Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Book Review--The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Two people, identified only as the man and the boy, walk stoically across a burned, desolate landscape. The desiccated earth an endless horizon of formless ash. How long have they been walking? Where are they going? These are constant questions never answered in The Road, Cormac McCarthy's most recent novel. While most of his books take place on the outskirts of civilization, McCarthy takes this to its logical end: the aftermath of civilization’s destruction. There are no more cities, no more animals, no more vegetation, only the rare can of ancient food and a prayer for death. But, with all people dead, there is no god to answer the prayer. So these solitary travelers, father and son, wander and roam with only a vague notion of where they are going and why, avoiding cannibalistic bands of survivors, those who will “eat your children in front of you,” hoping against hope to find a group that they can join with and allow them to be human, once again.

Through the repetitive (eat, hide, and sleep) nature of survival and the formless setting, McCarthy creates a world that is barely more than a blank canvas. In this bizarre futurism, time has moved forward while civilization has regressed all the way to its base state, where predator and prey are revealed quickly, where there is no ambiguity about which is the correct path; the correct path is the one in which you survive. The man strives to stay somehow civilized, both in thought and action, with utter futility.

In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could here him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.” [p.66]

That the man tries so hard to keep himself and his son human is the saddest part. For the man, he stretches back to grab semblances of what he used to know. For the boy, who never knew civilization before, all his father’s stories are lies and, in the end, happiness is the biggest lie of all. For them, the closest they can come to joy is relief, and true relief may only come in death. We then have two people walking through a formless landscape toward inevitable misery, starvation, and death. Yet, this is the most humane, soulful, spiritual work he’s ever done. Through the bleakness comes a philosophy of why we live, and what we live for. As wretched as their lives may be, the man looks at the son and he knows why; he struggles moment after moment with the thought of his son growing up without him but, inside or outside of these apocalyptic circumstances, these are the musings of a parent.

The book is written more in aphorisms than any kind of traditional prose. The above selection is one such aphorism. It comes toward the beginning of the book, but it could stand anywhere and work as well. Ultimately, the beauty lies here. The mantra of the walk, the repetition of hunger and of terror, the same questions asked over and over can seem, at first, redundant, but the stepwise changes in the characters as they march to their inevitable ends give each aphorism nuance that defies explanation and must be witnessed. McCarthy’s prose has always been terse, even in the long form works like The Crossing, but the sparseness of language here is a whole new level of brevity. Dialogue consists mainly of statements like “Let’s go,” “I’m scared,” “I know,” “We must keep moving,” “Talk to me,” “I am.” But, again, the sheer simplicity allows for a subtly sublime building of the relationship between father and son, a relationship that exists silently and without expression. This relationship reminds me strongly of Lone Wolf and Cub, the landmark comic by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, and I can’t help but think McCarthy may have drawn inspiration from the Shogun’s assassin and his young son with the eyes of the Samurai. In The Road the bond is chillingly emotional, especially as they come to the shocking end in a twist that, as a fan of McCarthy’s, I could not possibly expect, one that is more mystical than anything he’s written previously. When all the myriad of emotions in the human experience are reduced to love and fear, do we become animals, or can there be something more? One thing is certain: sometimes simple is best, and McCarthy cuts straight to the bone. This is one of the best books to come from McCarthy, and I simply cannot recommend The Road highly enough.