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Monday, 5 April 2010

The Road: the novel, the critics and the film

 The Road (novel)

Ultimately, The Road suggests that no matter how bleak our existence, we must live life as if it has meaning. As if our progenitors are watching; as if there is a line separating the good guys from the bad guys.[1]



When I first read about Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road it was early days. Not much fuss had been made about it. I knew nothing about him. It could have been his first book for all I knew. I liked the premise and so stuck it on my Amazon wish list and pretty much forgot about it until I unwrapped a copy of the paperback at Christmas or maybe even the Christmas before that. By the time I knew that it had been filmed really all I could tell you about the book was that it involved a father and a son wandering down a road after an apocalypse. There was an article in some film magazine my wife bought me but I basically looked at the pictures and that was that.

The Novel

So when I picked up the book to read a couple of days ago I was in a pretty good place. I glanced at the excerpts from reviews on the back cover, the inside cover, the first page, the second page and the third page. That felt like overkill I have to say. Suffice to say, praise was being heaped on this book from everyone from The Big Issue to the Times Literary Supplement. I felt like I was being told: “If you don’t agree with all of these people then you’re just stupid.” It was a bit off-putting if I’m being honest. I didn’t waste my time reading them. I simply turned to the start of the novel and began reading:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reached out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.

This sets the tone for the whole book. It never lets up. Page after page of bleakness; repetitive language and descriptions; laconic, frequently monosyllabic conversations. There’s nothing left to talk about.

mary-shelley1 Post-apocalyptic stories are not new. Mary Shelley is credited with writing the first work of modern apocalyptic fiction. The last portion of her 1826 novel The Last Man involves a man living in a future world emptied of humanity by plague. Some, of course, would argue that the flood of Noah’s day is the first apocalyptic story. In time writers devised other ingenious ways to decimate the world like attack by extraterrestrials but the one I grew up with was the fear of annihilation by nuclear holocaust. To its credit The Road never dwells on what happened. One can speculate but that’s all. There are flashbacks but mostly to things that happen after the event itself.

Secondly where this differs from many works in this sub-genre, we witness events several years into the future unlike those storylines that take us through the apocalypse survivors and deal with the imminent issues as in the TV series Survivors. The child was born into this world. He has never seen the sun in all its glory or the stars. This is all he knows.

This is not a dystopian novel. There is no society good or bad simply small groups or individuals surviving according to their consciences. The consciences of some have rationalised that cannibalism is necessary and acceptable. Others, including the boy and his father, still believe that to be wrong. Morality is not dead. Belief is not dead. The human spirit is not dead. In that respect this is a very spiritual book and although the pair cling to a belief in God and an afterlife this is not as religious a tome as you might imagine despite lines like:

He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

McCarthy was bought up as a Catholic but he doesn’t really regard himself as a spiritual person:

I would like to be. Not that I am thinking about some afterlife that I want to go to, but just in terms of being a better person[2]

900-oatesThey were not always alone. They boy’s mother stayed with them for some years in fact until she lost hope and walks out into the darkness one night. I couldn’t stop myself thinking of Lawrence Oates when I read that bit, the Antarctic explorer who committed suicide by slipping out into a blizzard, with the words "I am just going outside and may be some time". It’s not presented in that stiff-upper-lipped British fashion but there’s not much difference. Scott and the other two could have fallen on him and tried to stop him just as the father in the book could have tried to restrain his wife. With Oates we have a whole history up to that moment. We learn very little about the wife in the book and so I found myself struggling to decide how I felt about her decision. He does plead with her. Her response is not as brief as Oates’ but it’s every bit as eloquent:

I am begging you. I’ll do anything.

Such as what? I should have done it a long time ago. When there were three bullets in the gun instead of two. I was stupid. We’ve been over all of this. I didn't bring myself to this. I was brought. And now I’m done. I thought about not even telling you. That would probably have been best. You have two bullets and then what? You cant protect us. You say you would die for us but what good is that? I’d take him with me if it weren't for you. You know I would. It’s the right thing...

Some time has passed though since then – years probably. The man has changed and the boy has grown. It is interesting to see how McCarthy apportions humanity between them. The father is dutiful and protective, the son compassionate and grateful. There is a very touching scene when the two of them come across a store of food and the boy wants to give thanks to the people who have left it. He says to his father...

Do you think we should thank the people?

The people?

The people who gave us all this.

