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The Road

Cormac McCarthy's epic about a father and son who must survive in a post-apocalyptic world.

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This 'Road' Should Be Less Traveled

  • Feb 27, 2011
I recently finished Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, a highly praised and award-winning novel that was made into a film that spent all of maybe two hours in theaters.

It is also a novel that was appropriated by SF fandom as either "yet another SF novel not marketed as SF because publishers are afraid of the label" or "yet another mainstream author who just doesn't get it trying to write science fiction".

My personal conclusion is - The Road is neither.

Perhaps an analogy will help explain.

Whedon's beloved Firefly series is essentially "cowboys in space", even though it is really space opera with homage to horse opera when you really get down to it.  The show is recognizably science fiction, pushes all of the buttons, gives props to what has gone before in a suitably respectful manner (the C-57D nod, for example).

Space Cowboys is an almost-endearing film that kind of attempts to do the same dress-up as Firefly - put the kids in astronaut outfits while they play high plains drifter.  The title of the film evokes exactly what Firefly is, while entirely failing to get it as a movie.

If The Road is bad science fiction by a mainstream literary author, it is Space Cowboys and not Firefly.

But it isn't bad science fiction by a mainstream literary author.  It is, in fact, a very simple tale told in harrowing detail and without any real point.

The theme can be summed up as follows:

Parents die. Their children have to go on into the future without them. Advice and training, caring, emotion, love, none of this really matters in the long run because the kids will be on their own once you're gone. Their future might be horrible, but there's nothing you can do to help them get through it because you'll be gone.

Why not just kill them and then yourself? At least that way you won't have to agonize over something you have no control over.  Why not indeed?

It could also be summed up as a tale of a father trying to pass on good culture to his son, despite trying to survive in a horrible nightmare of a world.  Or a tale of good vs evil against impossible odds. Or that it is the nature of humanity to try and survive even when there is no hope.

And all of those might be accurate, except that in the end we learn that no one survives, humanity has vanished from the planet and everything in the story that went before was entirely pointless.  Pointless AND hopeless.

Cormac spent an entire novel playing god of the old testament, picking out his Job and relentlessly torturing him, seemingly just because he could.

Perhaps the critics were wowed by a novel that has absolutely no hope, that goes against the grain of the happy ending. Me, I thought it sucked.

Not in a writerly, authorily, wordy usage way (there are some masterful passages: one in particular really struck me. When Papa is defending himself from an attacker, McCarthy drops into usage of many single syllable words and a sentence structure without breaks that marvelously conveys the breathless, staccato rhythm of a fight scene) but in a results way. Cormac's message to the world is - there really is no hope, all of your efforts at survival are doomed to failure in the long run, the only reason we go on is because we're too lily-livered to face up to facts and do the right thing. Humanity is weak, which is why it will not survive, and it is weak, which is why it will continue to suffer. Unnecessarily.  In other words, as a species, we lack the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing and off ourselves in a clean and orderly manner.

Instead we're doomed to disease and injury; our future is populated with endless cannibalism and rape, though not necessarily in that order.

I love post apocalyptic tales. Anything from A Canticle for Liebowtz (Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels--bring home for Emma.) to I Am Legend, even Corman films vaguely based on Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold. A Boy and His Dog and The Omega Man are particular favorites.  I love the grit.  I love the whole world goes through a paradigm shift aspects.  Not to mention the McGuyver talents required (like figuring out how to open up a can of stewed prunes without a can opener).

In fact, I often think of the world after the apocalypse as my personal ideal environment: I'll head on over to the NY Library or down to the Library of Congress, cans and opener in tow (trusty cut-off 30.06 hanging by my side), all kinds of previously useless trivia (now survival info) stuck in my head and spend the rest of my life touring the stacks and muttering "mine, mine mine!" as I go happily mad.

Presuming I survive the initial whatever - which I have to presume since otherwise there's no story.

Jetsie DeVries offered up his vision of an anthology oriented towards 'positive' futures (Shine), which generated a lot of discussion and debate.  The general consensus was that far too much SF was about or took place in bleak futures.

I protested this conclusion based on the premise that ANY future means there's hope.  McCarthy's The Road is, if anything, the definition of the kind of science fiction that Devries was campaigning against.

I find hope in A Boy and His Dog (at least the original short if not the movie). Vic and Blood know how to get along in their environment and may go on to do wonderful things - or at least have interesting adventures.

I find hope in The Omega Man. Sure Heston dies, but the serum is preserved.  There's a colony that will survive now and who knows, maybe the world they build will be different (better?) than this one.

I find hope in Soylent Green. Sure, Heston dies, but the word is out.  There's going to be a lot of unrest, a lot of death, but the old order is going to be overthrown. The tree of liberty will again find the sun.

Science Fiction apocalyptic tales are inherently hopeful: some people have survived the whatever and the race gets to start all over again. The nifty, peachy-keen parts of the story are: what is/was the 'whatever', who has survived and why, what kind of landscape do they inhabit now, how do the survivors deal with that environment and what does the future hold.

