“Where men can’t live gods fare no better.”
The Road was another Tournament of Books read: it won the Rooster in 2007 (which just shows how far back my procrastination reading went), and since it’s ostensibly a speculative fiction narrative, I went for it, thinking I’d find the kind of thought-provoking, character driven SFF I’ve been craving ever since I dived into Mieville last year.
As most people know by now, The Road is set in a postapocalyptic wasteland whose chief characteristic is “grey”. The land is covered in ash; the sun hides behind thick cloud cover; it’s bitterly cold; there are cannibals travelling the melted asphalt roads. A man and his son, whose names we never learn, cross this wastescape in search of the sea.
I’m just going to come out and say it: The Road annoyed me more than it moved me. McCarthy is going for a stripped-back, simple aesthetic, devoid of all narrative luxury and colour, and I understand that this is supposed to heighten the beauty of the father-son bond by way of contrast. But I also feel like McCarthy’s world is so empty of colour, so devoid of hope, that nothing can actually happen in it. There’s no feel of narrative progression: Our Heroes simply walk for three hundred pages, coming across the occasional unexpected food windfall just when they’re about to collapse from hunger, being mean to fellow survivors, encountering and narrowly escaping instances of cannibalism. These are in themselves dramatic things, but they become less dramatic because they happen all the time, in seemingly random order.
Perhaps this would be less of a problem if the characterisation or the language were more involving, but although McCarthy’s words do occasionally sing, more often the utilitarian simplicity of the prose dulls the reading experience to the same grey drudgery the characters themselves wade through. The sparseness of the narrative extends to punctuation: few commas, fewer exclamation or question marks, no speech marks or apostrophes. Among other things, this makes it extremely difficult to follow dialogue: several times I ended up counting back to the last named speaker to work out what was happening in the conversation. There are points at which the book feels like one of those bizarre Beckettian surrealist plays in which the characters talk past each other about the Meaning of Life, which I doubt was the effect McCarthy was going for.
Or perhaps it was. The fact is that the devastation described in The Road feels utterly beyond any possible scenario. The vast majority of animals and plants have been killed, ash covers the land, but houses and towns remain standing, their contents intact. Not even a nuclear winter could destroy all life without hope of return while simultaneously leaving buildings standing.
I understand that all of these things have literary meaning. The novel is asking us what we have when we have nothing; asking what humanity is, alone and nameless. But I don’t feel like The Road does this skilfully or interestingly. I don’t think it tells us anything that isn’t blindingly obvious or that hasn’t been done before. (A father and a son love each other? You know, I would never have guessed.) Most importantly, it does what it does without story, without humanity, without hope.