Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is spare and unsparing and starkly poetic.
The world has ended. All is grayness and cold and ashes. And through this bleak terrain of hopelessness and unrelenting horror walk a man and a boy, suitably nameless. They are journeying south in the wasted hope of something better – warmth, food, a welcome.
Each of McCarthy’s previous novels was preparation for this book. The casual violence and rage that erupted against individuals in previous novels has here been unleashed against an entire world, against not merely mankind, but the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The humans that survive are clearly divided into two camps –those that eat and those who are eaten.
In the starkness of the narrative, of the dialogue and the plot, McCarthy lays bare the foolishness of hope and the impossible optimism of every post-apocalyptic novel that preceded The Road. Think of those novels: Tales of mankind overcoming vast odds, banding together, husbanding knowledge and resources, tinkering to create clever devices, finding life, love, hope.
But there is no hope. Even those who survive only do so in the full knowledge that the world is dead and that all life is a loan:
“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” (p. 110)
The world we knew is a shadow, a memory – now fleeting and faint:
“He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he. He tried to remember the dream but he could not. All that was left was the feeling of it. He thought perhaps they’d come to warn him. Of what? That he could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own. Even now some part of him wished they’d never found this refuge. Some part of him always wished it to be over.” (pp. 129-130)The Road is a grim reminder of how precarious life is. Few of us today live with the fear of the nuclear holocaust as so many did in the 50s and 60s. Perhaps we should. But, then again, as McCarthy shows us there is nothing we can do, but live for a time and then die.
And yet. Love not only survives between the father and his son, but is strengthened by their misery and loss, their shared need one for the other. In his weakest moments, the father ponders whether he can take the son’s life in order to save him. He knows that he cannot.
In the final pages, too, there is some suggestion that kindness and love have not gone cold, have not entirely vanished from the icy cinder that is man’s heart.