By Cormac McCarthy
I watched that stupid horror movie The Ring late at night, in the dark, by myself. I was sitting there in my flanny PJ's going, “Oh this is stupid... that’s not scary!... Oh there’s more plot-holes here than in a cheese-grater” and when it finished I thought, “Well, that was dumb as.”
Then I got into bed. My heart was racing. I was petrified. I turned on all the lights and put on The Young Ones.
I had a similar reaction to The Road. It hit me a day later.
I read it in one sitting. I’d read 10 pages of it the week before, lost it, found it under my car seat and so started again after tea one night and with the help of coffee, cigarettes, bachelordom and the occasional stretch, I was done my midnight.
I slept like a log, worked the next day, then after tea the following night I saw it laying about and suddenly found myself reacting to everything I’d read the night before. I became glum! I was moved by the characters’ plight! I got the shakes for a few minutes (though I did have a cold and those Codrals, man, they rock).
It’s a harrowing book, and if you give yourself time and space to think it all out, it’s fucking nerve-wracking.
It’s a micro-cosmic version of Saramago’s Blindness or Camus’ The Plague, and it’s a novel version of Lord Byron’s terrific poem Darkness which I will link to here.
The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth and it’s about a man and his son, never named, who wander about trying to find food. That’s it. But that’s all McCarthy needs. He doesn’t go into boring explanations as to why the Earth is covered in ash which blocks out the sun and darkens the waterways, or why there are no animals or vegetation left. It just is that way, and the humans that are left wandering about are either cannibals or not cannibals. That’s the human division that remains.
There is the odd ‘flashback’ but he spares us the intricacies and instead serves us all the horror.
“... all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land... blackened looters who tunnelled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell.”
The planet is black and the dead are everywhere. It’s so bleak, like an Einsturzende Neubauten album. Everywhere they go is charred, desolate and freezing cold and it never lets up.
They come into a city: “The long concrete sweeps of the interstate exchanges like the ruins of a vast funhouse against the distant murk... The mummied dead everywhere. The fresh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth.”
The man tells the boy that they are ‘carrying the fire’ – of humanity, is the inference. They are not cannibals.
The man’s only motivation is the well-being of his son. “... he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
History, names, art, science... none of it matters any more.
Speaking of Saramago, one of his lines also came to me while reading The Road: “...for in places of damnation we’re almost certain to find men and women with the animals that keep them company until the moment comes to slaughter them in order to live.” McCarthy takes this one step further, and one planet further.
What’s great about the book is that at every turn we find ourselves emotionally investing in the man and his son. We want them to find food. We want them to get away when they’re chased. We want them to be safe at night and to hide their camp-fires so none of those dirty cannibals can find them. Meanwhile, we can smell/see the landscape that McCarthy describes so we’re right in the thick of the action (the landscape itself is as strong a 'character' as the man and the boy are).
The world McCarthy has given us is exactly as Byron says in his poem: "All earth was but one thought--and that was death."
And to quote Saramago again, “...but, when all is said and done, whoever goes, goes, whoever remains, remains.”
It’s such a simple notion, but from it, writers, good writers, can launch tremendous works of art.
My review of No Country For Old Men was just, “Can’t wait for the movie”, and I have the same review to make of The Road. But maybe I cheapened No Country For Old Men. Two books in, maybe I’m just starting to work out this McCarthy fellow. I bought Blood Meridian so I’ll see how that goes.
There’s been a lot written of McCarthy in recent years, and my contribution is just to say that he’s a ‘very entertaining writer’. I'm sure Lord Byron would dig him. I’ll leave it to others more inquisitive and perceptive than I to examine his motivations and his subtexts and his contributions and relevance to literature. I’ll just enjoy his books, I reckon, wallow in his misery and recommend The Road to anyone and everyone.
I give it an A-.