Well. Yes, I guess we could do that.

Will you do it?

I dont know how.

Yes you do. You know how to say thank you.

The boy sat staring at his plate. He seemed lost. The man was about to speak when he said: Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldnt eat it no matter how hungry we were and we’re sorry that you didnt get to eat it and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.

He looked up. Is that okay? he said.

Yes. I think that’s okay.

McCarthy stated in his Wall Street Journal exchange that many of the lines in The Road are verbatim conversations his young son John.

You’ll notice from the section above that McCarthy uses non-standard punctuation in this book. He’s not the first to do that. There’s not too much of it and all words are English so it’s not that language has crumbled away along with everything else.

Of his decision to eschew quotation marks and semicolons, he says, "You shouldn't block the page up with weird little marks. If you write properly, you shouldn't have to punctuate." At the same time, "You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks to guide people, and write in such a way that it won't be confusing as to who is speaking."[3]

The man and the boy – they are never named – are not wandering aimlessly. They have a goal. They are following the road, some unnamed highway, to the coast and from there the plan is to head south to – hopefully – warmer climes. The sea is blue on the “tattered oilcompany roadmap” he carries, a map that has long since fallen to pieces, and the boy wonders if the sea will be blue. Needless to say he is disappointed. From the loose descriptions it sounds like they are aiming for the east Piedmontmap coast of America (Piedmont Plain is specifically mentioned) but it could be anywhere. When we first encounter them the man thinks it may be October but isn’t sure. He's not kept a calendar for years.

There’s not much action in this book. Mad Max it is not. These are two people who have survived on their wits and no doubt with a bit of luck too. They are continually vigilant – the store cart the man shoves has been fitted with a mirror so he can watch behind them – and they are exceptionally cautious, going to great pains to hide their scant belongings before investigating any promising houses they encounter on the way. They have to take chances but every effort is taken to minimise the danger. They have a gun. At the start of the book they even have two bullets but the father is forced to kill a man to safeguard his son and the final bullet is reserved for the boy who has been instructed on how to most effectively kill himself rather than fall into the hands of bad men:

You wanted to know what the bad buys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?


He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.

Yes. We’re still the good guys.

And we always will be?

Yes. We always will be.


The man has lost everything bar the boy. Most of it has been wrenched from him but there are a few things he has still to let go of himself. You see this in the section where the two of them come across the home where the man grew up. They wander from room to room touching things:

He felt with his thumb in the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes that had held stockings forty years ago. This is where we used to have Christmas when I was a boy. He turned and looked out at the waste of the yard. A tangle of dead lilac. The shape of a hedge. On cold winter nights when the electricity was out in a storm we would sit at the fire here, me and my sisters, doing our homework. The boy watched him. Watched shapes claiming him he could not see. We should go, Papa, he said. Yes, the man said. But he didnt.

A discovery in the living room shocks us (and him?) back to reality, “the bones of a small animal dismembered and placed in a pile. Possibly a cat.” It’s a simple and very effective image.

I don’t know about you but I couldn’t not think of Beckett when the man says they should go and doesn’t move. It reminded me of the end of each of the acts of Waiting for Godot where the pair agree to leave and then don’t.

I’m not the only one to see nods to Beckett in this work. Adam Mars-Jones in his review for The Observer takes an instance well into the book where the pair run across an old man and the boy’s compassion takes charge and they end up spending a night with the man and sharing some food with him.

The Beckettian passage is one where the man and boy encounter an old man tapping his way along with a stick. He claims he knew what was coming:

People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.

In this rare bit of a dialogue with a stranger, there's a sense of play-acting, even pleasure in the exchange of profound platitudes:

Do you wish you would die?

No. But I might wish I had died. When you're alive you always got that ahead of you.

Or you might wish you'd never been born.

Well. Beggars cant be choosers.

You think that would be asking too much.

What's done is done. Anyway, it's foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.

Still, the Irish existential flavour here ... is a little strong.[4]

There is more but that’s enough to give you the idea. Still I’m sure Beckett could have slipped “There is no God and we are his prophets” somewhere into Endgame.

A lot of what you’d expect to see happen in a post-apocalyptic novel happens: they meet good guys, they meet bad guys, they find things, they lose things. This book is not about all of those things. It is a character study, a character study of Man, specifically the father and the son, but more broadly mankind in general.

