Excuse me? Would you like to read some random scenes of sadness and despair?
Well, I don’t mind if I do.
You’ve got to be some sort of masochist to read a book like this. Or, more apt, you recognize why some metal bands sing songs about oblivion or other distressing things like leper colonies, and you are prepared to wallow in that darkness. McCarthy’s poetic writing would make some excellent death metal lyrics.
The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic world, but it is not really about the post-apocalypse. Instead, it is about what is left, after all hope for the future is gone and even tomorrow may not arrive. There is so little hope in the world that the book doesn’t even have a plot. And what is left when you remove all that is a father’s kindness to his son whom he tries to protect, day after day. The setting is simple: a nuclear winter that is so bad that the world is lost. All colors have disappeared, as all plant life is black and dead, clouds cover the sun all the time and every day it rains ash on everything. Cold and dead and dark, and never has it been presented so beautifully as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
A father and his son, known to us simply as “the man” and “the boy”, travel south in what used to be the US, to escape the harsh winter. It never really becomes clear what catastrophe as befallen the world, and the names of the characters are never given, because all of that doesn’t really matter for the central theme of the book: the man and the boy surviving and protecting each other to the best of their abilities. As they go about their journey, the outside world starts to shrink. Nothing is alive, other humans are dangerous, and the memories of the old life are slowly dissipating like ash. They are, as McCarthy writes, “each the other’s world entire.”
The only thing left, the only thing to hold on to that has any meaning at all, is the relationship between the man and the boy. That goes for both the characters and the reader.
The Road is an endpoint. The book is so bare-boned in its focus and setup that it is an ultimate expression of an idea. If you feel a perverse attraction to stripping the world of value and meaning, and you follow that merciless logic to its conclusion, you get a book like this. Maybe that is another meaning of the title The Road: a dive into a harrowing stripping of meaning. In this sense of an extreme expression of an idea, the book is similar to other books, like George Orwell’s 1985, who presented an extreme conclusion of the idea of a dystopia.
The simple heartbreaking essence of the story is also helped by the simple way McCarthy wrote the conversations. Both boy and man talk in short, single lines, as if they are weary of everything. Lines that really just tell it all in their simplicity. And so also McCarthy’s disregard for punctuation. The words sort of speak for themselves.
The book might not do what you would expect it to do. It does not flesh out the greater backstory. It does not involve the main characters into an involving plot. After 50 pages you start to wonder whether McCarthy can keep this going, and keep it interesting. What I’ve found is that it has a strange cumulative effect on you. Your compassion and sense of focus grow more and more towards the man and the boy. It is the only thing to hold on to.
It is harrowing and very touching, and almost spiritual in its focus on kindness and fatherhood.