Thursday, January 1, 2009

Cannonball Read #14: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

In some of my darker hours, particularly those during the semester at American that I took a class called "America in the Nuclear Age", I have thought about what would happen if the nuclear powers of the world stopped playing this stupid game of Advanced Chicken and finally pushed their respective red buttons. On good days, I have great faith in the essential good of human beings, but by the time I get to thoughts of nuclear annihilation, it's usually a bit late, and I'm thinking about the more insidious and depressing elements of humanity. Even though I have a good imagination, have been able to observe humans under pressure, and had dedicated significant time to considerations of political behavior, the fact remains that I currently do live, and always have lived, in a world that is relatively stable and have never experienced a catastrophe that destroyed civilization as we know it. There's a certain limit to what I can wrap my brain around.

What made The Road even harder to process is that it doesn't take a complete stand on either side of things...there are good people and bad people and ambivalent people and things in this book, but none of them can stand definitively for the collective human response. The story is set in a post-something-horrific world, and the vast majority of the tale focuses on a nameless father and a nameless son, the rest of the world theoretical at best. The lack of specific details in and of itself lends a massive amount of tension to the book as a whole. The only name given in the book is to a decrepit elderly man they meet in their travels, and that name turns out to be false anyway. There are no place names, only directions travelled, and the world is by and large devoid of humans. Every encounter with the few-and-far-between fellow survivors provides a glimpse of a new kind of horror...the man and his boy come across piles of dead bodies, corpses afloat in water, a dead child horribly treated. The living people they meet are either violently hostile, organized into mobbish armies, are crazed with fear and desperation, or are so clearly dying that they are hardly human anymore. Perhaps in large part, McCarthy avoids making a statement on the human response to sudden and violent removal of society in all its forms because in crafting his landscape, it's necessary to destroy humanity altogether. The effect presents an interesting challenge to the idea that there is something fundamentally human about each of us. Maybe it's just all about peer pressure and social conformity and other environmental factors, and once you take all that away, you're left with a fairly base, torn down, busted up mammal.

For those thinking that the preceding is a lame ass summary, I'd like to assure you that I'm not leaving all that much out. A man and a boy travel down a broken road after a widescale catastrophe that has left the world a shitshow of burnt, ashen wasteland, pushing a grocery cart of everything they have in the world, trying to survive. That's what it is. To go into deeper detail would be to either spoil various plot points or ruin the effect of the story's minutae which make it so good. So basically, I ain't doin' it, and you're going to have to read it yourself.

The Road also stands as an interesting study on how we have distanced ourselves from nature. While the father and son do engage in some fairly intense MacGuyvering in order to keep alive, the major survivalist victories of their trek involve finding stashes of manmade goods, not managing to sustain themselves on the wilderness. It's not necessarily that they can't - they do manage to pull off some fairly creative use of natural resources - but rather that they just happen to wind up more driven to find these lodes of manmade items. The book is relatively trim at about 300 pages, so it's possible that this is just a casualty of its brevity; we are dropped into the story several years after whatever event decimated the planet, and the son appears to actually have been born after it happened. That being said, the reliance on manmade goods almost takes on more significance...having lived in this state for so long, why haven't they adapted to living off the land? It's obvious that the natural world was equally hard hit, but it still is striking to see them so dependent on unnatural products to survive in what has been devolved back into a scary, Hobbesian state of nature.

Obviously, everyone reading this has by now rushed out to their local bookstore to buy this superbly uplifting piece of literature about how we're all animals to each other and are going to die in what appears to be a nuclear holocaust and its ensuing aftermath. The thing is, you sort of should buy it for its uplifting qualities. Even though the whole tale is couched in this ugly, brutish environment, in the end, it is most of all about the relationship between this father and son, and their combined struggle to keep on "being the good guys." These two people are near death from the moment you meet them, but they not only manage to heroically stave off death...they do it because for each one to give in and give up would be to let the other down. By the midpoint of the book, you just have this awful, crushing feeling that there's no way it can end well, that there will be no happy ending, but what makes it so awful is that you know these two people are going to struggle on until they are completely demolished, simply for the sake of being there for each other. This relationship is the closest McCarthy comes to a definitive stand on whether humans are inherently good or evil. Contrasting the beautiful intensity of the love between father and son against the hell all around them does more to show the potential for one or the other.

I found this to be a pretty quick read once I sat down and got to it, rather than reading between phone calls at work. The book is one long string of short paragraphs, fairly widely spaced, so it's not a very dense 300 pages, though the emotional heft more than makes up for it. When talking about A Million Little Pieces, I frequently credit James Frey's writing style with lending a certain immediacy and intensity to the book, and a similar effect is in play here; the short paragraphs comprised of short sentences bring to mind a journal or diary, and imbue the whole thing with enhanced feeling. It feels a bit like someone trying to leave a record of their existance and create a reminder for themselves of who they are and what they must do. The only thing I didn't really enjoy was the absence of apostrophes (one blog I came across while looking for a picture of the book cover had an awesomely snotty line about the situation: "All apostrophes must have been burned in the fires that scorched the world."). That's mostly a personal problem, though...I get excessively fixated on missing punctuation.

287 pages

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