Thursday, January 04, 2007

BOOK: Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"

The Road is a goose-stepping novel: militarily precise, stiff, and—for a long time—a story that simply goes up and then right back again. This is a deliberate move on the part of Cormac McCarthy, who sets his novel in a post-apocalyptic near-future not because he wants to write a science-fiction novel, but because the bleak, lonely setting lets him focus his already pared language on two archetypal characters: the man and the boy. For extra emphasis, the two are father and son, and both are starving. McCarthy takes everything away from these characters, up to and including the clothes on their backs, so that he can distill the essence of a relationship, to study it under the pretense of a genre-thriller (think Stephen King’s The Gunslinger). But The Road is no more a tale of horror than his previous novel, No Country for Old Men, was a Western: it traffics in some truly disturbing and gruesome scenes, but it always returns, with the forceful restraint of the goose-step, to the elder and the younger.

For the first half, the plot is entirely caught up in the brisk, clipped narrative. The sentences are short, the scenes just as short, and the dialogue intensely pithy.

Is it okay for us to take it?
Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like we would want them to.
They were the good guys?
Yes. They were.
Like us.
Like us. Yes.
So it’s okay.
Yes. It’s okay.
It’s like reading a combination of James Ellroy and David Mamet, the end result of which is a book that’s near impossible to put down. The better comparison might be the television show Lost, in that there is so much action taking place right off the bat that having questions answered or characters developed is a moot point. It is enough to quickly establish their existence as man and child and to inform us that the days are getting shorter and colder, and that unless they keep moving south, they will starve, freeze, or be raped and cannibalized, perhaps all at once, by the “bad guys.”

Every so often, McCarthy offers up a fragment of the past, but they worm their way so naturally to the surface that they are swallowed up in the fervor of the pacing. It doesn’t hurt that McCarthy is an old salt at description: he has found the perfect balance between the classicist’s droning paragraphs and the deconstructionalist’s strained sequences. We see things in flashes, and always in a mood-altering light, from “the ribbed steel stairs of an escalator” that has been humanized and ravaged at the same time to “[t]he chary dawn, the cold illucid world.” No object is ever aimlessly placed or without action: snow stands “in razor kerfs atop the fencewires” and the silence is “breathless.” After years of experience, the harsh world comes easily to McCarthy and even dawn is “the grudging light that passed for day.” What is perhaps most remarkable about McCarthy’s writing is that he finds, in all this desolation, hope: “The boy was so thin…. Taut face and hollow eyes. A strange beauty.” Emaciation has never sounded so literary, and McCarthy succeeds with fragments alone where other writers might go on for pages.

It’s this verbal economy that brings us back to the goose step. Because of how sparingly words are used, we’re alert to the repetition: the unfaltering ups and downs are almost Moebius in their progression. Our heroes shiver in the night, hide from the bad guys, and, when all hope is lost, find some food. That food runs out, or is stolen, or one of the two grows ill, and they shiver in the night, hide from the bad guys, and then find hope again. Of course, McCarthy is double-layering this loop with an ominous foreshadowing—a worsening cough, a hastening chill—and the question is whether either character will survive the inevitable break. At the same time, he is also battering down the idea of this child’s innocence: they leave behind a boy, an old man, a thief, and even work their way up to killing others. It’s very savage, very Lord of the Flies, but all so deftly written that you fall for it anyway.

“The frailty of everything revealed at last,” runs another thread. “Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all.” After he has exhausted the father/son dynamic, after he has corrupted the child and hardened the father, there’s still time for McCarthy to riddle the pages with observations on death. Not that there’s any danger of him running out of space: in the breadth of 241 tightly packed pages, there are thrilling chases, philosophical observations, realistic conversations, and an evocative mood that most books would sell their first three chapters for.

The Road is as entertaining as it is interesting, not to mention thought-provoking, too. Little truisms pop up out of the corner of every paragraph—“If trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it”—and the end result is a book that’s so dense it’s impossible to skim. And why would you want to? Bleak as this near-future is, it’s a world that you’ll find yourself leaving all too soon.

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