The big problem is how to end a book like this. There's no neat way. And very few options. One could die or they both could. The author could leave them wandering into the sunless sunset and let us make our own minds up. Or they could find an oasis in this desert world. Even in Beckett’s darkest play, Endgame, Clov spies a boy wandering in the wilderness. Obviously I’m not going to tell you. Suffice to say I think he made the right choice and it’s a careful choice too. Not too many words. Enough scope for his readers to contribute some meaning to this moment. We don’t learn what the fate of mankind will be though, if they become extinct or what and that was a wise choice. You need to know when to stop writing.

I liked the book. I read it quickly over two days. It’s 307 pages long but there’s a lot of white space and it’s an easy read. A friend described it as “a train wreck” and it is. You can hardly tear your eyes away from the page.

The Critics

critic Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 and selling over 400,000 copies this is not a book that has received universal praise. In Amazon there were 303 five-star reviews but also 38 one-star reviews; some people really hated it and I’d like to address some of the objections.

  • Unscientific
  • Derivative
  • Badly written
  • Monotonous
  • Tame
  • Pretentious

Okay so they were planting and rebuilding within five years at Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Chernobyl. I think there’s a danger in reading this book too literally in exactly the same way one doesn’t want to question the technobabble in a Star Trek episode. The simple fact is we don’t know what caused this disaster. In a “conversation” with The Wall Street Journal McCarthy sets the record straight:

A lot of people ask me. I don't have an opinion. At the Santa Fe Institute I'm with scientists of all disciplines, and some of them in geology said it looked like a meteor to them. But it could be anything—volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important.[5]

The lack of names annoyed some people. I was thinking about this in bed last night and trying to remember the last time I called my wife by her name. There’s just the two of us. If one of us starts talking the other naturally assumes they’re being spoken to. Besides the man does have a name: “Papa”.

If you were going to write a book set in space there would be a checklist of things you would need for your people to survive in space; a spacecraft of some sort would be a good start. Who’s going to come along and complain about that and say, “Oh, I could give you a list the length of my arm of books with spaceships in them.” That would be silly. And it’s just as petty to pick up on all the things that The Road has in common with the books and films that preceded it. It’s his mix that’s different. There are gangs travelling the roads in Mad Max but they’re the focus of that film which was called The Road Warrior in some countries on its initial release. Most of the time there are no gangs in this book. The knowledge that they’re out there is quite enough.

McCarthy is not the first author to use unconventional punctuation. Beckett certainly has. I’m not sure what is gained by it but I didn’t find it a stumbling block and got used to it very quickly. The sentences are mostly short but if flows just fine.

McCarthy's style owes much to Faulkner's -- in its recondite vocabulary, punctuation, portentous rhetoric, use of dialect and concrete sense of the world -- a debt McCarthy doesn't dispute. "The ugly fact is books are made out of books," he says. "The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written."[6]

One reviewer remarked that whole chunks of this book could be shifted around and no one would notice. I agree. A grey, drab landscape is all there is to describe. But he doesn’t spend pages and pages on his descriptions, just a few sentences here and there.

He studied the sky. There were days when the ashen overcast thinned and now the standing trees along the road made the faintest of shadows over the snow. (Page 107)

They moved on east through the standing dead trees. They passed an old frame house and crossed a dirt road. ... The unseen sun cast no shadow. (Page 71)

They walked out through the woods. The light was failing. They followed the flats along the upper river among huge dead trees. (Page 40)

The country went from pine to liveoak and pine. Magnolias. Trees as dead as any. (Page 209)

They went on. What they came to was a cedar wood, the trees dead and black but still full enough to hold the snow. Beneath each on a precious circle of dark earth and cedar duff. (Page 99)

Everything is the same but different. The same goes for the houses they investigate and the people they encounter. The pallet may be monochrome but there’s a great deal of beauty to be found in a black and white photograph; you see things differently, often clearer.

As for tame, yes, it is. It’s a chamber piece. It’s not without its exciting bits – they get chased by cannibals – but they’ve survived by learning how to avoid trouble. So very few exciting bits but the tension is palpable. Dwelling on what the book isn’t is a very good way of missing what it is. There is really a lot of conflict throughout the book between the man and his son. They may cling to each other but they often disagree as to what course of action to take . . . and the man isn’t always right.

