Wednesday Book Club: The Road

Wednesday, 6 August 2008 — 5:03am | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy.

In brief: Life after the end of the world is hardly new territory where literature is concerned, so McCarthy’s book—a simple story about a man’s efforts to keep his son alive as they trek across a charred and desolate America—lives and dies by its delivery. And my, what delivery: McCarthy chisels every sentence down to something material and terse. The novel’s instant canonization into American literary history is not without justification: the deceptive simplicity of plot and prose alike echo Hemingway, while its Southern Gothic undertones capably extend Faulkner’s study of how to make sense of a world in decay.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Road, keep reading below.)

I should begin by acknowledging, then swiftly dismissing, the matter of genre that seems to hang over most of the discussion about this book. I had a lot to say about this, and then I went back to my copy of Maps and Legends to discover that Michael Chabon had already said it for me. (If you haven’t read the book, try the spoiler-free digest of Chabon’s thesis in this recent interview.) Between the mainstream critics who reveal their myopia every time they call The Road a work of science fiction solely because it takes place in a speculative future, and the sci-fi readers who see it as an unremarkable entry in the post-apocalyptic tradition (as well as further evidence that the literary establishment would malign the book for its genre were it not for its out-of-genre authorship), one wonders if there is any room to account for the book’s appeal without reducing it to an exercise in filing.

I attribute the uncertainty of how to deal with The Road to McCarthy’s decision to set it in an imagined world that he depicts, but doesn’t bother to explain. Outside of genre fiction, imagined worlds—fully, distantly imagined, not just our own world embellished with magical augmentation à la Rushdie—are a bit of an odd duck: neither extinct nor endangered, but odd—a sort literary platypus. Within genre fiction, world-building customarily demands explanation, or at least an implicit causality. Readers tend to hanker for it, at any rate.

For the sake of contrast, an instructive example is Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, another post-apocalyptic critical darling that, at face value, has little to do with how nuclear winter blankets us after the fall, and everything to do with how the people on the other side live and cope. Nevertheless, Leibowitz comes full circle to yet another brink of destruction and, in doing so, presents a thesis about how the convergence of civilization to the asymptote of its own annihilation fundamentally relates to the way we treat history. We learn about the antecedent armageddon indirectly, as we witness the looming threat of another one.

In The Road, the nature of the apocalypse itself is irrelevant: the story’s concerns lie squarely in a focused present, and the past and the future remain entirely peripheral. McCarthy’s vision is, in a word, ahistorical. Or, in his words: “Like the world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory.” The antecedent catastrophe could have been a strip-mining alien invasion in the key of Independence Day, for all McCarthy cares, and I’m sure I could make a case for that interpretation if if I picked my examples carefully. The real disaster is that history itself is out of the picture, and the father accepts its loss as a given. The rebirth of humanity is so far removed from his field of vision that his objective collapses into a completely individual context: the day-to-day survival of his son, as someone untainted who may persist in “carrying the flame”.

This is a different objective than mere survival on face. The essential conflict that drives the book forward lies between the father’s short-term survivalism, refusing food to strangers if he must, and the “flame” of moral innocence that fills the boy with guilt every time they leave someone to die. As we quickly discover, it is harder to practice than preach the dictum that survival is meaningless if we lose our humanity along the way.

(Sounds like Battlestar Galactica, doesn’t it? Well, that’s not science fiction either. Remind me to explain sometime.)

Now, I’d like to turn my attention to McCarthy’s prose, which performs the admirable feat of making 287 pages feel like a short story in both pace and scope. There are authors who can do that with pace, to their benefit, and scope, to their detriment; McCarthy somehow manages to put the two together, and nobody should fault reviewers for pulling the same example off the shelf as a point of comparison named Ernest Hemingway.

Those unaccustomed to the stylistic liberties of the kind of novels that win prizes nowadays may be taken aback at some of McCarthy’s grammatical quirks. I think they are at least worthy of explanation. I don’t see the point in calling it ingenious or pretentious; I’m just interested in how it works and what it does.

