I’m not sure there’s much I can say about The Road by Cormac McCarthy that hasn’t already been said, given that I’m the last person on earth to finally read this book. (Thankfully, I’m not the last person on earth.) I gave it a try two years ago, but got something like 10 pages in before I flipped out. I was still nursing a babe at the time, and the ash, the dread, the Child made me physically hurt. I am not being metaphorical. I’m alternately gobsmacked by and resentful of how masterfully McCarthy played this one: gobsmacked because lord, this man can write and resentful because I don’t like being played.
This reads like an inverted landscape picture. You know, the kind of film that is about sweeping aerial shots and slowly panning vistas, the ones where the human drama plays out in grand tension with the callous beauty of Nature and her almost casual marriage to that old Greek grumpus, Fate? Brokeback Mountain is a landscape picture, and it has a similar claustrophobic sense despite the unpeopled grandiosity of the titular mountain. Here we don’t have all the bleating savagery of nature as our landscape, but its opposite: a gray sun, everything still and inexplicably dead but not fecund in rottenness, even the microbes that inevitably break us down gone still and cold. The night that the man and his boy spend in a wood that succumbs to its fragility and falls down, crashing almost without an echo; the years-old apples hidden in the straw-like grass, still edible; the soft slosh of an iodine-scented sea stripped of its sea-like glory: these visions I found incredibly, page-turningly effective.
While I admit that much of this feels intentional, I found the relationship between the father and son seriously problematic. Maybe this is my own hang-up. I bitch not about the stripped down punctuation and the almost childish and-then-and-then of the description; this was something akin to poetry. However, the simplicity of the world-view espoused by the father: the bad guys and good guys, this rankled a bit. I find it…improbable that a boy raised in this kind of environment would be so trusting, so willing to part with precious resources. Something about the scene from the past where the clocks all stop at 1:27 and the man begins to fill the bath with water, not because he needs a bath, but because he knows, instinctively, that this is the end of the world makes me wonder. The way his wife spits out her tiredness with living, vanishing into the ash almost without comment, is this all in his mind? Is this world a sick vision he’s foisted upon his son? Does that make this vision better or worse?
A million years ago, when I went to Sunday school and read the bible, I was always puzzled by Cain’s going out into the world after the murder of his brother, his mark a brand to let others know of his crime. Where do these other people come from? Whither Seth’s wife? There’s something of that here. Cain and Abel’s story is the first landscape picture, the first small, intense family drama to play out in an empty world. For them, the emptiness was the glory of unrealized potential, potential rendered ironic by the pettiness of human suffering. Cain’s story ends in shame, the mark of God’s forgiveness doubling as hopelessness.
This zippers that story backwards and inside out: the world has gone hopeless, useless, the end of it all and not the beginning, but with a human love and potential that renders the landscape ironic. The child’s last prayers to God the Father, I’m not sure what to think about this. Is this hackneyed or brilliant? There’s a lot of fictions that I wished ended 20 minutes before they did, before the problematic epilogue or whatnot: “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”, Crime and Punishment, etc. With this, I’m not sure about where my squeamishness is coming from. Do I expect and find comfort in harder lessons, even while the hardness presses indentations in my psyche? Do I hope for hopelessness? Maybe. Depictions of the end of the world are funny things, personal, societal, drawing out our quiet, familial, almost religious expectations of the people around us and writing them large and burning. The Road draws this story in ash, and while I wish this affected me more, it didn’t, even while I bow to McCarthy’s considerable skill.