As far as the book’s being pretentious the only person who could answer that would be the author, his publisher and more importantly those marketing the product; I include reviewers in that list too. Are they trying to pass off this book as something it clearly isn’t? Well, yes, some have. This book is clearly different things to different people. Some maintain it is a pile of dross:

This book is vile. This book is a lie. It is a festering wasteland of despair and sadistic pathos pretending to contain some freakish remnant of love.[7]

whereas others think McCarthy should be nominated for a Nobel Prize off the back of it. It is what it is.

Saul Bellow Saul Bellow, who sat on the committee that in 1981 awarded McCarthy a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, exclaims over his "absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences."[8] People who get awards like that don’t write bad sentences. They make stylistic choices for reasons, reasons they don’t always share with us. No one would suggest for a second that Beckett couldn’t wield a sentence but look at his late prose work and you have to ask, “Why?” He had his reasons but he never explained them in any great length and neither does McCarthy. At the time of getting that fellowship he was fifty-eight and had never taught or written journalism, given readings, blurbed a book or even granted an interview. And there will be those who think that’s pretentious. And that would be true if he was pretending to be something he was not which seriously does not seem to be the case. He did his first interview for The New York Times in 1992 “after long negotiations with his agent in New York, Amanda Urban of International Creative Management, who promised he wouldn't have to do another for many years”[9] and there have not been many.

Some writers are just writers. That’s what they do and that’s what they want to do. Like Beckett McCarthy lived in poverty for years. His second wife recalls:

Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week.[10]

I can imagine Beckett saying something very much along those lines too.

I’ve mentioned Beckett a few times in this article. He’s a touchstone for me. I’ve read everything he’s written and so I’m always on the lookout for something that will sound a similar chord in me. For others they use the name Beckett as an insult. It’s purely a matter of personal preference. Other people saw nods to Hemingway or Steinbeck. They’re there too.

The Film

the-road-poster     This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

    T S Eliot – The Hollow Men

I watched the film adaptation the day after I finished the novel. On the whole it’s pretty faithful to the book. The trailer is misleading though. It contains stock footage that isn’t in the film and the fast pace of cutting presents a completely different experience to what the film really is. So when I saw the film I was relieved, considering what awful film adaptations have been made in the past. Case in i-am-legend-bigposter point, the three adaptations of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel: I Am Legend: The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007). Just getting the name right is no guarantee of success however.

Considering the source material and especially after the Oscar-winning success of the adaptation of McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men one might have thought that a lot of people would have been breathless with anticipation but the strange thing is, even The Road’s distributors seemed to lack faith in the film. It was released in America in only a handful of cinema’s (111) and really didn’t get the publicity it deserved. It was conspicuous by its absence during the award season and now it’s out on DVD one has to wonder if it will just slip by unnoticed. In the movie business, every time a film's release date is moved back, industry confidence and media support for the project drops at least a little bit. It was originally due to be released in Autumn of 2008 but its US release was bumped four times finally coming out on Wednesday, Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving. It cost $25 million to make and by mid-March it had pulled in just over $8 million. It’s still got a wee way to go but it’s not looking good. Compare this to I Am Legend which cost $150 million, was released in 3606 theatres in the US and has raked in $256 million so far, the future looks as bleak for The Road as its subject matter.

Is it a good film though? The aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes gives I Am Legend an overall rating of 68% (203 reviews) compared to The Road’s 76% from 185 reviews. For those who don’t regularly check this website let me assure you that 76% is a good score.

I liked it. I liked the book better. But as a complement to the book the film is near-perfect. I’m not a big far of film adaptations in general. Too many people want to chip in their ideas. One of the exceptions I always cite is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The book spends a lot of time inside the mind of “Chief” Bromden whereas in the film he’s really quite a minor, albeit pivotal, character. Both are masterpieces. (That film gets a 96% rating by Rotten Tomatoes by the way.) The film adaptation of The Road works in much the same way.

McCarthy had nothing to do with the film. He visited the set but that was about it. It has been adapted and shot by people who cared. There are inevitable tradeoffs. But there are pluses too.

The casting is perfect and the acting of a very high order. Don’t let anyone kid you; underplaying is far harder than hamming it up. Credit in particular should go to Charlize Ziegfeld Theater Theron as the wife. It’s a small part but I think she hits the nail on the head. And I loved a barely recognisable Robert Duvall as the old man.

