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Book Review – The Road by Cormac McCarthy


This is the kind of book that sticks in the mind long after you’ve finished reading it. I know this because I first read it nearly a year ago, and it’s still fresh in my mind now on the second reading. It’s not often I feel the urge to re-read a book within a year either. My admiration for this immensely popular novel – The Road by Cormac McCarthy – can partly be explained by my morbid love for tales of the post-apocalypse, but there’s more to it than that. This is simply the most searingly bleak novel I’ve ever read, and among the most gripping. There it is in a nutshell – reading The Road is a singular experience, uniquely toxic and unremittingly bleak.

I found this impossible to review after the first reading, and I feel I’m going to struggle here on the second. Let’s start with what this doesn’t have. The Road doesn’t have many characters at all. The main protagonists, a man and his son, remain nameless throughout the text. There isn’t much of a world to write about either. After some nameless apocalypse, the environment seems to be in a state of terminal decline. It reads somewhat like a tale of a nuclear winter, but it’s not that. If I were to guess, I’d say the catastrophe were some illness in the sun itself or the earth’s orbit. Whatever. It’s terminal. I can’t emphasise this enough. This is the bleakest setting in fiction, ever. The Road doesn’t have a complex plot, and nor is it arranged in chapters or sections. What we have is a series of shortish sections, some as brief as a couple of lines, describing (for the most part) the minute to minute trials of the two survivors.
There’s something else The Road doesn’t have much of at all:  punctuation. ‘Don’t’ is written as ‘dont’ etc and there are precious few commas. No speech marks. At first I found this pretentious, grating, but you do get used to it. Whether this is a McCarthy trademark I can’t say. I suspect it is. The book doesn’t have much in the way of literary style either. It’s mostly written in clipped, Hemingway-esque prose. This seems appropriate given the bleak subject matter. But, oddly, McCarthy throws in a number of difficult words (like ‘granitic’ on page 1). If I were a more diligent reader, I’d surely have been reaching for the dictionary on several occasions.

I just mentioned that McCarthy doesn’t seem to me to be a literary writer. This is an important point, for what The Road does do extremely well is describe the minutae of this journey across a mostly frozen, ashen landscape. I get the idea that the author knows a lot about hiking, camping, fishing etc. A lot about survival. He deploys this knowledge very convincingly here. A different author might have been more concerned with image, with philosophy, given this subject matter, by McCarthy keeps us very definitely rooted to the ground. This is a massive strength, as the novel becomes one of the most visceral reading experiences imaginable. There’s little wonder that Hollywood has rushed to turn this into a film: it’s virtually a film already. It just needs shooting. The sensory experience of reading this novel is a wonderful thing.

This is a shocking book. There’s nowhere to hide in it, and McCarthy does not spare us the gruesome details of precisely how humanity comes to an end. A number of scenes are so affronting that I had to read them again and again. Without wanting to divulge some of these details, suffice to say that a great number of people die, have died, or continue to exist in the most depraved and hopeless circumstances imaginable. Having said this, McCarthy doesn’t go overboard with the gore either. It is this careful selection of horrific detail that continues to shock this reader as the novel progressed. McCarthy is simply making us aware of just how frail our so-called civilisation really is, how transient and conditional our values. It isn’t a pretty sight.

The Road doesn’t have paragraphs either; I’ve just noticed. What we have are blocks of texts cut with white space. That’s it. There’s almost nothing to drive the narrative forward.  Strangely, the narrative gallops forward at a brisk pace. The only motivation the man has is in trying to protect the life of his son. Despite this, things go from bad to worse in the first half of the novel. Life couldn’t be any worse than this. In this regard, The Road is somewhat reminiscent of Beckett’s novels. It’s the best comparison I can think of. But the difference is that in Beckett, the sterility is in the thinking of the characters and the narrative itself, whereas here it is in the external setting. This is a book that basically reads itself. It’s not easy to put down, and I suspect that a great many people first read it cover to cover, as I did. It’s hard to imagine greater praise for a book than to say it demands to be read. The Road demands to be read.

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