That last question is the key.  What does the future hold?  In good and bad science fiction, what the future holds is more often than not one of the main themes of the tale.  The journey to that future (if the story is well written) is filled with all kinds of things that we don't get to see elsewhere. Humanity's capacity for survival and innovative tool-use are on full display, which is probably what I find so intriguing about these kinds of tales. How long can you run the lights on scavenged gasoline?  They cobbled together a generator from what? Huh, yeah, fallout shelters can be found underneath a lot of old time radio stations...and so forth.

Not to mention the license to create new societies from whole cloth that the setting provides to any author.

The Road, while it contains many of these same elements, does not share an SF tales strictures.  We're never given any clues as to what kind of holocaust befell mankind.  (Ash falling from the air, the weather constantly getting colder are not, as they may at first seem, clues.  The ever-present ash and the cold and the rain are symbols, and nothing more.)

So much for the how.

Who has survived and why?  A few references to communes (closed communities) a few references to wandering bands of cannibals. Who has survived?  We don't know.  By rough count, we run into perhaps twenty people other than the protagonists. Most are dead or starving to death, almost every single one is intent on eliminating Papa and the boy, or at least stealing their hoarded survival gear.

We never encounter one of the communes.  If there are attempts at rebuilding and crafting new societies out of the ruins, their story is left out of the narrative.

And the same can almost be said for the wit and creativity that informs so many other rebuilding from the ashes tales.  No one hops up onto a bicycle generator to recharge the bank of car batteries; no one has built a still.  No one has hitched the horses up to a cadillac.

In other PA tales (Alas Babylon, Starman's Son come to mind at this point), when a journey is involved, it may be the Hero's Journey writ small, but it is also designed to act as a tour of the new world for the reader.  (Imagine Quest For Fire the movie as if the ending revealed a half-buried statue of liberty. How many different tribes and different cultures are encountered?  More than enough to provide the viewer with a good cross-sectional view of the world as it is known then.)

In The Road, there is no tour. There are no nascent societies.  There are only dangerous houses, dangerous barns and burnt out remains.  No place that any reader would find appeal or comfort in.  And so we trudge on.

Even in other science fiction tales in which humanity has passed (Twilight), the reader is given somewhere to go.  Something to look at and marvel over (or recoil in disgust from).

What about the innate survival skills that now have a chance to shine?  There are none.  I suppose Cormac's Papa is supposed to represent 'any man', the average schmoe on the street.  Unfortunately, this is where the novel really fell down for me.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you have shelter, food and water in a relatively secure place (and for the first time in a long time), that your best move is to hole up, improve your circumstances and then sally forth from there.

You don't abandon it.  Even if you're sick and mentally confused and concerned for the future survival of your son.

It also doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you are "carrying the fire", you're not the kind of person to abandon a basement full of naked human food on the hoof.  When they beg you to help them, you're supposed to have enough humanity left to do so.  Or at least try.

But back to the finding food and stupidly abandoning it part.

The scene is: Papa and the Boy have been without food for nearly a week and are on their last legs. Papa almost accidentally discovers an underground shelter that is fully stocked with canned goods, flashlights, blankets, beds, a chemical toilet and all manner of other good things.  The supplies are more than enough to keep the two going for weeks, if not months.

Papa determines that they will stay for several days, eat as much as they can, pack as much as they can and then get back on the road.

Heading for they know not what.

Papa is concerned for the security of the shelter (and rightly so), but a hole in the ground that can be covered by a mattress and other scattered debris is a hell of a lot more secure than any place else the two have sheltered up to that point.  A little common sense and a little bit of care (like not approaching from the same direction all the time, staying in during the day, etc.) would greatly enhance their chances of survival.

Up to this point (if I remember correctly), the two have been robbed or nearly robbed of all of their stuff several times. The shelter gives them the means to secure against that to the nth degree.

The shelter could be used as a base from which they could: find something better than a shopping cart to transport their gear, make forays towards the coast (walk a day, come back the next) to chart out the terrain.  They could even create stashes and sheltered camps.  They could spy out other survivors and perhaps obtain some allies.  Even one more trustworthy adult would increase their chances and security a thousand fold.

But no - they have to keep on walking, and they end up in a place that is pretty stripped and pretty exposed.

I have a great deal of difficulty in accepting a character who's survived long enough to get to the opening of the novel, yet can't see the sense in hanging on to a good thing when they find it.

I also have difficulty accepting the fact that they couldn't find something better than a shopping cart to push their crap around in.  Maybe it's supposed to be symbolic of our lost consumerism or something.

Based on the foregoing, there's just no way I can fit The Road in the canon of apocalyptic SF tales.  And I'm now kind of glad that it wasn't marketed as science fiction, because with it's notoriety, anyone reading this thinking that it was SF is likely to never read another SF apocalyptic take again.