The problem with the film, as far as marketing the thing goes (other than the fact it comes from a bestseller) is that it isn’t really a science fiction film and it’s not really a horror film; it’s certainly not family-friendly or a chick flick which is why the trailer annoyed me (which I watched after seeing the film admittedly) because it intercuts stock footage of disasters with what little action there is in the film to present it as something it really isn’t; it’s not an action film. It’s what it says on the tin, a road movie.

We are not privy to any spectacles of destruction and collapse: there are no big bangs, just a few trees crashing at one point. The special effect budget is not frittered away there. Instead the director, John Hillcoat, spent his money wisely on grand vistas of a desolate wasteland. They are beautifully rendered, if you can call such a thing beautiful.

I have two problems with the film, one minor, one not so much. The film is noisier than I expected. I’m not complaining about the soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis nick_cave_1 which is fine, pleasant, if a tad underwhelming. I just imagined the world a lot quieter. Nothing but the sound of their feet and the squeaky wheel of the cart. No biggie though.

My main gripe is with the ending. Of course I’m not going to tell you how either the book or the film ends but there is a subtle difference (nothing as crass as the happy ending the producers insisted Ridley Scott tag onto Blade Runner) but just a slight shift in focus, a softening, that I would have prepared they had not done. It’s still not a happy ending, it’s not even upbeat, but perhaps its final cadence rests on a major chord rather than a minor (a Picardy third) which feels a bit off after two hours spent in the key of misery.

This is a film that will really strike a chord with dads, mums too I expect, but dads especially. One reviewer, I can’t remember if it was of the book or the film now, says that when he’d finished he went upstairs and sat on his little boy’s bed and watched him sleep. I get that. I totally get that. I’ll leave you with some of the opening scenes of the film:




You can read an extract from The Road on, here.



[1] Benjamin Whitmer, The Road, The Modern World, 23rd October 2006

[2] The Wall Street Journal, 20th November 2009

[3] J. Daniel Janzen, ‘Ophrah’s Interview with Cormac McCarthy’, flakmagaine

[4] The Observer, 26th November 2006

[5] The Wall Street Journal, 20th November 2009

[6] The New York Times, 19th April 1992, p.4

[7] Richard, Goodreads review

[8] The New York Times, 19th April 1992, p.1

[9] The New York Times, 19th April 1992, p.2

[10] The New York Times, 19th April 1992, p.3


Ann Elle Altman said...

I haven't read the book. I'm not sure I will. I like the premise behind it and think it would be an exciting read but I need to be in the right frame of mind and not sure I can be... not now anyways.

What a wonderful review. When the hype is over, people will give your review a great deal of consideration because of it's scope.


Kass said...

This was a great review and it sounds like a book I want to read. I'm glad to hear you have a touchstone. Beckett is a good one.

The use of non-standard punctuation can be jolting at first, as it was in Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, but it does provide a different kind of expression or cadence.

Sounds like a movie I will want to rent too.

Ken Armstrong said...

Having lived with it for a little time now, I can safely declare 'The Road' as being one of my favorite books. I read it as a Dad of about the same age as the character in the book, with a son who was about the same as the boy in the book. It moved and troubled me in ways that went beyond the story being told.

I haven't seen the film and I have been reluctant to do so but you have given me encouragement so I will have it on DVD in my darkened living room some night.

Art Durkee said...

This is one of the most over-praised novels of the past decade, if not THE most over-praised. Nothing about it is original, not one single thing that most critics lauded.

In every case, those critics who thought this was new and original are the same critics who glare down their noses at speculative fiction. Of course, we all know this is a long-standing prejudice that literary fine-art literature has held against so-called genre fiction, which often contains as much or better great writing, and certainly just as much exploratory stylistic invention.

For example:

Non-standard punctuation and non-normative syntax? Russell Hoban, "Riddley Walker." Joanna Russ, "We Who Are About To." And several works by Samuel R. Delany, and a few stories by James Tiptree.

Post-apocalyptic fiction? This is a very very old genre. Probably the best SF novel on the topic remains Walter Miller's "A Canticle for Liebowitz," but I could list probably a hundred novels, and a few hundred more short stories, given enough time and space.

Actually, the best novel I've ever read on apocalyptic fiction is Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's graphic novel, "Signal to Noise," which is about apokatastasis rather than apocalypse. It also contains a critique of apocalypse within its pages, in the musings of the lead character.

Frank Wilson, in reviewing this novel, coined the phrase "the pornography of despair," which I think is a great coinage. (Another recent novel that comes to mind along these lines is LeCarre's "The Constant Gardener.")

