Novel * Cormac McCarthy * Obliteration * 2006
Well, pack it up, I think we’re done here. As far as a complete Apocalypse is concerned, I don’t know how you get any more bleak or desolate than The Road. This thing is bleakness writ large. I could throw out some more adjectives but it all comes down to the total obliteration of human society, and the Earth itself. The story, such as it is, follows a man and his son as they trek across an ashen wasteland that was once the American South. The reason everything is grey and dying isn’t made clear, likely because what few survivors are left are too concerned with the business of death to worry about trivial details. That said, to the trained apocalyptic eye, the world McCarthy describes is one in the throes of global cooling brought on by an extinction-level comet/asteroid strike. The events of the novel take place some years after the initial cataclysm, as the birth of the man’s son coincides with the event. The age of the child is never stated. Nor is anybody’s name. There’s a good reason for that, but you probably won’t like it.
This book is an impressionist account of the end of humanity, and it presents a world where the last vestige of what makes us human is slowly and inevitably draining away. All social conventions have been abandoned, and that includes names. In context of the novel, they’re not important anyway (nor, it seems, are quotation marks and apostrophes. Yes, it’s one of those kind of books). The story follows the man and the boy as they make their way from (probably?) New England to (I guess?) the Carolina coast. There are very few reference points, you see, because everything and everyone died in massive fires before the earth began to get cold. Snow and ash fall in equal amounts throughout the book. The journey of the man and boy is a harrowing one, designed to showcase how difficult mere existence is in a dying world.
The Road is desolate, it is repetitive, it is horrifying, and it is gorgeous. The bleakness of, well, pretty much everything cannot be overstated. That’s all the book is, which is why it repeats itself. This happens in the descriptions of the landscape, in the dialogue between the man and his son, and in the language itself. This repetition is essential to the mood of the book, and lends an otherworldly, poetic feel to the story. Each stilted, punctuation-less conversation between the boy and his son is but a refrain of a theme. That theme is disconnection even between a father and son, between a person and what makes him human. They encounter horror after horror on the road, both exterior and interior. They nearly starve a lot. For an impressionist, atmospheric work, there is an excess of mundane detail that only manages to make the story as a whole real, despite the dreaminess of the language. It’s a beautiful and astounding work.
The world is dead and humanity is dying. This is a novel awash in grey. There are still flickers of life here and there, but it seems that nearly all animal life is dead ash too. The road cuts through all of this and provides a semblance of a goal, but it’s empty. And dangerous. Humanity is in its death throes here, and every last social convention seems to have been abandoned. This point is hammered home when the man and boy see a trio of people from a distance, two men and a pregnant lady. Later, the man and boy come across their campsite, when they have managed to scare the people away. There, roasting over their campfire, is the carcass of (presumably) the lady’s newborn child. Gross. And this was the point in the novel where I’m like, okay book, I get it. You don’t need to lay it on any thicker. Seriously, this thing is tantamount to a nihilist bible. Check this out:
“He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.”
I feel like Sartre would read that and solemnly nod. Everything that we hold to be true is fragile: peace, love, understanding, ambition, achievement, oppression, terror, good and evil. In this world, the fragility is exposed, and humanity is shattered. The world has been drained of color, and those people left are slowly being drained of everything else.
The question then becomes: is there something here other than an ode to nihilism? I’m so glad you asked! There is, after a fashion, a glimmer of hope to be found. The fact that the man and son remain bonded throughout their horrors is one. The mother of the child, it is revealed, killed herself because she succumbed to despair. Given the state of the world, she had a point, and it doesn’t seem like either the man or the boy resent her for her choice. That said, when it comes down to it and the man is dying, his love for his son’s life burns through everything. As the man says in his final speech, “I cant hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I cant.” Two things about that. First, it kills me to omit apostrophes like that. Second, the man is able to die with his humanity intact. He does some rough shit throughout the book, but that only highlights what makes this final act (to defy his son’s wish not to be left alone) so important. His life is gone, but what made him human was never extinguished like it was for so many others. As the man put it throughout the story, he continued to carry the fire. So does the boy, it’s to be hoped. He finally finds a small group of people who aren’t into marauding and cannibalism, and while he can’t seem to find a reason to believe in God, he has the next best thing. The memory of his father.