July 6, 2007

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I haven’t written a review in a while, mostly because I got sick of having opinions, or at least broadcasting them. But I took notes while reading this book and I’ve got a lot to say about it.

I began by liking this book. As it got to page 100 or so, I fell. The book combines two of my major pet peeves: non-stop suffering in which there is no reprieve, a real problem in new indie movies, in which people spend 100% of the time meditating on their suffering. Granted, the world the man and his son are living through is terrible, but it still follows the same path of scene after scene being a total nightmare. Which leads to pet peeve number two: children in peril. Put these two things together and it is far too easy to make the reader feel harrowed, to make them feel bad.

The book is beautifully written and the images vivid, it does exactly what it sets out to do, powerfully. The quote from the back is dead on: “It is as if you must keep reading in order for the characters to stay alive.” I had the same experience. But what it does is fairly sadistic to the reader. I do not understand the impulse to so fetishize fear and suffering. Here’s page 87-88:

He’d put a handful of dried raisins in a cloth in his pocket and at noon they sat on the dead grass by the side of road and ate them. The boy looked at him. That’s all there is, isn’t it? he said.


Are we going to die now?


What are we going to do?

We’re going to drink some water. Then we’re going to keep going down the road.


Skip to 13 pages later, page 101:

Why do you think we’re going to die?

We don’t have anything to eat.

We’ll find something.


How long do you think people can go without food?

I don’t know.

But how long do you think?

Maybe a few days.

And then what? You fall over dead?


Now imagine these scenes played out 200 times. With a child. There’s no way to not feel this deeply. And, for me, to feel manipulated. And then, finally, we come to this part (slight spoiler warning). On page 110, the man and son go into a house and break into the basement:

Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress a man lay with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

Then one by one they blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.

It was at this point I realized what this novel is: literary torture porn. Or a zombie novel for people who read the New York Review of Books. The only people left walk around with makeshift clubs, cannibalizing whoever they can find. Yes, it’s a zombie novel. Pandering and cheap, too easy for someone who takes such great pains with language. This end-of-the-world scenario was much better, for me, in Earth Abides, in which a man walks alone through the country after humanity has been decimated. But it’s without the comic book savagery of The Road. The people he meets retain who they were, rather than being transformed into monsters. Alas, Babylon, about the survivors of a nuclear holocaust in a small Florida town, is also much more measured. Some people turn violent, but not all.

The scene in the basement is like something from a slasher movie—or 28 Weeks Later which also attempts to make you feel bad about humanity. By the way, read The Day of the Triffids, which 28 Days Later rips off completely. The scene in the basement is when the book, for me, jumped the shark. It’s like the scene in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds when the characters get trapped by the alien machines and find that the machines are eating human bodies to live. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does! It’s strange—this time last year I was obsessed with Law and Order. I turned it on recently—SVU—and the show begins with a young mother coming into her baby’s room to find the crib empty. The baby has been stolen. She frantically searches the room. I turned it off. Honestly, I don’t know what purpose these images serve except to make you feel doomed.

Opinions, still got em. Yeah, I'm writing my own apocalyptic novel, which would suggest jealousy. I’m happy the book is successful, as it maybe creates a market for books about the apocalypse. And the book did not leave me with nothing. Do I fear the apocalypse more? Yes. If it's possible after reading articles like this one (though it does make me feel like my novel's on the right track). Do I appreciate my relationship with my daughter more? Possibly. But thank god for the Illuminatus Trilogy, at least RAW knows how to laugh while he’s crying.


Robert Dugger said...

I enjoyed your review of Cormack McCarthy's book. I have read several of his books and have found that they all have a common thread of style - boredom. Some authors are all hype and gloss. I guess I should feel different since McCarthy is a local hero, from the Knoxville area where I now live, but I have no loyalty to boring readers.

Nice review, though,

I will keep in touch

Robert Dugger

Michelle Steffes said...

I was going to buy the book until I read your review. Thanks for saving me the $$

Gabe McCaslin said...

Hey, I appreciate your well thought review of the The Road, but am not quite sure how much I agree with it. Should a writer (assuming a writer of true ability) tone down his own thoughts and artistic vision to save the feelings of his readers?
I prefer to see this novel as a single piercing image, often painful, but a complete work of feeling nonetheless. Thoughtful review!

Gabe, Music in Munich

Henry Baum said...

Thanks for the comment. I’m not asking for censorship, this is more about what what makes readers want to read this in the first place. Same goes for Saw, Hostel, Captivity, and so on, which delight in sadism. Doesn’t seem particularly healthy.

I’m not against dark stuff, not at all. I based the early part of my life and output on Taxi Driver, which is dark and powerful in a different way. It doesn’t aim to make you feel that humanity is evil. There’s still some hope. Maybe I just don’t like horror movies.

