Cormac McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road, marks an astounding return to form for the celebrated writer, whose previous works include the critically acclaimed Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men.
In The Road, McCarthy imagines a future in which the planet has been stricken by an unexplained ecological disaster. Omnipresent ash chokes the sky and blackens the sun. Plants and animals are a little more than a distant, fading memory. Civilization has all but collapsed. The few who managed to survive the cataclysm have little else to do but wander the uninhabitable wastes of the future in search of the nourishment, shelter and possible salvation.
The novel follows a man and his son as they traverse the scalded remains of North America with little more than the clothes upon their backs. The novel follows the pair (known simply as ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’) as they struggle to survive against the countless hazards and horrors of this terrifying new world. Furthermore, the man and the boy, in addition to the threats posed by the inhospitable climate, are forced to vie with other survivors for increasingly scarce supplies of food and water. While some people struggle to be kind and just even in this profound state of adversity, things like morality and humanity are luxuries people can ill afford when death lurks behind literally every corner. It is unsurprising, then, that many people have resorted to increasingly desperate and depraved means of surviving. The man and the boy witness this moral decay first-hand in one particularly disturbing scene where they stumble upon a basement in which live human beings are being harvested for food. To be consigned to such a fate would undoubtedly be worse than death – so the man always carries with him a revolver loaded with two bullets. One for him and one for the child – should the situation ever require it.
The meat of the story is told through the man’s perspective, as he attempts to protect, educate and prepare his son to ‘carry the fire’. The relationship between the man and the boy therefore is the focal point of The Road. The boy’s purity and innocence juxtapose the horrors of the dying world, in addition to acting as a pivot point for McCarthy’s exploration of morality, masculinity, ethics and humanity.
Their relationship is detailed through very short, independent paragraphs, which serve to lend an almost dreamlike quality to the novel’s morbid subject matter. This nightmarish tone is further reinforced by McCarthy’s stark and haunting prose. His Spartan use of language and punctuation are perhaps the most obvious hallmarks of McCarthy’s unique approach to writing. Unsurprisingly, these techniques combine very effectively – every sentence imbuing within a reader a new and profound sense of dread. Very few art forms can capture this emotion properly, but McCarthy does it effortlessly within the pages of The Road.
But by far the most compelling part of The Road is the way in which McCarthy explores the many implications of existing in such a hazardous world. The reader finds himself constantly confronted with situations which challenge their own perspectives. When the time comes, can you? Would you? Could you? McCarthy posits questions to which there are no easy answers.
Put simply, The Road is every bit as brutal as it is brilliant. It will leave you awestruck, dumbfounded and shocked to the last – and undoubtedly stay with you for many years to come.
BONUS: As it turns out, The Road has been reviewed on Swimming in the Nile before. Last year, another blogger, Reenah took up the challenge. You can find her impressions here.
MEGA BONUS: A film adaptation of the novel (starring Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall) is due to be released later this year. I can’t wait!