Friday, August 27, 2010

"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy

Last May I made the comment that a good writer shows the reader what to see in narrative, he does not merely tell. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” accomplishes this effortlessly, making the reader shiver in the cold, squint in the dark, feel the hunger and experience the smell. Why discuss the book, and not the movie? There are elements of McCarthy’s writing that are non-translatable to any screen.

His distinct, uncluttered writing style that carried him through the years is perfected in this novel. Forceful use of sentence fragments and a plethora of conjunctions drives the action (demonstrating a heavy dependence on the style of William Faulker). A rich vocabulary of carefully chosen words are treasures in the desolate landscape he presents in this work. He gives us in form what the plot of the book demands--barrenness.

“The Road” is brutal: entire days pass in a paragraph, immense passages of time that characterize the journey are felt in literal space on the page. The writer makes each page a canvas. New scenes are introduced and reintroduced in ash, and are closed with the reassurance that everything will be ok (so why am I holding my breath with every page turn?). This “colorless world of wire and crepe” where the sun is shines “like a grieving mother with a lamp,” one critic has correctly described as “Godot-like.” That says much, assuming one knows Beckett.
The artistry of McCarthy’s writing is masterful. Themes of light and dark, life and death, hunger and satisfaction, cold and warmth, love and hate, safety and danger—all these are among those that create the framework of the book. The mood is set and nearly never changes, but one may find elements of hope in the same way one looks over the shoulder. Other ways are nearly missed: several times the author goes out his way to help the reader understand which jar, bottle or containers is “half full;” only once does he say that something was half-empty (and that was a can of coffee). Hope is alive, but what is it?

“The Road” is also brutal in the sense that depravity is the action of the book, and this is beyond the cruelty of survival. Everything beautiful is already destroyed, so what is “good” and what is “bad?” The absurdist philosophy of meaninglessness and hopelessness shows occasionally, that death is preferred over life (or is it?). Happiness does not even enter the discussion. Moral and philosophical absolutes are as absent as his own quotation marks. Speaking through the character of “the man,” McCarthy presents what may be the core of the story: “In what direction do lost men veer? Perhaps it changed with hemispheres. Or handedness. Finally he put it out of his mind. The notion that there could be anything to correct for” [quotation marks, mine].

This author received Pulitzer prizes for his work, and is hailed as the one of the greatest authors of our time. His books are best-selling, recognized for their entertainment value to the place that many of his works have been very successful on the silver screen. There is a definite element that makes this and others of his works (“No Country For Old Men,” for example) fall in the “horror” genre’. His work is mesmerizing, reflecting the deep depravity of man and the accompanying desperation for salvation.

He is fascinated with death and dying. Once, McCarthy was quoted to say that he does not understand the author who does not write about either. Is there salvation, hope? The Old Man philosophizes, "When we're all gone at last there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He'll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to."

This book can be downright offensive with its depravity and brutality, yet it's ending (here the movie miserably fails) gives the reader an unexpected turn that redefines the kind of hope being searched for by father and son. Perhaps we need a little of that, to snap us out of complancey--especially for those who live "in a bubble."

The reader is caused to face mortality (often) and to consider what is most important: what is hope, what does it look like, is it attainable, and what happens if you find it?

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