McCarthy has a taste for run-on sentences broken by a steady beat of conjunctions. Flipping to a random page:

He left it sitting in the rain with the tarp over it and they duckwalked under the trailer and he left the boy crouched there in the dry while he climbed up on the gastank step and wiped the water from the glass and peered inside the cab.

The way I see it, we need to parse sentences like these within the perspectival context of the novel. The Road is a fiery wet dream for the acolytes of “show, don’t tell”: McCarthy reveals character almost entirely through observable action. Once we are accustomed to the effect, it becomes habitual to scan every action as a potential revelation of character. A sequence of conjoined actions, “A and B and C and D and E,” leads us to digest the whole sentence as one macro-action instead of fixating on every component and looking for clues. Within the strangled brevity of the Cormac McCarthy sentence, there isn’t a lot of room to make some actions “smaller” than others; the run-on phrase grinds actions A, B, C, D, and E to a finer, subatomic powder of lesser consequence.

The other obvious stylistic quirk of McCarthy’s is his habit of dropping apostrophes from his contractions, giving us the likes of “dont”, “hadnt” and “couldnt”, but never “Im” or a non-possessive “its”. Crucially, these “errors” run so counter to any bibliophile’s good sense of correct punctuation that we instinctively let them capture our attention every time. When McCarthy does this, we always notice, and can’t (cant?) stop noticing. What is worth pointing out is that he specifically draws our attention to negations, hitting each and every one of them with the cynical sforzando of a kick in the junk. It’s a bad, bad, bad, bad world, wouldnt you say?

I do take issue with McCarthy’s prose when it strains too hard to adhere to its formal rules, and needlessly sacrifices clarity to that end. Every now and then, there is a dialogue that doesn’t do a very good job of flagging who’s speaking to whom. It is easy to blame this on the sparsity of dialogue tags, but I don’t think that is the problem at all. The exchanges between the man and the boy are rarely ever muddy. What leads to some confusion is McCarthy’s insistence on calling the boy’s father “the man” throughout the novel, even when he converses with another nameless man encountered on the road. Does “the man” refer to the father, or to the man with whom he is speaking? It often takes a second pass through the first few lines of the conversation to be sure.

I’ll close by wholeheartedly confirming that The Road is a novel that probably would have become an American classic anyway, even if the critics had not instantly leapt to make it so. I admire its balance of accessibility and depth: it’s an easy read (if an unsettling one), yet every sentence is an unopened package lying in wait, and every passage rewards close analysis. At the same time, it is a tad premature for publications like Entertainment Weekly to call it the best book of the past 25 years. I think we need a lot more distance before we are to make any proclamations of the sort. The Road is a compelling read, but to oversell it is to risk doing harm to the experience of future readers discovering it for the first time. It is best to approach it without preconceived expectations of the ashen world it portrays.

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4 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: The Road

  1. I used to think the fact that I couldn’t bear to read McCarthy was a fact about me, but now I have read B. R. Myers and know that it’s a fact about McCarthy.

    Friday, 19 December 2008 at 10:17am

  2. I now have my hands on my copy of Myers’s book A Reader’s Manifesto, and quote part of the section on McCarthy:

    Reviewing The Crossing for the New York Times, Robert Hass praised the effect as follows:

    It is a matter of straight-on writing, a veering accumulation of compound sentences, stinginess with commas, and a witching repetition of words… Once the style is established, firm, faintly hypnotic, the crispness and sinuousness of the sentences … gather to a magic. [NYT June 12, 1994]

    Like Proulx and so many writers today, McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words:

    While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. [All the Pretty Horses, p. 128]

    This sort of thing [says Myers] may get Hass’s darkly meated heart pumping, but it’s really just bad poetry reformatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose. The obscurity of who’s will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author’s mind operates on a plain higher than their own — a plane where it isn’t ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse’s bowels.

