Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cormac McCarthy's The Road




I bought this paperback because of the movie tie-in, because of Viggo Mortensen. I love his work; I love looking at him. I am that shallow. I doubt, though, that I will choose to watch the film. Like "the man" says, Once you allow those images into your brain, they're there for good.

It is very very difficult to write this simply, in a style stripped of all elements save character, conversation, and action. Style is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book. There are no quotation marks. (Some day, more publishers and writers will catch up.) Nor is McCarthy constrained by the old definitions of sentences and complete thoughts. He uses words like a paint brush--a dab, more dabs here, a stroke, more strokes there. Through the father's actions--feeding, clothing, sheltering, and nurturing his son--and through their conversations, their lives, their roles, their fears and goals, their relationship are all revealed. With a minimum of flashback memory, some nightmares, no interior monologue, no intellectualizing or philosophizing, The Road strips down our constructs of humanity and civilization.

Where are they? We only assume the setting is somewhere in America. The west coast? He mentions rhodos. There are plantation-like abandoned houses, with slave cellars. Do they have rhodos in the east? I do not know. Then there are pines, liveoaks, and magnolia. The writing on a shipwreck says "Tenerife" (p.223). Maybe it is the Atlantic coast. The map they carry is falling apart. Place does not matter; setting is irrelevant.

No characters have names. They are "the man, Papa" and "the boy." Individualism no longer matters. The people they meet are archetypes--a thief, an old man, a pregnant woman, a skewered baby. Marauding bands threaten. The bad guys are cannibals. The good guys wouldn't do that, yet every decision, every interaction, is a moral dilemma. The boy knows the teachings--be kind, love thy neighbour, forgive. The man knows the reality, and the risks. To steal our belongings is to kill us. To share our food is to die sooner. They carry a pistol; there are two bullets left; then there is only one. Character and plot have been stripped down to a story of pure animal survival.

The reader continues to trudge along out of faith alone. Expectation. Anticipation. Trust. The belief that something will actually happen sometime. That the characters will make choices other than whether to live or how to die. Will they get to the ocean? If so, then what? You begin to worry. Perhaps action no longer matters either. Perhaps plot is simply: Life's a bitch and then you die. It's a road. It used to be a highway. All stories lead to--what? Some sort of ending? All life ends in death. Yet in the simplicity, the reader finds opportunity. There are possibilities of symbolism. The reader may choose to believe that there is something--some meaning--beyond the characters themselves and their simple story. That the word, the idea of "hope" survives. 
The Road is Cormac McCarthy's story of a postapocalyptic world. A man and his son (both nameless) are walking on a road, scrounging for food, heading south towards the ocean seeking warmth. The gas stations beside the road are derelict, already looted, as are any houses, the nameless cities, the rusted train they encounter.

1 comment:

Bridget said...

The IMDb says that Viggo played an Amish farmer in Witness, 1985. Incredible.