Thursday, December 22, 2011

A monument to hope in the midst of the apocalypse (Books - The Road by Cormac McCarthy)

It took me two years to work up to reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road after a friend recommended it. I just wasn't craving post-apocalyptic winter. The anticipatory cloud lifted one day and I no longer felt that I would not be able to appreciate the writing or story for the setting. This little personal anecdote befits the book, having now read it, as it is about our worst fears realized. The father and son who are the book's main characters live isolated in a cold, damp scab of a world where there is little sustenance, the other beings are few and impossible to predict, but usually violent, and where the only rule is to survive. But, my gosh, the writing is enveloping to the point of blotting almost all else out, the love between the two characters is deeply moving, and the impression this novel left is indelible.

I have read McCarthy's The Crossing and was nonplussed with how he could mix old testament gravitas,Western American grit, and deep, elemental emotion. Here, he one-ups even that one experience of his work I have had, by adding economy. This is not because being spare is inherently better writing, but rather because it suits the scarcity of his bleak imagined universe.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one that what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child had led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared in the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
In this opening paragraph McCarthy uses four of the five senses. The word 'glaucoma' is employed as a simile for the experience of a character we haven't even met - creating a striking impression of impending death and darkness. Sentences later he adds 'eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders.' Later McCarthy adds 'a blackness to hurt your ears with listening,' and the descriptors 'impenetrable,' and 'autistic' to evoke the characters' experience of the darkness of this world. Before we have met this character, we learn of what he dreamt. I dread reading dreams in most novels because they are generally so telegraphic about what the author would like them to symbolize instead of, as McCarthy does here, conveying character, circumstance, and setting through experience. Dreams may be culturally apprehended as symbols, but when dreamt they are a series of sensory experiences that are only later analyzed for their meaning. In the present, the moment to moment experience of the dream seems clear and sensible. Later we realize some veil hung between us and that world, some unspoken agreement had been made that, as this is a dream, the rules of progression are different and if it is to continue, the rules are to be accepted without question. Because, as the father tells his son, in this Beckettian universe,
You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.
Numerous dreams come and go throughout this narrative pointing at both the otherworldliness of life after the great and final mistake of mankind and also the mundanity of life's requirements. Even after the apocalypse we eat and we sleep and we dream. If we are a little child, we must learn the difference between the real world and the world of dreams and between bad dreams and good ones. Even in this world, or perhaps especially in this one, a father must teach his child ethics - which things to value, the respect due other living beings. And even in this deeply damaged universe, the son also teaches his father. Some of the most touching moments in this novel are ones in which the boy's inherent knowledge of what is right is challenged by what his father feels he must do to help them both survive in the extremity of the circumstances. This is an old tale - told often in both classical drama and in modern ones like Arthur Miller's All My Sons or Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities and A Fair Country. This is one of the sacred roles of parents. You can feel the deep struggle in this man who on the one hand must do everything that he can for his son to survive, even while he knows he is dying, and on the other wants to give him the same things most parents want to give their children - a safe, predictable world of full of goodness and generosity, and kind acts
You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by god. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?


He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.

Yes. We're still the good guys.

And we always will be.

Yes. We always will be.


In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He'd carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin.
What continually amazed me in this story is that a sense of what the world will be and who the boy could be in it is what motivated the actions of the father. He doesn't just sit down and die, he envisions the future and he walks towards it. This is not merely a book, it's a monument.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for reminding me of the power of The Road. Coming in a week when we lost Vaclav Havel -- thank you also for your words about him -- McCarthy's book, the father's struggle to keep hope alive in his son, bring to mind and heart the life-giving and life-sustaining power of art.

Caroline said...

What a wonderful review. It gives me the courage to read this book. I'm not a squeamish perosn at all but was always afraid to see what bleak horrors were waiting between the pages of this book. But there is beauty too, it seems, and quite a lot of it.

Barbara said...

Ted, I read your blog regularly and every once in a while I am reminded why. You, dear sir, are a magnificent writer yourself. I may never work myself up to reading The Road, but your review was a small gem of concise prose. Looking forward to 2012 and seeing what you read this year.

Ted said...

Anonymous - Indeed and those two writers accomplish that feat so differently.

Caroline - Me too. It is worth the try.

Barbara - Thank you for that kind compliment. I like book blogging so much precisely because one isn't reading in a vacuum but as part of a dialogue with other readers, so I am glad when my reading provokes others' appreciation.