Monday, December 13, 2010

The Road

My latest read, The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy, came highly recommended by a friend.  Boy, am I glad he suggested I read it.  It is a deeply affecting story--one with the rare power to shift one's perception of the world and one's place within it.
"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.  Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.  Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world."
So begins The Road.  And let me tell you, the story doesn't get a whole lot cheerier for the rest of the 250-page novel.  The narrative follows an unnamed man and his son as they wander a vast, dark landscape in the aftermath of some apocalyptic event.  Details are left ambiguous, but the great majority of life on Earth has perished.  The ash-covered land is barren and hostile, and the man and boy are fighting a daily struggle to subsist.  As they head south across the wasteland to escape the oncoming winter, they must scavenge for food and water and fend off other travelers along the road.

But the novel really isn't about the narrative.  This is not to say that there aren't a few seriously intense moments--there are.  But the true centerpiece of The Road is the relationship between the man and his son.  The simple love the father shows toward the child is remarkable in the midst of the almost unbearable agony of survival.  He is endlessly patient with the boy, constantly teaches him, gives him his own space when necessary, and, above all, acts as a wellspring of comfort.  The man is the archetypal parent--the kind we all hope to be. Being a fairly new parent myself, this theme resonated strongly with me.

Toward the beginning of the The Road, I confess I was trying to (over)analyze parts of the novel.  It seemed there was an inconsistency between the boy's life experience and his behavior.  At another point, when being given a glimpse of the family's past, I was incredulous at the callousness of the boy's mother.  About halfway through the novel, I realized that I was missing the point.  McCarthy chose to draw the characters the way he does for a reason.  After all, they have been completely shaped by the apocalypse, something which I (thankfully) have not yet encountered.  I needed to sit back and let myself be shaped by the novel.

The overall style of the novel can only be described as sparse.  There is little dialog, and even less in the the way of overt action.  Yet, The Road is infused with a richness that defies the spare prose.  In its pages, the characters (and by extension, the reader) wrestle with huge questions: What is the purpose of one's life?  What is death?  Who or what is God?  What is the essential difference between good and evil?  While there are no concrete revelations to be had, I feel closer to understanding some of these things than before picking up the novel.

To me, The Road is a true tour de force.  McCarthy uses a fairly simple concept, sparse language, and a couple of characters to fashion something altogether breathtaking.  And, furthermore, he makes it seem completely effortless.  The Road might well be the best book I've read this year!

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