Monday, April 18, 2011

The Road

April, 2011

The Road, Cormac McCarthy, published 2006, 287 pages 

Like most people I have spoken to, I read this book in several hours. Very fast and gripping with speed-friendly formatting--terse dialogue and no chapters. McCarthy artfully develops the setting as a character unto itself, with its palpable frigidity, pervasive bleakness, and perpetual hazards. McCarthy never explains why our world becomes one of such desolate, ashen misery, not even giving a hint of whether it is natural or human-borne. The apocalypse is not part of the story; in fact, the story begins years after the disasters (and it does seem as though there were waves of them in a short period). Remarkably, the story doesn't need the drama of how everything got to the way it is now, and it is a testament to McCarthy's storytelling that the reader is riveted enough with the journey of father and son through this miserable landscape, spotted with cannibalistic "survivors."

Rarely have I seen conversations this laconic, spared even quotation marks and most speaker tags. The father and son, the main--almost only--characters in the book, try to speak, but their reality stifles the scope of topics suitable for their situation. The son has essentially only ever known this life, so barren and threatening that he has been given little fodder for thoughts and feelings unrelated to fear. Yet we feel deeply the relationship he has with his father, somehow revealed through their limited speech and tense circumstances. It was as though--Scrooge and ghosts-like--I were watching them from ten feet away. I'm not sure how McCarthy pulled it off.

Ultimately the book is about choices we make about ourselves and others. How, under the most dire circumstances, do we maintain goodness? Fortunately our main characters are generally good to others and certainly good to each other, which allows the final message to be relatively positive. I suppose, given how monumentally depressing the surroundings are, if the final message weren't at least somewhat uplifting, the book wouldn't have done so well.

These strengths aside, the jury is still out on how I feel about McCarthy's writing style. Experimenting with syntax is great, and I appreciate its taste for busting boundaries. But The Road was nearly unreadable at times. This sentence reads like a question but isn't, and the diction is clunky on the tongue: "Who has made of the world a lie every word" (75). The novel is so fast-paced, so quick to read that the syntax sometimes brought me to a grinding halt. 

Some of his grammatical looseness works beautifully, and some of it seems careless. For instance, he uses always uses an apostrophe for it's but never for don't. There are also several instances when the omniscient narrator suddenly addresses the characters themselves, instead of just telling their story. Inconsistent to a fault. 

Unfortunately for me, The New York Times Book Review called The Road the "most readable" of McCarthy's books, a mystifying claim. By playing with syntax to that degree, I imagine that the meaning would suffer and the writing would seem more mistaken than experimental. The assertion that this book is readable compared to earlier works does make me want to check out his older books...but, if they really are less readable than The Road, it might be a long time before I pick up another one of his books.

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