Review of The Road by

Book cover for The Road

I knew Cormac McCarthy and I were going to have differences from the moment I opened The Road and discovered the dearth of quotation marks. Yes, I’m one of those readers, and this is going to be that type of review. Exits are located on both sides. For those of you who choose to remain on board, please fasten your seatbelts. In the event the review experiences a sudden loss in pressure, an oxygen mask will erupt from your computer in a disturbing fashion. If you have an infant, well, you only get the one mask, so I guess you have a tough choice to make.

A copy of The Road was finally available during my most recent trip to the library. Prior to that, all of the library copies were on hold or checked out when I visited. I wasn’t in a hurry to read this book, however, so I was content to wait. Having finally procured a copy, my feelings were largely indifferent. I had heard it is unapologetically bleak and sparse. I had also heard The Road is some kind of seminal work of post-apocalyptic fiction that has been responsible for numerous mind-blowing literary orgasms. Which brings me to my first …

Ways to Improve The Road: Read it aloud while having sex. I have not verified this myself, but it seems like this might improve many books. Plus it’s multi-tasking, and so many people say they don’t have enough time to read for pleasure these days.

There is a tone to The Road. Some people call it poetic, and at a stretch one might even say it’s melodious, but whatever one might call it, the tone is definitely there, and as a result, this novel sounds different from most novels. McCarthy creates the tone through the way he has structured the entire narrative, from the frequent transitions in time and place to the short, clipped dialogue unfettered by those oppressive quotation marks. Everything about the style of The Road is calculated to cultivate a certain atmosphere, one that is both distancing and intimate. I understand why some people find this book hauntingly beautiful or strangely enchanting—but I do not share that opinion.

There comes a point in every reader’s life when he or she comes up against a book that forces a choice: when does a book’s stylistic idiosyncrasies preclude any enjoyment of story or plot? This point is different for everyone. As of this writing, two of the five books on my “did not finish” shelf are there because, try as I might, the way the book had been written interfered with my ability to read and enjoy it. I was particularly harsh on Blindness, which also eschews the use of quotation marks. (McCarthy, to his credit, loves his paragraphs.) For many people, this is not a problem. For some people, like me, a book that abandons quotation marks instantly becomes a quagmire of lawlessness in which anything is possible: human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together … mass hysteria. It’s bad Road.

Ways to Improve The Road: Add quotation marks. Stating the obvious, I know, but I feel like I should include this one, because it really is a simple fix. Just throw them in there so I know what’s dialogue and what’s narration. We can do wonderful things with ebooks these days … create a special quotation-marked edition! You can charge more, because the book has “bonus content”!

Realistically speaking, I acknowledge that the lack of quotation marks is a deliberate choice, and to change that would be to alter the statement McCarthy is making. Fine. I accept that, and we will indeed move on in a moment. I just needed to establish how much this small choice affected my reading of this book. I skimmed all but the first 30 pages, because they were pretty much the same. I might still have skimmed if there were quotation marks … but maybe not as much?

I say the majority of the book was “pretty much the same” in the sense that there is very little variation in the types of events that transpire prior to the climax. This is partly because of the bleakness in tone, which is the result of a lonely, oppressive sense of sameness that pervades the story. No matter how far the man and his son travel, the situation is the same: few or no people, scarce resources, no civilisation. Their universe has shrunk so much. In this microcosm McCarthy creates the conflict: survival is ever-increasingly a struggle, and for what reason are they trying to survive? The contemplation of suicide is never far from the man’s mind, and not just because that is what happened to his wife. This is not the type of post-apocalyptic fiction where a large group of survivors bands together to rebuild their shattered lives: these two characters are, for all intents and purposes, castaways; they are marooned in their own homeland.

Ways to Improve The Road: Listen to a version read by Werner Herzog. There’s just something about the way he reads, the combination of his accent and his intonation and his utterly dry approach to something like Where’s Waldo. I think it would both highlight and improve the tone of The Road.

McCarthy never specifies the mechanism of this particular apocalypse. I am totally cool with that. However, I would have liked to know more about how the man became so distrustful of strangers. Why did he never find a small group of people he could call a family—neighbours, coworkers, etc.? I’m sure there is a sensible reason, but without something to call an anchor, the man’s insistent distrust of every other human being seems more pathologically antisocial than anything else. In general, the interaction between the man and the boy irks me because of the way the man does nothing but talk in vague generalities. He tells the boy that they are “good guys” who still “carry the fire” and need to avoid “bad guys”. Yet he never seems to improve upon this shaky moral framework. We seldom witness him instructing his son on survival tactics. They just blunder from one place to the next with only the destination of the coast in mind.

I can’t say with certainty what I would do if I found myself alone with a son in the middle of the wilderness and no smartphone. The more I read about post-apocalyptic or zombie fiction or see games like Fallout 3, the more I realize I am not cut out for a life that does not involve several hours of reading and web-surfing followed by one or more Star Trek re-runs: if The Road or its ilk are what life will be like after someone hits the button, then I hope I don’t survive the opening salvo. I’d like to think I would be the guy who retains or re-invents knowledge vital to my group’s survival, but I think we all know I’d probably just be the redshirt. Still, on the off chance that I do survive the actual apocalypse, I will not be using The Road as my survival guide.

Ways to Improve The Road: Add a subplot. Any subplot.The Road is about the relationship between father and son. Though they labour constantly under the the threat of external conflict and confrontation, most of the book’s conflict comes from an existential angst. The father knows (or suspects) early in the book that he is dying, but he tries to hide this from his son for as long as possible. So most of the book is a chronicle of the hardships these two face as they travel southwest toward the coast, where they hope to find a more hospitable winter habitation.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find this chronicle very riveting: the hardships are episodic and not all that interesting; the ending is predictable but extremely well-written. I just wish there were more here. I’m not sure how else to put that. The book doesn’t feel shallow, but it does feel like it could be denser. It could use some more substance—for example, more flashbacks to the man, his wife, and their infant, more about their story before she left and the world became so dark. Yes … more context.

I rather suspected that I wouldn’t fall head-over-heels in love with The Road, and I didn’t expect to hate it, so I guess this book met my lukewarm expectations. It’s not bad, but it fails to engage me on that fundamental emotional level necessary for a book that’s all about the visceral. The somewhat experimental stylistic choices McCarthy makes actually undermine my enjoyment of the book—and while that is a very personal judgement on my part, it’s something to bear in mind: what’s essential to one reader’s enjoyment is a hindrance to another’s. On Goodreads I am always reminded of the diversity of opinions on any book; I love that I can be exposed to so many different tastes and points of view here! This is particularly true of The Road, and whatever its flaws may be, it merits the type of discussion it’s been getting.

Ways to Improve The Road: Read it with a friend or friends. Discuss (preferably over pie)!

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