    And yet: it is ridiculous. As a fan of movie westerns, I refuse to quibble with the myth that a wild landscape can bestow an epic significance on the lives of its inhabitants. But as Conrad understood better than Melville, the novel is a fundamentally irreverent form: it tolerates epic language only when used with a selective touch. To record with the same majesty every aspect of a cowboy’s life, from a knife fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch. Here we learn that out west, under a big hat, even a hangover is something special:

    [They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they’d ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool. [p. 71]

    It is a rare passage in a rare book that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank. I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals. But “wild animals” isn’t epic enough: McCarthy must blow smoke about “some rude provisional species”, as if your average quadruped had impeccable table manners and a pension plan. Then he switches from the horses’ perspective to the narrator’s, though just what “something imperfect and malformed” refers to is unclear. The last half sentence only deepens the confusion. Is “the thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace” the same thing that is “lodged in the heart of being”? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if McCarthy can explain any of this; he probably just likes the way it sounds.

    But it is violence that shifts McCarthy’s lyricism into high gear. This is from Blood Meridian:

    A rattling drove of arrows passed through the company and men tottered and dropped from the mounts. Horses were rearing and plunging and the mongol [sic] hordes swung up along their flanks and turned and rode full upon them with lances … some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leapin gfrom their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the cothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows [pp. 53-54]

    I hasten to add that all this is dead serious. So where to start faulting such excess? With the overwrought effort to trick up the stalest scene in B-moviedom? With the chutzpah of comparing native Americans to the invaders of Europe? With those disgraceful last lines? None of this, mind you, can be defended as assuming the cowboys’ own perspective, for the narrator of Blood Meridian is as omniscient as they come. Before th ebattle above, one Comanche is described as wearing the armor of a “spanish conquistador”. (Unlike Saxon, “spanish” doesn’t merit a capital “s”.) This armor is “deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones are dust” (p. 52). The terror-stricken cowboys don’t know that, nor do they need to, and since a dent is a dent, the information hardly helps us to see things more clearly. So why explain who battered one man’s armor, and where, and how long ago? Again: for the majestic ring of it. Sure, the action would be more exciting if seen through the eyes of the participants, but the last thing Serious Literature wants to be is exciting.

    All the same, we are dealing here with the conventional worldview of the Western novel, and with the same cast of characters: the quiet cowboys, the women who “like to see a man eat”, the howling savages. There is certainly nothing new in McCarthy’s philosophy, which exhausts itself in banal andelopes [Myers’s neologism for strings of words conjoined by and] about death and fate:

    For God will not permit that we shall know what is to come. He is bound to no one that the world unfold just so upon its course and those who by some sorcery or some dream might come to pierce the veil that lies so darkly over all that is before them may serve by just that vision to cause that God should wrench the world from its heading and set it upon another course altogether and then where stands the sorcery. [Cities of the Plain, p. 407]

    Try reading that passage out loud [or any of the others quoted here] and you’ll realize why McCarthy is so averse to giving public readings. His prose is unspeakable in every sense of the word.

    [Myers makes the point in his epilogue on the critical response to his essay that the majority of the passages in block quotes above, including specifically the first, are ones that reviewers particularly noted for their literary virtues.]

    Sunday, 28 June 2009 at 7:50am

  3. Interesting reading. I was familiar with Myers’ original essay in The Atlantic long before I read The Road, but not the expanded work – and thus I missed out on “andelopes”. That McCarthy exercises his diction because he “probably just likes the way it sounds” is a pretty accurate description of what’s going on in his prose; for better or for worse, it seems to borrow from other prose and poetry in its abandonment of adornments like punctuation in an effort to be closer to raw sound data (and therefore raw sense).

    The quotation from Cities of the Plain does seem a bit of a garble.

    Friday, 31 July 2009 at 2:14am

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