CLS: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

My contemporary literary survey, if you remember, was split into books I thought I wouldnt like, and books I thought I would. So, having not liked any of the books I didnt think Id like so far (Obookis belief that you dont need to read a book to know whether its good or bad remains intact – sort of, as youll see) I thought Id try the ones I thought I would like.

So The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I started it about 5pm on Saturday and finished it before I went to sleep (which, OK – or should I say Okay – was quite late) – and its 300 pages long! – So, it was that good then? You couldnt put it down. – Well, no: I think I was partly driven on to finish it because I was thinking, if I did put it down, Id never pick it up again. But theres another reason why I read it so quickly: and thats because its really, really easy to read. And its really, really easy to read because reading it requires no thought whatsoever. Its an utterly undemanding book, written in an utterly undemanding style.

Now many critics have stated that The Road is beautifully written. Heres some quotes from the back: “a work of such terrible beauty”, “the prose is of such beauty”, “a brutal, beautiful culmination”, “the sheer, terrible beauty of the writing”, “terrifying and beautiful”, “beautiful and hypnotic and terrifyingly real”, “dazzling and beautiful” – and its not just the blurb pushing this idea; you can look through the internet at the reviews. – But I didnt really find this beauty in it at all. It is for the most part dully written, and I even think this is quite deliberate: it is written simply and primitively, since we have entered a simple and primitive world.

In fact, McCarthy uses three devices in the book, endlessly alternating between them:

a) Basic descriptions of the characters actions, such as youd find in any formulaic novel to which obviously we shouldnt be comparing such a wondrous writer as McCarthy (or for that matter his New York facsimile Don DeLillo), as in:

They rummaged through the outbuildings for anything of use. He found a wheelbarrow and pulled it out and tipped it over and turned the wheel slowly, examining the tire. The rubber was glazed and cracked but he thought it might hold air and he looked through old boxes and jumbles of tolls and found a bicycle pump and screwed the end of the hose to the valvestem of the tire and began to pump. The air leaked out around the rim but he turned the wheel and had the boy hold down the tire until it caught and he got it pumped up. He unscrewed the hose and turned the wheelbarrow over and trundled it across the floor and back. Then he pushed it outside for the rain to clean.

b) Short poetic-prose passages which are incapable of forming any coherent images in your mind, often using words youve never heard of or in ways youre not familiar with,

Slow water in the flat country. The sloughs by the roadside motionless and gray. The coastal plain rivers in leaden serpentine across the wasted farmland.

c) And thirdly, inane conversations between father and son,

I dont know.
What do you want to do?
You have to say.
We both have to say.
Do you think they’re okay?
I think if we cook them really good they’ll be all right.
Okay. Why do you think nobody has eaten them?
I think nobody found them. You cant see the house from the road.
We saw it.
You saw it.

Styles a) and c), I felt, were of such a pace that every time you got to style b) you were incapable of slowing down to appreciate the fine prose-poetry, or even to think about what it was describing, or whether it was any good. But I couldnt find any real beauty in the language (I think I have been spoiled recently, reading so much Shakespeare), perhaps because it is all so joyless – the language, I mean, not the subject-matter or the writers outlook; – its all so dead and uninspiring, as it just tediously and repetitiously trudges its way along towards the ocean.

I came away from it all feeling a bit grubby and sordid. Yes, the relationship between father and son is quite good: but you know from about page 10, with even a slight appreciation of the nature of literary fiction, that nothing much is going to happen – theyre just going to spend the novel walking down a road, slightly ill at ease with the nature of humanity. (McCarthy has clearly never read The Man-Eating Myth by W, Arens. [Perhaps I should take that back though: Arens would allow of cannibalism in a situation of starvation and no hope whatsoever for the continuance of the human race]).

I can hear SF-loons claiming this as an example of a literary author entering SF-territory and demonstrating his lack of understanding of its tradition by putting forward the nothing new (I was reminded, as they journeyed along endlessly through a collapsed society, a bit of Ringworld – though without the aliens and the floating cities. – I am Legend, too? I never got to the end of it. – The feel was quite a lot like that Gene Wolfe novel I read a few years ago. – And let’s face it, I know little about SF). And, considering say Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies (or perhaps even more, Pincher Martin), I can hear literary-loons claiming much the same.

Still, I finished it – which puts it above everything else I’ve read in this series (though not, as it happens, the other one of the CLS books I am currently reading).

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5 thoughts on “CLS: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

  1. Thanks for finishing it for us, Obooki. From what you write, I’m very impressed you did – recently I may have become a bit too happy to not finish books when they don’t speak to me. So good on you for pushing through and telling us about it!

  2. I should take down my week of posts about “beauty” in literature and just paste in a copy of this. What on earth do reviewers mean when they use that word?

    When the book came out, there was the strange phenomenon of reviewers giving McCarthy credit for inventing all sorts of devices and details that were obviously just borrowed from post-apocalyptic science fiction. So what if the reviewer had never read A Canticle for Liebowitz – surely some of them were familiar with the existence of Mad Max movies?

    I have not read the book, so I can only comment on the reviewers, a strange bunch.

  3. I’m not much good these things at finishing books I’m not enjoying – life is too short – but The Road was easy-going enough.

    This was the website I was looking for: I remember it from a long time ago: science fiction books by theme:

    http://www.scifan.com/themes/themes.asp?TH_themeid=9

    Theme 9: Post-apocalypse fiction, has 1845 books. Fairly well mined territory.

    I was reminded of Mad Max too, and every zombie movie ever (but esp. Dawn of the Dead).

    The thing is, I just can’t see that McCarthy’s book is any better written than this so-called popular fiction.

  4. I actually read this. I thought the prose was anaemic. I don’t really get this kind of minimalist approach … There’s so much potential for variety and richness in language – why not use it? And I can’t really see any of the depth in it its admirers have claimed. This is one of those irritating books that has a “message”, which is, in a nutshell, “despite everything, our humanity will prevail”. Well, jolly good.

  5. There’s an amusing article here in the Huffington Post which claims that The Road is, in fact, “one of the greatest indictments of the bourgeois novel of individual growth” and “one of the most acute condemnations of capitalism ever written”, along with many other things. Writer is something of an admirer, even though he doesn’t seem to have paid much attention when he was reading it.

    I’m sure that the message of the book was that we should think of the children, and that in fact we have much to learn from their simplistic morality.

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