Novel Review: The Road

This is a review of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, not the current, long-delayed Hollywood adaptation. However, until we get a review of the movie, it makes an excellent place to discuss both book and film.

Title: The Road

Author: Cormac McCarthy
ISBN: 0307476308, 978-0307476302
First published: 2006.

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Premise:

A father and son travel the roads of a dead, post-apocalyptic America. The novel never reveals the causes of the bleak situation, the “long shear of light” followed by darkness and ashes. Nuclear winter? Asteroid strike? It doesn’t matter anymore than the reason for the dead circumstances in Beckett’s Endgame. The disaster creates a reason to examine characters in dark times. In this case, we’re experiencing the relationship between a father and a son as they cross a landscape stripped of sunlight and hope, and encounter characters and cannibals stripped of their humanity.

High Point:

When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

Low Point:

I’m going to pick at a nit, just because it’s the sort of thing that irks me, especially in books by great writers cheered on by the literary establishment.

McCarthy apparently doesn’t like the conventions for indicating dialogue, and he doesn’t use them. As a bonus, he only uses apostrophes when he feels like it, with no discernible pattern to their presence and absence. In brilliant novel after brilliant novel, he eschews these useful punctuation marks. I have no idea why.

A writer can do pretty much anything he or she wishes, if it achieves some effect. I don’t get any particular effect from the lack of quotation marks. Maybe it makes his pages look even more sparse and stripped down, but he’s already accomplished that through his clipped style. The lack of apostrophes, quotation marks, and conventional indicators of dialogue just make him seem pretentious (What? He’s so good he’s above punctuation?) and his books harder to read. I don’t mind that he’s challenging, but I see no reason to be perversely difficult for its own sake.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6. The premise has been handled before, but never has so much literary effort been dedicated to this kind of setting, nor has this setting been used to tell this particular kind of story.

Imagery: 6/6: McCarthy writes like some haunted child of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.

Story: 4/6. The book’s story, like everything else, has been stripped down. I recognize some people may find it unfair for me to penalize the book for something so intrinsic to the author’s purpose, but I always want to recognize that, to a certain kind of reader (many of whom we would find at the Bureau), this book will not consistently sustain their interest. One noted panelist at last summer’s WorldCon cracked people up by stating simply that he found the book overrated and “boring.”

Characterization: 6/6. The novel brilliantly captures human beings remaining hopeful in a genuinely hopeless situation. Most intriguing: we see the father, idealized by his son, sliding into the bestial, survival-driven behavior of the others they encounter.

Emotional Response: 5/6. What would we do if our circumstance truly lacked any hope? Now, what would we do if, in these circumstances, we were entrusted with the care of a child?

Editing: 6/6. Despite my objection above, I concede McCarthy writes like few contemporary authors—and yet he has managed to find a mass audience.

Overall score: 5/6. We have a brilliant artistic achievement– which some will find too bleak and repetitive to sustain interest.

In total, The Road receives 36/42

6 replies on “Novel Review: The Road”

  1. Erf says:

    I wonder if the lack of quotation marks is a way to distance the reader from the dialog, and hence from the characters. If the spoken lines are just part of the description, it’s a lot harder to “hear” them. (I imagine it’s like the difference between chatting via IM and by phone.) It keeps the tone quiet, stepping along without breaking pace.

    I’m thinking it’s sort of like the difference between thought balloons and caption boxes. In fact, imagine a comic where the dialog was all given in caption boxes instead of word balloons; it’d distance the words from the people speaking them, and distance the people from the characters.

    On the other hand, it might also keep you inside the character’s head, especially if the whole thing is in one character’s POV. You’re not getting dialog, you’re getting that character’s internalization of the dialog. I can see that working in a book like this — although, as you say, it’d make it irritatingly harder to read. (And I don’t know what’s up with the apostrophes.)

    All that said, I can’t imagine why McCarthy would do this in all his books. Unless everything he writes is one person vs the world, where that one person spends a lot of time in his or her own head…?

  2. rickyjames says:

    I enjoyed this book very much even though I thought it had several weak points. In many ways the trek to me would seem more plausable in the 1960s than the 21st Century – for example, coming across home canned goods in today’s fast food society? Good luck with that. The discovery of the various elaborate “oaises” seemd a little too convenient in both plot and timing. I found the ending really implausable as well and a turnaround from the bleakness the novel was having us embrace for hundreds of pages.

    Still, a true work of Literature deserving its Pulitzer.

    If you like McCarthy’s bleak outlook in The Road, you’ll love No Country For Old Men. That novel is worth reading just for a bonus character not in the movie version – well, she WAS in the movie, but only as a chance acquaintance we see for thirty seconds instead of a long-term actual traveling companion to Moss.

    • JD DeLuzio says:

      coming across home canned goods in today’s fast food society? Good luck with that.

      Really? Most people I know always have some canned goods. I imagine people would have even more if they knew an apocalypse might be coming. (Hey, maybe that’s the real reason for the idiotic 2012 hype: conspiracy by canning interests).

      No Country For Old Men. That novel is worth reading

      Excellent novel.

      (Despite the punctuation issues)

      • rickyjames says:

        Not “canned goods”. HOME canned goods. As in glass jars with the flat metal lids held on by screw tops that are sterilized and sealed in a pressure cooker on your stove top, like my mom did with stuff from our garden when I was a kid.

        This type of food storage figures prominently in The Road, and I think it’s more from McCarthy’s personal memories of what America used to be than the current first-hand current observations of a reclusive author in his mid-70s.

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