I have to say, I think McCarthy in almost every novel of his relishes killing his characters and abusing his readers. There is something sado-masochistic about it. (Oh look, maybe this character will survive and overcome his challenges after all! .... nope, he's dead.) Of the many writerly things that McCarthy is over-praised for, the one thing that does have some merit is his ability to turn a lovely phrase, to describe beautifully, and to come up with startling similes. But there is nothing remotely original about the plot, situations, or characters in "The Road."

There IS a lot of apocalyptic fiction (and movies) these days, isn't there? One doesn't really need to wonder why. The world is in a time of scary transition, with many things that could go wrong at any moment dominating the media—and the media loves to report disaster, another form of pornography. So we live in dangerous times. Such times in history have always produced a surge of apocalyptic literature and entertainment. It only seems more crazy and intense, perhaps, because we're living through it right now.

McGuire said...

I have had the book since my birthdday last year (Dec 3rd, so you know for next time, ha) and to be honest I have avoided reading it. I avoid 'block buster' books because I can't stand the hype.

I was going to read it but alas I downloaded the film illegally and watched it first, now it will infect my reading, but I'm not so concerned. The film was morbid, to the point of assisted suicide, but I quite liked it. I'm a cynical optimist afterall. I sent my parents to watch it actually...they were devastated, I didn't realise how bad it was until they came back. Oops.

Curious film though. Secretly, I dream for civil war, all out chaos, the end of civilisation. Secretly, now publially, I want to be trying to survive in abominable conditions.

The best part in the film was the end scene, I could have cried, the boy asks, after some touching dialogue:

'Are you carrying the fire?'

Well....are you?

I am.

Jim Murdoch said...

I wouldn’t call it an exciting read, Ann, that not really the word for this book. Even the film is not exciting. It has it action sequences but it doesn’t make too much of them. They’re chased, they escape; other people are chased and don’t escape. That’s why I mentioned not being taken in by the fast editing of the trailer because this is not that kind of story. I would have thought that the hype is beginning to fade now. The book’s been out for years and the film’s now on DVD. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s being called a classic in ten years time or if it has slipped into obscurity.

I’ve done my best to be fair to both the book and the film, Kass. If you do decide to investigate them further I do hope you’re not disappointed. I’ve not heard of Reading Lolita in Tehran but I have just read a book written in a kind of twin speak which I’m busy reviewing at the moment. Although the non-standard punctuation didn’t bother me I think more is to be gained from punctuating properly. That’s the key verb here – gained – I can’t see what is gained from what he does.

I think you’re the perfect audience for this book, Ken. I actually wonder if the book would have been different had it been a mother and a daughter. And I would watch the DVD. If only as a writer comparing text to script. I always find that fascinating, what they take out, what they leave in and, more importantly, what they feel they need to add. I could only see one addition and that was some of the details in the flashbacks. I personally didn’t need them but they are so short it’s not worth quibbling about them.

I see where you’re coming from, Art. I knew you weren’t crazy about this book from your blog although to be fair I only skimmed your post because I knew I was going to read the book and I was steering clear of commentaries and critiques. If anything knowing that it had got under your skin only encouraged me to read it to see why. Of course it’s derivative. It’s hard to write about anything these days without covering ground that other people have. I certainly wouldn’t rank it as one of the greatest books ever written or anything OTT like that but I did enjoy it for what it was. Just because other people have written about something shouldn’t stop us trying to add our tuppenceworth. Even if we know we’re not going to write a classic or a masterpiece. I think this book has something worthwhile to say. To the right reader.

And, McGuire, if I were going to send my parents to see a post apocalyptic film it would be When the Wind Blows based on the Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel about an old couple after a nuclear attack on the UK. As for the end of the film, as I say in my review, they fiddle with it, not a lot but enough to spoil it for me. The ending of the book is better.

McGuire said...

Seen When the wind blows, it's animation, sure my parents have seen it. We were made to watch it in High School. Depressing little film. Watching two old people deteriorate. Jesus. Catholic guilt and nuclear war...such a healthy upbringing.

Art Durkee said...

McG: Or you could have sent them to see "What Dreams May Come" or "The Happening." Both better choices.