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More The Road (book) reviews
review by . March 10, 2011
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a grim novel about surviving a post apocalyptic World and the relationship between a father and son. How the World ended is never mentioned but the fact that it has and the dire situation the main characters are put in is the driving force of the book. The father throughout the story line is always encouraging his son to never lose hope and to keep the fire burning that swells inside of them. Will they be able to survive in a dead World? What will they do just to live …
review by . November 17, 2010
Whew! THE ROAD is a draining, exhausting, bleak, gut-wrenching, bleak, fast-paced, bleak novel. Did I mention it was BLEAK?     The book is 279 pages and they fly by. I think I read the book in 4 hours...I could hardly make myself put it down. I wouldn't say I "enjoyed" reading it...but it was thoroughly gripping, as spare and uncompromising a novel as you would ever want to read.     It tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world, where the sun is never seen …
review by . November 18, 2010
Whew! THE ROAD is a draining, exhausting, bleak, gut-wrenching, bleak, fast-paced, bleak novel. Did I mention it was BLEAK?     The book is 279 pages and they fly by. I think I read the book in 4 hours...I could hardly make myself put it down. I wouldn't say I "enjoyed" reading it...but it was thoroughly gripping, as spare and uncompromising a novel as you would ever want to read.     It tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world, where the sun is never seen …
review by . July 04, 2010
There's something timeless and persistent about the dystopian novel.   Whether it's Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, or Zamyatin's We, stories detailing the consequences of losing all we know and fearing that what we've dreamed will never come to pass are a powerful lure for the popular imagination.  Humans are resilient creatures, and we take a special interest in tales which paint a picture of human fortitude in the face of daunting circumstances, …
review by . July 14, 2010
   A friend loaned me this book just before the movie came out.  He told me that it was gut-wrenching, but I don't think he could have prepared me for just how incredibly bleak this book really is.    Of course I read this book as fiction.  I didn't look for any kind of meaning or try to analyze it very much.  My friend is an English and Philosophy major, so I figure he got away more out of this than I did.   I read this book during the winter.  …
Quick Tip by . October 22, 2010
It will pull you through an emotional wringer, mess you up, wring you out, stomp on you, rewash and rewring ... read it. Understand it is an emotional journey that goes to beautiful extremes.
review by . July 02, 2010
This was probably one of the darkest and potentially depressing books I've ever read, yet the prose is so beautiful that it did not have that effect on me. I found some passages so absolutely beautiful, I had to re-read them several times just to savor them. The story takes place in a dark, burned, post-apocalyptic world and follows the lives of a father and son who are trying to stay alive, find food, and keep moving. Exactly how this apocalypse happened remains untold. Years afterward, the …
review by . June 20, 2010
It's hard to imagine our world devoid of sun, vibrant color, or plants of any kind. Yet The Road does conjur up these almost lifeless images and takes readers on a journey through such a landscape: gray, cold, hard, and wearying.  Life does exist, however, even in an environment as non-supportive as Cormac McCarthy has penned: a father and son.      The father and son are at the heart of this story, and their walk through a bleak, …
review by . September 30, 2010
Pros: Plot, control, authentic father, young son discussions.      Cons: Nothing.      The Bottom Line: Not the McCarthy to start with for a newbie, but a good read all the same.      Edited to correct some embarrassing grammatical mistakes      Imagine after the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven (whose hearing at that point allowed him to play the piano like the master he had always been) wrote a very simple, 4 minute piece …
review by . July 06, 2010
The Road is by no means a happy book, although the companionship and support displayed between a man and young boy is heartfelt and inspiring. With the bleakest outlook on survival and no food, these two are ever running, ever hiding from other's who would steal their provisions.       At times, the simplest can of pears brings more joy to the character's lives than a large sum of money would bring to most people today. The hardships endured by a young boy and the …
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The Road is a 2006 novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy. 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, most 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 Road follows an unnamed father and son journeying together toward the sea for many months across a post-apocalyptic landscape, some years after a great, unexplained cataclysm. It is revealed via flashback that the boy's mother, pregnant at the time of the disaster, committed suicide after the birth of her son because of the ultimate certainty of her and her family's death by starvation or at the hands of the roving bands of cannibalistic survivors. She preferred to reclaim some semblance of power by choosing the manner of her death. The man carries a revolver with two bullets meant for protection or suicide in a worst case scenario.

Civilization has been destroyed and it seems that all life except for a dwindling population of human beings is extinct. The sun is obscured by ash and the climate is cold: "hard enough to crack stones." Plants do not grow. As the father and son travel across the landscape, they encounter horrific scenes, including an army of roving cannibals and their catamites and slaves; an infant roasting on a spit; and a basement...

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ISBN-10: 0307265439
ISBN-13: 9780307265432
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Genre: Horror, Apocalypse, Science Fiction
Publisher: Knopf, Vintage
Date Published: (September 26, 2006)
Format: Novel
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