Gabe McCaslin said...

I didn't think you were advocating censorship! I guess it's true that McCarthy has a lot of dark themes, but the sense I get is that he's writing about this stuff because he can't do otherwise. You also have to admit that the "dark side" is very present in current American politics, not to mention in other parts of the world strongly affected by our politics (for example Iraq).

What I'm trying to say is, The Road is not just a novel with "horror movie" themes. It has more to tell us, and we shouldn't avoid it because of it's darkness. It was in any case a quite unpleasant read, though in my opinion a required one.


Anonymous said...

I really doubt McCarthy was trying to write a particular kind of book, much less one aimed at capitalizing on the current trends in hollywood horror. I think there could be a connection between the two but that connection probably has to do more with the world we live in than a seventy year old man's desire to manipulate. It's true that there are horror scences in the book but there's a lot else going on. A trombone in a rock band doesn't make it an orchestra.

Henry Baum said...

I'm not saying that Cormac McCarthy was so cynical that he was catering to the Saw crowd. But the effect is the same. He's very tapped into the fear we've been living through this decade. I just think the fear is unhealthy. There are ways to transcend the zeitgeist without wallowing in it. I don't find The Road an empty book at all, but I don't find it particularly cathartic either.

Anonymous said...

I am just curious and im not trying to be rude or anything but what else is this book trying to tell us? I guess i really didnt understand it becuase i missed the overall message... Also I am not sure that i am fully behind the fact that this was all about the end of the world. I think this could have been the end of America maybe. It could have been a nuclear bomb right? The "man" only assumes that the entire world looks like this and it could just be America. Just a thought.

Matthew said...

Having just read the book, I respect your opinion and think you have interesting thoughts, but mine are different...

This is the complete opposite of what you call "torture porn." Reading the novel is torture, yes, but of the psycological kind.

The book doesn't rely on gore or suspense, so much as it does a constant state of dread. Sure, the characters are slowing dying but it doesn't glamorize it like in the movies you listed. We don't witness death after death, nor do we get a whole lot of detail in the few gruesome scenes depicted.

The story is about a father and a son and the bond that exists between them, which is the only reason why they are alive. I beleive that it wasn't the authors intention to put "children in danger" simply to "manipulate" the audience, but to make readers ask themselves over and over again: "Who do you live for and what would you do for them?"

Anonymous said...

you are all a bunch of fags, this book was a must-read

Anonymous said...

I feel that you can't have really taken-in the message of the book with an open mind. I am currently writing an essay about the book and what I thought was going to be a painful and demanding task turned out to be rather catching, almost thrilling. This book in no way caters for the 'Saw" crowd; for most of the book McCarthy actually avoids including the gruesome parts and only drops them in around three times (the baby on the spit, the basement and the man being shot), whilst the smell of dead people nearby is mentioned but them actually being seen is carefully avoided, in the entire 300 paged book to strengthen the image conveyed. The reason for the child's grim conversation is really just to show how this apocalyptic world has distorted the way things would be today. The child talks about death so freely that it is definitely disturbing but I don't believe this is sadist, I feel it is an individuals (McCarthy's) portrayal on how this would affect the emotions of a child and his relationship with his father.
I am saying this from the point of view of someone who has read the book and analyzed it for the purpose of an essay, as afore mentioned, but I can see your point in that someone reading for pleasure, who isn't actually searching for a doom and gloom predicament of the future world, may be slightly disheartened.

Anonymous said...

i would say that your opinion on the zombie theme was wrong. All humanity is and always have been evil but we have been given a mind to distinguish good and evil. This book is set a few years into the apocalypse, people go back to the one basic instinct, survive. so Cormacs idea that some of humanity would be cannibals is somewhat true, because when humans put into a situation where theres nothing left entirely they start to lose it. And when you say that most people turn 'evil' is incorrect because seeing as it is set several years in most of the remaining 'good' people have been killed or have escaped somewhere else. so in conclusion its not really a 'zombie book' its more of the truth than anything

Henry Baum said...

"you are all a bunch of fags, this book was a must-read"

Cormac, is that you?

Anonymous said...

This is a one of the best books I've ever read. I read it after my mum did so as you can see it appeals to all ages but you must be prepared as it is very depressing.

It is certaintly not a waste of money! Quite the opposite in fact; it won the Pulitzer prize in 2007 which is very prestigious.

Anonymous said...

This book is about a father and son who travel through a ravaged America, still smouldering. Yes, it is at times horrifying but it is about their tenacious bond of love which keeps these two innocent people alive in the face of total devastation and sustains them. They are "each other's world entire".

It is NOT just about blood and tortue and Cormac McCarthy does not try to glamorise it either

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