Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’: an angry review

When you hold this book in your hand remember that it is an item within the book. Books, print, signs, words, language: all in this novel faded to dark and sodden greyness, mulch, meaningless. The sparse words here, sparse burned landscape, scratched by the quill of an oracle at some deserted crossroads, yet all that is left of the fire and the light in the human, sparse and stark and violently pressed words, the last splutter of something – someone? – who is the last form of the Prophet. Remember this when you confront the image of a headless infant being roasted on a spit. There is only so much words can do, only so far that images can reach, and the reader is also in the book that is held in the hand, for it’s all mapped and mazed as one entity the world that ended, all of it: there is a juxtaposition of a woman at a café, head in hands, a cat, papers on a desk from that time which is this time, and the overturned shelves of a library of theology and philosophy books. Everywhere, in the book’s time is ash, moulded books, papers, rubbish, and the word ‘gray’ occurs without apparent repetition like a canopy over the text.

Yes, of course it will make a great film. Very filmic. Safely filmic. In the cinema cave the flicker of its realisation will warm and plaudit itself and audience, then out to return to café and library and important reality where there is love and safety, art and civilized discourse, glorious architecture of cognitive evolution. Yes, you could enjoy reading the book as if it is a film, it’s all there, a disaster movie, a post-apocalyptic genre thriller, a sideways slant at contemporary imperialist expansionism to fire up the fashionably disaffected.

But there will be readers too. Something of the ‘ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be’ will not be sensed in paltry books or films, will not be in any way made safe or sense of by nugatory  philosophies, political or other, religious or spiritual, and least of all by the words in the book or the grip of the reader’s mind who has let burn to grey ash the most cherished and hallowed. You see, ‘there is something without cognate and so without description’ at stake here. Between the boy and father, an exercise in communication whereby boy picks up emotions by shaping feelings into social meanings – most frighteningly military jargon such as ‘making safee’, ‘negotiating’. ‘goal setting’, ‘good guys’ and the ubiquitous ‘okay’. But the child has shapeless dreams that no story can frame, the framing devices of all stories were social and they have all gone, been blown away. Just a dim memory of something in the man, and it is that which is not a memory in the child but a fundamental, which redeems this grim horror of a tale into a celebration of love, for here is a level of being which is not of those dirty sodden pages. As the father’s wife said, it would be the child who would ensure the father’s survival: on one level this because the father had a simple map of meaning to bring to the relationship; on the other because the child kept slipping away from even that sacred father-son nexus which stands as an ironic capsule for the essence of fragile civilisation’s vanities.

There is a sparely used narrative voice associated with the father (though God’s breath blows through every historical human), commenting and crystallising an oracular, prophetic and transhistorical voice:

Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.

What seems to go on is not the sins of the fathers, or some essentialist good people versus the bad people, but a tragically inevitable structure to human relating whereby one never knows who the good guys are. Good is as good does, and it’s a risky business being in the world. There’s not a shred of help to be found in all the world’s pretty systems, fantasies, language:

He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and despair. The world shrinking down to a raw core of possible entities. The names of things following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat.. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already?  The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.

There is no careless phrase in ‘sacred idiom’: an attuned reader will startle at the powerful uses of ‘secular’ as a descriptor. There is the irony achieved by all great writing such as this that in burning to the ground the filth and tawdriness of linguistically enshrined reality, the poetic brilliance of the writing itself holds out a hope that language may be saved, cleaned, refreshed, even if only once more to corrupt again. The story is what you hold in your hands, the story is what is important, how you say the story, and that can only be how you live, relate, are. Anything else is a lie.

One last, moral, point. Throughout history, the reality of the present has been eluded, avoided and shirked by individuals and groups, and by powers that expoit the tendency, via nostalgia for the past and nostalgia for the future. It is the latter which is clearly most alarming in our day, a concentrated utopian eternalism that is the twin attribute of nihilism, nihilism of the present be it through superstition, fundamentalism, xenophobic crusade (immediate precursors to fascism) or hedonic numbing of the senses and the enstructured paralysis of subjectivity through ideological reproduction. For me, the loveliest lines that bring all of this wonderful novel together are when the father tells his son:

When your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that will never be and you are happy  again then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you can’t give up. I won’t let you.


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