Jim, I mainly mentioned how unoriginal "The Road" is because so much of the critical response to it WAS that they thought it was original. They were completely wrong and too ignorant to know it; and I'm talking about reviewers and critics who should have known better, of the ilk of James Woods and other writers from that supposedly higher tier of criticism and reviewing. The responses from those folks was doubly irritating precisely because it WAS so ignorant. If I overreact to their over-praising of its originality, it's to make a point. Which I know you knew.

Of course people should read it and make up their own minds!

But on the other hand, isn't the reviewer's job to help them do that? To point them towards what they might like?

I'm perfectly happy to have many different writers handle the same themes. They each bring their own stamp to it. The more the merrier.

But if you put up "The Road" next next to many other books in the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction, it fares even worse. Purely as a matter of literary writing, not to mention treatment of the subject. Again, what was over-praised as brilliantly original just shows how ignorant most of those critics were.

I freely admit that the critical response to the book was doubly infuriating—and not only to me, but to other readers and reviewers—because, again, it showed a lot of ignorance of the sub-genre, its history, and the books in the sub-genre that are better writing. That's all.

What would be wonderful to see is a completely different take on the whole sub-genre, that didn't use such stock plot twists, stock characters, and predictable outcomes. Now THAT would be worth reading.

Dick said...

As a great fan of the post-apocalyptic novel, I would agree with Art Durkee that 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' is a fair contender for best in genre. Then we part company; I thought that 'The Road' was superb. Bleak, yes; despairing, no. It's about love, mutual sustenance and hope.

Jim Murdoch said...

A strange thing to be made to watch at school I would have thought, McGuire. Makes me feel old.

Tell me about it, Art. I read up as much as I have time for on every book I review. Especially the ones where I’m new to the author. I quite like coming in without any baggage as was the case here. It helps me judge the book on its own merits and not by comparison to the author’s previous efforts. But my tastes are my tastes and no one is going to like everything I like. The hardest thing is reviewing a book I’ve not been crazy about but that I know will be popular. I think I’d go crazy if I only had to review books I was sent.

My last thought about this book is one of perspective: is it a post-apocalyptic novel which just happens to feature a father and son or is it a novel about a father and his son that just happens to be set after an apocalypse? I think those who read the book as the latter are the ones who are more likely to be taken with it. It’s a theory anyway.

And, Dick, it’s been years since I read A Canticle for Leibowitz. I remember how it starts but that’s about it. I think I may stick that back on my to-be-read shelf but don’t hold your breath.

Dave King said...

Hi Jim
This is my umpteenth attempt to leave a comment. Each time I clicked on the link I got a page of scribble suggesting that I'd entered the wrong address!

Ah, well, now to business: You don't make it easy for us, do you? I don't know either the book or the film. I began reading your post and thought it might be my sort of book, then thought definitely not and finally that I'd have to read it to find out for myself. Reading the other comments, now that I can, hasn't taken me any further, so I guess that's it: I'll have to read the book. One thing I will say: I thoroughly enjoyed reading the post.

Jim Murdoch said...

At least you finally managed to get a comment up, Dave. There’s one site I visit regularly where it tells me that every comment I make is over 5000 characters no matter how long it is and I have to send e-mails which I’m fine with but the nice thing about comments is that you get to publicly show your support.

As for The Road I think that’s a fair position to be in. And there are plenty of books out there where opinions are polarised. That’s why I decided to present the pros and cons here because I can see why some people would absolutely hate this book. Some of those people cited Beckett as an example – “It’s as bad as reading Beckett!” – and you know what I think of Beckett. But he’s another one where people tend to back into one of two corners.

The bottom line is that this isn’t a bad book. It’s just been overhyped. I remember going to see Tim Burton’s Batman after years of reading every scrap of information I could find about it. No film could possibly live up to my expectations which is why I tend to skim reviews of things I have a real interest in. The good thing about a book like this is that it’s been out a while and there’ll be plenty of cheap copies kicking around.

Milo James Fowler said...

Loved the book; read it in two days (which is fast for me). Have been wary about the movie, though, and never caught it while in the theaters. But after reading your post, I'm more likely to rent the DVD in a few months.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad to be of assistance, Milo. I can't really imagine going to the cinema to watch a film like this. In fact there's something about sitting in your cosy home surrounded by your loved ones and treasured possessions that's so right.

Elisabeth said...

I want to read The Road, Jim, but I don't think I can bring myself to - partly all the hype, partly the despair, partly my present stare of mind which is making everything seem difficult.

