Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book Review: The Road


The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy. Paperback, 287 pages. 

Awards: Pulitzer Prize, James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.

Summary: A man is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to protect his son from the horrors of a post-apocalyptic world. For a more detailed summary, click here.

Excerpt:

He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said.
     Yes. Of course.
     Are we going to die?
     Sometime. Not now.
     And we're still going south.
     Yes.
     So we'll be warm.
     Yes.
     Okay.
     Okay what?
     Nothing. Just okay.
     Go to sleep.
     Okay.
     I'm going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?
     Yes. That's okay.
     And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
     Yes. Of course you can.
     What would you do if I died?
     If you died I would want to die too.
     So you could be with me?
     Yes. So I could be with you.
     Okay.
He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.

STATS

Writing Quality: 9/10

Depth of Concept: 9/10

Rounded Characters: 8/10

Well-Developed World: 9/10

Page Turner: 9/10

Kept Me Thinking: 10/10
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Overall Recommendation: 10/10


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 9/10. I debated whether to score this higher or lower. Without a doubt, I think McCarthy is one of the best writers I've read. The first of his novels I read was All the Pretty Horses, and I could pick phrases out of it that are as beautiful as anything I've encountered. This novel is different. It's a tribute to McCarthy that he doesn't always write the same way, that he can change his style to suit a story. And this story is simple, and bleak, and heartbreaking. An inordinately gilded phrase or description could break the magic of the reality McCarthy creates. So, while I mostly don't read in this novel the sort of "beautiful phrasing" that I usually look for, and that McCarthy can do whenever he wants, the style is perfect for its purpose, which in its own way might be the best measure of writing ability. Perhaps more important than any individual phrase is the way McCarthy juxtaposes different thoughts and images. So it's not always a single thought or phrase that halts you, but the extra meaning to be found in the spaces between two thoughts. McCarthy is simply brilliant at this. You can see this, I think, in the excerpt above. The dialogue forms one sort of thought, powerful in its own right. But then the father's thoughts following add a new thought, and the relationships between the two are incredible.

Depth of Concept: 10/10. What is the concept here? It's certainly more than just a haphazard exploration of a post-apocalyptic future. It's love. It's fear. It's desperation, and sacrifice, and even ugliness. At what point does love become ugliness? When does it become selfishness? These kinds of questions are not raised verbatim in the novel; rather, the novel presents situations and thoughts that naturally lead the reader to these sorts of questions. I considered scoring this lower, maybe a 9, but then as I was thinking about it, I considered that I am not aware of anyone who has ever told a story like this one before, with these kinds of ramifications, with this masterfulness. I'm sure that there is room to argue that (maybe some of the plays by Samuel Beckett, whether Endgame or Waiting for Godot, would be interesting to compare), but that's what came to my mind. At least for that reason, I think that there is rich ground to interpret the story in any number of directions, almost as though this is virgin territory. I almost wish I was in school still, or five years from now, so that I could read academic papers about this book, and about McCarthy's body of work, with the same sort of intensity that I did with other, older novels.

Rounded Characters: 8/10. I wondered if I should score this higher (or maybe even lower?). In a novel like this, so much is left unsaid, under the surface, that it can be an interesting intellectual process, to ask yourself how much is supplied by the author, and how much is supplied by yourself. And if you're into reader-response theory, one might argue that it doesn't matter. But I ended up scoring the characters slightly lower simply because I think this story may be a little less about the actual characters in the novel, and more about what the novel forces us to think about ourselves. The characters in the novel are pretty much limited to the Man and the Boy, and I care about the Boy because I care about my own family, my own daughter. I care for the Man because I see myself in him. In that sense, McCarthy leaves the characters open enough that it's possible to do that sort of vicarious reading.

Well-Developed World: 9/10. It's a sparsely written book, and because of the vagueness regarding whatever cataclysm has occurred, along with a vagueness about actual locations, some might want to see this scored lower. But I think the descriptions work perfectly for what McCarthy is trying to do, and the atmosphere of the book lingers even after you've read just one page. For that reason, I think it's an incredibly well-developed world, even if in a different way than many other novels.

Page Turner: 9/10. I might have scored this higher, but the fact for me was that there were some points where I just didn't want to read anymore. I was feeling a little bit overwhelmed, and I needed a sort of spiritual and emotional break to process what I had been reading. Sometimes reading it is like watching a car wreck, where you just can't stop turning the pages, but it's not exactly a pleasurable experience. But it's always a meaningful one, and the pages fly by even when you're hurting for the characters.

Kept Me Thinking: 10/10 Absolutely. Not in the sort of cosmic, "there's so much out there" sort of way that I found in Moby Dick or Midnight's Children, but in a more intimate, personal, and painful way. This is not an easy book to read, partly because of what the characters experience, but especially because of what it makes you experience. Early on, we get this from the Man: "He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?" What is it? I can guess a few terrible things. And there's no easy answer.
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Overall Recommendation: 10/10. Repeated: this is not an easy book to read. Think of bad things that happen to people. Really bad things. This is a book where you read about them. But at the same time, there is hope and there is tenderness that counters that oppressiveness. Only you can be the judge of what you can take emotionally. But this is a beautiful, tragic book, and it may make you a better person, more ready, more capable of loving those close to you. I might also suggest that it might be even harder to read, and perhaps even more meaningful/heartbreaking, if you have children of your own. McCarthy has stated that he wrote it with his young son as an inspiration.

Books To Compare: Many reviewers have compared McCarthy to Faulkner, which is certainly a respectable comparison. I've not read a lot of Faulkner, but there is a similar sort of stream-of-consciousness prose style to both. But they're probably most similar in the sense that both used conventions of punctuation and syntax only where they felt like it, and as both were masters, they could get away with it. The Faulker novel that stands out most strongly in my mind is As I Lay Dying, and now I want to go back and reread those two novels together. My wife, who is a deep thinker, the one who forced me to read Crime and Punishment (itself an interesting comparison, in terms of themes), couldn't get past the first couple pages of her first McCarthy novel because she couldn't stand his liberties with punctuation. I'm not sure how she feels about Faulkner. I'd also suggest that a lot by Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot, Endgame, etc.) would make for intriguing comparisons. If you want to go way back, I'd make an argument for reading Paradise Lost as a companion work . . . you've got similar themes of sacrifice, pain, and fighting to survive, as well as themes of guilt and redemption, all within the context of world-ending events, and surrounded by terrible creatures. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out The Road on Amazon.

4 comments:

  1. Yes! Finally a Cormac McCarthy fan who actually appreciates The Road for its writing instead of the apocalyptic theme (also awesome) and/or the movie.

    Have you read Blood Meridian? It makes you wonder how much early Stephen King McCarthy has read.

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    1. I've only read All the Pretty Horses and The Road from cover to cover, though I've had Blood Meridian, Suttree, and No Country for Old Men in my stacks of library books in the last few months. I just keep running out of time before I get to them and have to return them. Same with Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and V. But I'll get to them soon...

      Thanks for visiting!

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  2. I think Jen might have it backwards, Stephen King reads lots of Cormac McCarthy. Talks about it quite a bit too. Another author in this same vein, though not always sci-fi/fantasy, is Michael Chabon. Most of his books are excellent, but Summerland in particular is right in with the books you are reviewing.

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    1. Although King published Carrie 10 years before McCarthy published Blood Meridian, I'd be inclined to think that Rick is right. If McCarthy DOES read Stephen King, it strikes me he'd never admit it. That's not to say King is bad, just that McCarthy doesn't hide his disdain for a lot of popular (and even critically acclaimed) authors.

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