The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Read: 14 February, 2013

A father and son travel across an apocalyptic wasteland, struggling to find a reason for survival.

This was a hard book to read. It’s a journey of suffering with no possibility of an end. Any time the boy tries to find some hope, his father just shuts him down – even when that hope is just to die and see an end to the relentless cold and starvation.

The child, though born after the world was destroyed, never seems to adapt. I found that strange, particularly when we look at actual children who have grown up in real world combat zones (whether political  or familial), and the ways that they learn to tune out or join in. Yet the boy seems to function as more of a conscience for the man than as a character in his own right. This story is about the man, about his forgetting the past world, yet his refusal to adopt the current one. The child is a device, he’s “the fire,” and I found that somewhat disconcerting.

In this way, the child and the man seem to be polar opposites of Rick and Carl Grimes from the Walking Dead graphic novels. Rick tries so hard to keep to the values of the old world while watching in horror as Carl adapts to the brutality of the new, whereas the man finds himself adapting to the needs of survival in the new world while the child retains a sense of pure horror every time he is faced with the new realities.

I had a hard time finding the story compelling. Because there was no hope, absolutely no possibility of a happy ending in a world that is literally dead, the characters had no where to go. They just kept shuffling along, driven by purposeless instinct like zombies. All I kept thinking was “good god, just let that poor kid die already.”

I felt like even McCarthy couldn’t come up with a plausible reason for why his characters would continue fighting. We get vague references to “The Fire” and to some unformed hope that things might be different in the south (though, even then, the man is very careful about that hope and seems to understand on all levels that it’s wrong, so it doesn’t even get the status of false hope).

The world was so bleak, so depressing that I didn’t even get that “I’m so glad my life isn’t like that!” feeling. It just made me feel down. Even the “happy” scenes when they find some big cache of food just made me feel more depressed because it only meant that they’d have to start the starvation process back from zero, further extending their suffering.

There were some odd stylistic tricks, such as the lack of quotation marks, which I would imagine would make the dialogue difficult to follow. But I listened to the audiobook, so I had help from the reader. Thinking about the writing, I think it works to stylistically reflect the theme of the novel, but I could see it ticking people off.

I didn’t enjoy the book too much, but a lot of people apparently do. In fact, I only picked it up (having seen the movie and contented myself with that) because so many people were telling me that it’s a wonderful book. If you enjoyed it, could you tell me what I’m missing?

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One thought on “The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  1. I like that it shows you just how bad things can get. So many people see this romanticized post apocalyptic world’s where things are bad but if you stick it out it can be fun. Where as this book opens your eyes to a more realistic outcome, at least if everything stopped growing. Also I think it would of been a better ending if the boy died at the end too. Kinda cop out that all of a sudden someone saves him.

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