Thanks, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Then leave it, Elisabeth. As has been pointed out in the comments the book is not so outstanding that you should drop everything and rush out and buy a copy. If you run across a cheap one somewhere along the lines you'll hopefully remember what's been said and, depending on your mood, you'll buy it or not and then once you've bought it, if you're anything like me, it'll lie around for a year or two before you discover it and go, "You know what, I've been meaning to see what all the fuss was about."

Once Known as The Badger said...

I've read this book five times. In fact, I've read all of McCarthy's work, and most of them several times. Your review is outstanding. It is refreshing to find such an in depth review of what many would consider such a dismal work. Most of the people I know find McCarthy unreadable. I don't have much to say to them. The gap is nearly unbridgeable. His work stands as some of the best, ever.

Rachel Fox said...

A good thorough post. I wasn't really intending to read the book but I might give it a go now. I am reading A.S.Byatt's 'The Children's Book' just now. It is fantastic - get to it!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Badger. I’m a fan of a few ‘unreadable’ writers myself.

And, Rachel, I seem to remember John Baker talking about The Children's Book but 624 pages is a big book. I’d love to say I’d get round to it but I could read three books for that one. I’ve just received a review copy that’s 450 pages and I’m tired just holding it.

Rachel Fox said...

Size is irrelevant - it's So worth the effort! It's one of those novels that really is about EVERYTHING (well, except possibly football...I haven't come across a football reference yet).

Skip said...

I applaud the thoroughness of the review; I loved the book but have been waiting on the movie. I've recommended The Road to at least a dozen people, most of whom liked it. The thing I noted in all of the reactions, though, was that everyone described it as an 'experience,' more than a book. Not sure about another book where people have had such a visceral response. As far as I'm concerned, this warrants a read just to have a singular kind of reading experience.

Jim Murdoch said...

I tend to agree with you, Skip. If I hadn't already got a copy of the book I would have been tempted to check it out for myself purely on the basis of the radically different (and passionate) views held. A book like that has to have something. I'm glad I read it. I'd read him again.

Jennifer said...

I've skipped the movie review here (perhaps someday I'll see it, if I can stomach it), but really enjoyed your book review with some background on McCarthy that helped flesh it out for me. Interesting comparisons to Beckett, too.

I tried to read this book. It didn't work as bedtime reading for me, and while I can appreciate the language and want to attempt it again someday (like maybe after my boy is an adult), it truly unsettled my sleep. Outside of the cannibalism and the cold, it was the difficulty of finding food that really struck me. That and something about it felt very possible.

Reading it for the style and the language, which is deceptively simple, was an education, too, at least for as long as I lasted. His points on not needing quotation marks, on knowing from the writing who is speaking, is something to think about.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Jennifer, I think I’m starting to see that those people who really connect with this book are those who can see themselves there. That said I never spent any time while I was reading the book imagining me dragging my daughter around a post apocalyptic Scotland probably because she’s a grown woman herself now. Had it been the story of a woman dragging her old da around I might have connected with that a bit more. Maybe I simply don’t engage with the text in the way some people do. I enjoy it for what it is but from a safe distance, always the observer.

Weorc said...

I'm completely in Art's camp on this one. I read it avidly enough, but certain artists and their cheering sections get under my skin and make my responses over the top. (And I mean you, Philip Roth!) Even when I see some of the virtues, I still feel cranky. I used to teach Sci-Fi for awhile, so I did have the problem not with lack of originality, but the awareness that this had been done so much better elsewhere. (Though your question about is it a book about a man and his son that just happens to be in a wasteland gives me pause.) Unlike your response, I hated the ending. MC Carthy wants to assert some kind of mystical metaphoric insight that doesn't grow out of the rest of the book. Is this a tale of a weary old testament god dragging his son toward incarnation? "We have been waiting for you" indeed.

But it was the details that drove me crazy, especially the grocery cart. You can't even push a grocery cart to your car in the grocery parking lot when it's slushy, let alone cross country. It was as if he began this worthy existential concept--why do humans continue to struggle in the face of death and meaninglessness--but then couldn't put in the time to think it through. Wouldn't it be cool if the grove of trees just spontaneously burst into flame? Why not? Burning bush deconstructed.

But thanks to you and all your respondents for making me guiltily turn aside from my unreasonable response to a book I read with enjoyment, but but then turned against in retrospect. I may even have to go back and reread it. Nah, but maybe I'll reread THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.

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