Saturday, July 03, 2010

Bleak Future

The Frailty of Everything
The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The frailty of everything is revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all. (p 24)

I often read award-winning books with the expectation that the award means that they will be better than the average book. Seldom am I so moved by the writing and content of a book as I was in reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I had read his Border Trilogy and particularly enjoyed All the Pretty Horses, the first novel of the trilogy. That was what I will call McCarthy lite. The Road, published in 2006 is a much more serious novel. It is a post-apocalyptic tale of a journey taken by a father and his young son over a period of several months, across a landscape blasted by an unnamed cataclysm that destroyed all civilization and, apparently, almost all life on earth. The novel was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006.

The story tells of an unnamed father and his son journeying together, some years after a great, unexplained cataclysm has destroyed civilization and almost all life on Earth. Realizing that they will not survive another winter in their current location, the father leads the boy south, through a desolate American landscape along a vacant highway, towards the sea, sustained only by the vague hope of finding warmth and more "good people" like them, and carrying with them only what is on their backs and what will fit into a damaged supermarket cart. The bleakness of the setting is mirrored by a bleak, terse quality to McCarthy's prose. The details of their world, provided in small bits of narrative build to make a horrifying picture of desolation. Seldom have I read of a dystopia so bleak and foreboding. Nearly all of the few human survivors are cannibalistic tribalists or nomads, scavenging the detritus of city and country alike for human flesh, though that too is almost entirely depleted. Overwhelmed by this desperate and apparently hopeless situation, the boy's mother, pregnant with him at the time of the cataclysm, commits suicide some time before the story begins; the rationality and calmness of her act being her last "great gift" to the man and the boy. It is clear that the father is dying, yet he struggles to protect his son from the constant threats of attack, exposure, and starvation, as well as from what he sees as the boy's innocently well-meaning, but dangerous desire to help wanderers they meet. Through much of the story, the pistol they carry, meant for protection or suicide if necessary, has only one round. The boy has been told to use it on himself if capture is imminent, to spare himself the horror of death at the hands of the cannibals.

In the face of these obstacles, the man and the boy have only each other (they are "each the other's world entire"). The man maintains the pretense, and the boy holds on to the real faith, that there is a core of ethics left somewhere in humanity. They repeatedly assure one another that they are "the good guys," who are "carrying the fire." A question that I had and which grew as I read more of the narrative was: what is the meaning of good in the world they inhabited? It was good when they found some meat or when they made it to another day - simple existence takes on new meaning in this context. The humanity of the son is kept in check by his father for fear of the danger that seemed to exist everywhere. The horror is both devastating and haunting. It arises from the discovery of death while they gradual decline in their ability to continue. The darkness of their journey is lightened somewhat by the ending and that, without discussing specifics, seems to me to be an important suggestion that their may be some hope for the next generation - the boy's future seems to hold some promise even in the face of the bleak territory that he traversed with his father. In its way the book is at first unsettling, but if you continue to meditate on the events and relationships therein it becomes challenging and thought-provoking. The result of those thoughts may take some time to decipher.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2008

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