November 16, 2007

Book review: "The Road," by Cormac McCarthy

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Road
By Cormac McCarthy
Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf / ISBN: 0-307-26543-9

So when I first heard that it was Cormac McCarthy who authored the Pulitzer-winning ultra-bleak post-apocalyptic thriller The Road, like a lot of people my first thought was, "Wait a minute, isn't he that dude who writes them frilly Westerns that are so loved by those Oprah zombies and that get made into precious award-winning films starring that dreamy Matt Damon?" And indeed, McCarthy's most well-known novel, All the Pretty Horses, is guilty of all the things just mentioned, which I suppose is what has made me lump McCarthy's name in my head all these years with such schlockmeisters as Larry McMurtry and Nicholas Sparks. But the more I've heard about The Road this year, and the more that people I admire can't seemingly shut up about it, and the more I investigate McCarthy's life and career because of it, the more I'm realizing that the picture I've had of him and his work in my head all these years is quite wrong; that McCarthy is actually a lot more known for extremely bloody and violent meditations on the limits of human depravity, using such genres as Westerns not in an attempt to sell more potboilers to desperate loners at supermarkets, but rather as a convenient metaphor for the utter lawlessness and anarchy that humankind is at its basest and least civilized.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

And this is in fact the very first thing to understand about 2006's The Road if you don't already, something that may possibly stop you from actually reading it -- that it is without a doubt the most bleak, unrelentlessly hopeless look at humanity perhaps ever caught in a mainstream novel (certainly an award-winning, Oprah-loving novel), a book that on almost every page displays not even the tiniest hint of a reason why the human race would ever be worth saving. And there's a very good reason for this, too, because McCarthy is trying to examine a very important and basic question about humanity here, one that almost can't be explored without an ultra-bleak post-apocalyptic setting; of just why it is that some humans continue to have hope in the face of such overwhelming odds, and why it is that others give up in the same situations at the specific moments they do.

It's a fascinating thing to explore, of course, especially in this age of Bushism and government-sanctioned torture, a world that's been teetering on the brink of annihilation for half a century now, climbing ever closer on a daily basis in the eyes of many; but it's also an intense question, one that McCarthy answers with a bluntness that is guaranteed to deeply upset a certain amount of readers out there, especially young ones. It is one of the more powerful and important books I've read perhaps in my entire life, but surprisingly enough it's for that very reason that I cannot in good ethics recommend it to everyone; that much like exploring the Holocaust and other grand tragedies of history, one needs to be of a certain maturity and understanding about the world before tackling The Road, or else run the risk of causing legitimate emotional damage to oneself. Yes, the book really is that upsetting at points, at least in my opinion, a fact that makes its Pulitzer win, bestseller status and Oprah embrace even more stunning than normal.

So first things first, I guess -- that after reading it, it's easy to understand why a veteran of Westerns like McCarthy would want to write a post-apocalyptic story in the first place, and why in fact it's perfectly natural for a writer like McCarthy to slide quite easily into Road Warrior territory. (And don't let its academic credentials fool you -- The Road slides into Mad Max territory quite regularly, including the requisite bands of gasoline-hunting mutant vigilante warlords, making its mainstream success even more flabbergasting.) Because ultimately the story McCarthy wants to tell here is the same one behind many traditional Westerns as well, of why humans voluntarily put themselves in such situations of great peril to begin with, of why certain people struggle to survive in situations where survival is difficult, and why certain others decide that the effort is too much bother. This is already a great topic to explore when it comes to American settlers of the 1800s, and the Great Western Migration they spearheaded; but here McCarthy wishes to push the question to its logical extreme, by creating a world where literally no traditional options for hope still exist.

The United States seen in The Road is a desolate, barren wasteland, set at least a decade after an unnamed global catastrophe that McCarthy clearly suggests was caused by a major detonation of nuclear weapons; it is a world where no vegetation has grown in ten or more years, where no animals exist and barely any humans, where the sun is permanently blocked by a 24-hour ash winter. It is a world lacking not only a government, laws, police and other civilized amenities, but a world that's been around long enough in such a state to get accustomed to the conditions -- a world, for example, where almost every dwelling that exists, even tiny farmhouses on forgotten back roads, were stripped years ago of every single element that could've possibly been of worth, from food to clothing to metal to glass to kindling. It is a world that is slowly going extinct, in fact, where an ever-decreasing human race spends the majority of their waking hours now on the desperate search for food, any food still left over from the days when their planet could actually provide its own nourishment.

In fact, it seems to me that McCarthy has something very specific to say by making the setting of his novel such a grim one, which is to metaphorically take on the times we Americans are living in as we speak -- a time in our country's history that really does seem hopeless for a lot of its citizens, where it appears to many that a small cabal of bloodthirsty fascist warlords have taken over our national government, initiating pointless wars for personal gain and letting entire major cities fall to ruin in barely-concealed acts of racial purity. It's important to get this across to international readers, difficult to get across because of it so rarely showing up on the mainstream international news -- this idea of just how horror-filled so many millions of Americans are these days by their own country and the behavior of their own fellow citizens, this growing realization that we have become "the bad guys" and that absolutely nothing can be done about it, because of the people in charge changing the very laws that keep them in power, creating a virtually unbreakable stranglehold at this point over both the government and the media, and with the very act of protesting now being semi-illegal.

