The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This post was first published in a slightly different form by Suite 101. It contains spoilers

“Are you carrying the fire?”

“Am I what?”

“Carrying the fire.”

“You’re kind of weirded out, aren’t you?”

I couldn’t sit through the film version of The Road (2009, directed by John Hillcoat, starring Viggo Mortensen). The depressing landscape, the patrolling cannibals, the Man coughing up blood and getting ready to die. I didn’t want to watch it, and I couldn’t understand why the characters wanted to live through it. Why don’t they kill themselves? The world seems unlikely to recover from whatever it is suffering from – at least during their lifetimes. Their hopes for ‘something’ on the coast are vague and mostly empty. All the Man has are dreams, and the Boy. And all the Boy has is the Man, who is dying. I walked out on the film a little over halfway through – I could see no good in it, nothing worth living or fighting for.

However, I felt differently about the book. While reading it I felt like I had more of a connection to both characters than I did while watching the film, through their thoughts and dreams (although the dialogue is simple and sparse, and introspection is kept to a minimum). It is still depressing, but there is more of a relationship between the characters, more of a spark – a fire – about their journey together. Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road was a national bestseller, and was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Road is the story of a man and his son’s bleak and largely joyless journey across a barren landscape. After an unspecified disaster, Earth has been left all but uninhabitable. The Man and The Boy are alone, constantly scrounging for food and avoiding gangs of cannibals that stalk the road. There seems nothing left to live for – and yet both characters are determined to keep living.

There is very little action in The Road – and yet something about it makes it impossible to put down. A great deal of the novel is made up of description of the landscape – a repetition of grey, cold, lifeless earth. The actions of the two main characters are also described in minute detail – the scraps of food they find to eat, the empty houses they stumble into, the mending of tools. There is very little dialogue, and philosophical introspection is kept to a minimum. The novel drags the reader along, through this bleak landscape, down this road that most certainly leads only to more of the same. It is clear from very early on that The Man is going to die, and that there is no hope for something miraculous at the end of their journey; the apocalypse the world has suffered will not be undone. The question that haunts the reader (and, I think, makes them keep reading) throughout The Road is ‘where do these characters find the will to live?’ And in turn, the novel seems to ask the reader ‘would you find something to live for? Or would you kill yourself?’

The Road is written in a very simple, pared back style. Dialogue is left naked – there are no quotation marks, and often no ‘he said-she said’ signals. No comments or judgments are made on the part of the author, and rarely on the part of the main character, The Man. The story is shown, rather than told. Metaphor is used sparingly but effectively, and the scattered presence of dreams and memories adds colour to an otherwise hopeless story. The rarity of these moments in the text makes them all the more poignant.

The lack of names in The Road, as well as the presence of abstract dreams and almost biblical associations, lends the novel a heavy metaphoric quality. Perhaps it is a metaphor for life itself, for the absurd nature of this mortal coil. When we know we will die, where do we find meaning in life? What keeps us going down the road?

The Man in The Road seems to have lost all sense of God and religion, even perhaps all sense of any kind of a greater good. There is no implication of a higher purpose, or of something redeeming to come. The meaning in The Road comes from small moments of joy – the games they play, the meals they eat – and from the relationship between The Man and his son. “The fire” that The Boy talks about carrying – that The Man has taught him to talk about – is a meaning that they have created together, out of their love for one another. The Road may seem a depressing and hopeless story, but in the end it is an affirmation of our need to make meaning, and a celebration of our ability to find it in the face of an indifferent universe.

Cormac McCarthy’s novels include No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses. His credits include the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Road is published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House Inc., New York.

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