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.
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.
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.
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 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
They 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 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."
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 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.
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.
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.
- Badly written
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.
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."
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.
whereas others think McCarthy should be nominated for a Nobel Prize off the back of it. It is what it is.
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." 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” 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.
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.
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 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 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 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 Ophrah.com, here.