All McCarthy is doing here in The Road is taking the real fear that so many Americans actually have these days about current society, and merely intensifying it a hundred-fold; to logically follow through on what the world might become because of such people being in power, because of an unchecked hierarchy of Apocalype-obsessed fundamentalists of every religion now being in charge of the world's weapons and armies. And like I said, McCarthy comes up with a majorly depressing conclusion about the world because of it, which readers need to be prepared for; that in a situation where one's very survival is at stake, most traditional thoughts we have regarding "civilized human behavior" will get chucked right out the window by most of the humans trying to survive, with certainly the fiction regarding the "sanctity of human life" being the very first one. And yes, feel free to follow such a sentiment to its most sickening conclusion if you want to prepare yourself for this novel, especially considering that this is a world where humans are the only source of uncontaminated protein left; thankfully for you I won't go into detail, but let's just say that this novel gave even me nightmares for several evenings after finishing it (seriously, it gave me literal nightmares, I'm not just using a cliche), and I'm someone who partly makes his living precisely by plumbing the depths of human horror and depravity found in our society's most disturbing artistic projects.

So why read this wrist-slasher of a novel to begin with, you might be asking at this point? Well, that's a very good question, in fact, a challenge that McCarthy throws right in your face from the very start, and for the first 50 pages doesn't seem to have much more of an answer than, "Because it won the freaking Pulitzer and made Oprah's freaking panties wet, so how freaking bad could it be?" And indeed, it can get pretty freaking bad, at least before getting used to the deliberately slow pace and deliberately grim outlook -- an utterly unreadable downer, it might seem to many at first, with there being no point in even finishing except maybe to get that final motivation needed to stick your head in a gas oven. Ultimately, though, it's brilliant of McCarthy to do this, simply brilliant I'm telling you, because it's the same central question faced by our protagonist and his son in The Road, with they as unequipped to provide the answer as we are; that in a world most likely destined to snuff itself out and soon, why bother putting in the work to even survive, much less in a way that even hints at what we traditionally call "human ethics?" In a world where even plants can no longer grow, where even the sun no longer shines, when most people laugh at the mere suggestion of God existing, what's the point of even struggling to stay alive? It's a question that has haunted humans in lesser situations throughout history, from Auschwitz in the '30s to New Orleans just a few years ago; as mentioned, here McCarthy is simply pushing the question to its logical extreme, asking it in a situation where there is literally almost nothing left to dream towards or hope for, not even the dream of a heaven or other faith-based afterlife, because of most people having no sense of faith left.

And the answer, McCarthy seems to be saying in The Road, seems to be the extremely simple one of, "Well, that's what humanity does. It hopes for a better future. That's what human beings do." In a world where there is seemingly no hope left, the only comfort even possible to take is that no one is a fortune-teller; that tomorrow might just be the moment of what JRR Tolkien used to call the "Eucatastrophe," the day that something as miraculously and unexpectedly great happens as the miraculously and unexpectedly bad thing that caused the mess in the first place. For example, you never know, tomorrow just might be the day that space aliens make contact with the Earth for the very first time, and whisk you and the other survivors away to a new and beautiful Eden, a possibility that the post-Apocalypse boy in this story is always suggesting in a subtle way at any spare moment he can; sure, it's a billion-to-one shot against you, but McCarthy argues in The Road that sometimes that's all that's needed to hold onto hope for exactly one more day. In a world where there is even one single human being left in existence, that human still has the choice to either act or not act in what we call a "humane" way; no matter what the circumstances, McCarthy seems to be saying, all of us always have that option, and that it's our inner sense of right and wrong that should be telling us how to act when that moment comes, not the circumstances behind whatever's going on around us that particular moment.

It's a powerful message for millions of horror-filled Americans these days, living in a time when their own government has become the kind of monsters they were raised their entire lives to believe wrong, the kind worth fighting against; the message that our sense of morality, the ethical choices we make, should always come from an inherent inner sense of right and wrong, not based relatively-speaking on the way everyone around us is acting on any given day. Basing what you consider "good" and "bad" behavior on the whims of a violent mob, McCarthy argues here, ultimately makes your fate the same one of the mob, and a mob's fate is never good, not once is it ultimately ever good; base your behavior on what you know in your heart to be right and wrong, however (and we're talking simple stuff here, like "Don't eat other people"), and there will always exist another day of hope, another day where things have at least the theoretical chance of being better.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we finally have in The Road our country's first-ever masterful artistic response to September 11th; a book that deserves every accolade it's received and more, a book that will be as perfect a reflection of Bushism in the future as Arthur Miller's The Crucible is of McCarthyism. It is one of the most powerful, most unforgettable novels I've ever read in my life, one that is so deceptively simple at first but then grows to a complexity I never thought possible. It is a novel that will eventually define an entire generation; and it's for that reason that today The Road becomes only the second novel or movie of 2007 to receive a perfect score of 10 here at CCLaP. Read it as soon as possible, if you're not one of the millions who already have.

Out of 10:
Story: 10
Characters: 10
Style: 10
Overall: 10
(Adults and mature teens only)

Read even more about The Road: Official site | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:54 AM, November 16, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |