normally be irritated at writers who choose to change convention with things like quotations or sentence construction etc.. the fact that there was no punctuation other than full stops (or the scarce comma for subclauses) didn’t bother me one bit. In fact it made the experience all the more enjoyable because McCarthy opted for short simple sentences, which represented both the urgency and the bleakness that the characters faced.

The descriptions were at the right level, not too detailed or gory but occasionally hinting at that, which left a lot for my imagination. They also added to the novel’s bleakness as well without going into overkill. The boy and his father – both nameless –  had short, succinct dialogue, just enough to reveal what kind of characters they were and the relationship they had without any narrative explanations needed to elaborate on this. McCarthy certainly has a technique all of his own at work here and it’s simply beautiful.

The Plot Holds Back

What bothered me was the repetitiveness of situations making the pace slow. Twice I thought I was going to deal with the boy and his father starving but then they would stumble upon a stash of food. Likewise I thought at several junctures in the story they were going to face the ‘bad guys’ but this never materialized, and I’m still not sure what to make of the action scene at the end of the book.

Basically McCarthy painted a picture of people who were cannibals and ‘evil’ but I never encountered them. That left me wanting… and yet, was that the whole idea – the power of suggestion? Or the fear the characters had of the unknown that helped spur them to their goal?

Which brings me to another point, the goal seemed bleak too! Why head South to the sea when you don’t even know for sure that there are other ‘good guys’ alive or where they may be. I suppose all this points to the plot and my dislike of its deployment. One gap too many for the me to fill which didn’t make it come across as tight enough or convincing enough. I think the emphatic focus on the boy, his father and their relationship outbalanced the plot and the action involved with it, this in a story where the plot would have been as equally useful.

McCarthy for me

I’m curious now to read some more of his novels. I’ve read about some of them and they seem interesting enough. I’m interested in his style of writing and how different or similar it will be across his books.

Any recommendations?

Samir

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16 thoughts on “The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  1. This book lived in a cupboard for years until last summer when I decided to give it go. As one who doesn’t normally love fiction, I was blown away by his style – quite brilliant in its poetic quality – became a bit McCarthy obsessed. Started Blood Meridian and my old habits kicked in – too many other books opened, never finished. Wish I had read No Country instead of seeing movie – dug movie so much decided it ruined any chance for novel. I had forgotten my McCarthy obsession til now – still wish to read his play. Good luck ~ a

  2. I started with All the Pretty Horses, perhaps his least bleak novel and loved it. The a couple of years later (like last year) I read The Crossing which I reviewed on my blog. I’m saving the last book in this Border Trilogy for another day and perhaps The Road eventually as well.

    I’m a fan of his writing, though wary of where he takes us, however it’s a well trodden path and even his bleakest I am tempted by some great reviews from appreciators of his work. I also read No Country for Old Men before the film was made, a good read.

  3. I read it years ago, so with this much time between me and the book, these things aren’t what I remember, but rather the horror of what is the come, the absolute misery of the book. When ever someone mentions it I get a terrible feeling inside me. I know there were things about the book that were not perfect, but I don’t remember those. I just remember the way he made bleak a tangible thing. I had not though about how distance between me and a book made a difference before, so thank you.

  4. I just finished reading this book last week and, for some reason, also needed some convincing before reading it! What’s funny is that I liked it for the reasons you didn’t and I didn’t like it for the reasons you did 🙂

    I didn’t love the style because I felt like I have seen it done more effectively in other novels (the lack of punctuation) so that ended up interfering with my reading a little. But I did like the slow pace of the novel, the fact that things were suggested but often never confronted head on.

    It’s funny that we had a similar feel for the book, both before and after reading it, but for different reasons!

    1. letizia, I love this… it just goes to show that a writer can never please everyone, even those who like the work 🙂

      Have you read any other books of his?

  5. I liked the plot of this book. I think the quest for something better when you know there’s probably nothing better to be found encapsulates the whole story. Just like the father and son clinging to the idea of something more – love, hope, mercy – while the rest of the world has moved on, they take on a journey leading nowhere. They are dinosaurs in this brave new world.

    SPOILER ALERT!

    That’s why I read the end of the story as a tragedy. The father dying and the son being used and discarded by seemingly nice people who would never take him in. I know most people see the book as a story of how hope can survive no matter how bleak. I see it as a tale of desperate love in a hopeless situation.

    1. Yes I see what you mean with the book being a tragedy and I do like your take on it being a tale of desperate love in a hopeless situation. If anything, McCarthy has certainly established how hopeless the situation is.

      I do like the plot except I feel it is incomplete. I kept thinking of Chekov’s gun with regards to the cannibals. As for the repetitiveness, I did not feel it was necessary to establish the bleakness because his descriptive prowess was enough to paint that picture.

      Thanks for commenting.

      1. I can see that. I’d have to re-read it to decide whether or not I thought it was too repetitive, but as it’s in my bookshelf, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

        Did you see the movie? You might like its take on the cannibals.

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