The Road by Cormac McCarthy

--The Road by Cormac McCarthy is by far one of the most arresting novels I have ever read. On the surface, it is a dystopian novel about a very bleak future and the dark underbelly of survival in a true post-apocalyptic environment. But at its heart, it is the story of a man trying to be a “good” father under impossible circumstances.

How this father and his tender son got where they are, and what happened to bring about such a dire future, is almost irrelevant. In fact, we receive only disjointed and incomplete clues about what may have happened via the father’s feverish dreams and in rare moments when he allows himself to remember. And even then””the memories, the dreams””they are all personal, void of any social or political concerns.

What we do know quite clearly is that there was fire””fire so intense and so fierce and so engulfing that it literally scorched its way across the land, leaving everything in its wake stark, brittle, and hostile. Ash falls from the sky like snow, obscuring the sun. Night is so thick that it cannot be penetrated. Even the feeble fires they build for warmth seem to be struggling against the oppressive weight of the blackness. Nothing has gone untouched, and you realize rather quickly that nothing will ever grow here again. In short, this is a desperate world.

The entire thrust of the story is the attempt of this father and son to survive by migrating south to escape the cold. It is a grueling journey. And what are they surviving to? That is the unspoken question littered across each page. The road always creates more questions than it answers.

In an earlier post this summer where I discussed my current dystopian reading habits, Kaizerin left an amusing and thought-provoking comment in which she paraphrased a quote made by Stephen King. Essentially, he said, the reason people like stories about the end of the world is because they imagine they will be the ones to survive and they’ll get to keep all the stuff. I really think that there is something to that idea. Many (if not all) stories about the end of civilization have a strong scavenger component to them. --

Hunting and gathering takes on a new twist in a post-consumer, post-apocalyptic landscape. Finding what is useful, sifting through the rubbish to identify food, shelter, clothing–these are the essential skills of a survivor. Frequently, even more than the necessities, we are fascinated by the luxuries that survive (even WALL-E had an iPod). But in the dystopian world of The Road we are years beyond what was “the end.” In the time following whatever conflict or war or tragedy took place, supplies are dangerously absent. In this place, survival means something different. It means finding other sources of food that may be more abundant. It means turning on your fellow man.

The Road as Metaphor

But this book is about so much more than the survival of a father and his son. With every page, I could see more and more clearly that The Road served as an analogy for what it means to live as a man of principle in this modern world””a place populated by metaphorical “cannibals” who would survive at any cost, even the cost of their own humanity. The road is more than just the path this pair struggled down in search of something better. It is the road each of us walks down. And what does our journey look like?

The father in this story is caught in a trap. As he tries to create a worthy example in a corrupt and desolate world, he is continually forced to face his own limitations and those that have been imposed on him. Yet, he keeps trying to push through beyond that. He keeps trying be worthy, to meet the expectations he has of himself and those he imagines other people (most notably his son) have of him as well.

And isn’t this a familiar path? In the end, the book speaks to each of us. It talks about expectations, it talks about moral absolutes, and it talks about how failure can sneak up on even the most uncompromising and noble. In the end, it talks about forgiveness and what it means to leave the world behind you just a little bit better. It is about survival even when you don’t want to survive. It isn’t about hope exactly, but it is about the hope for hope. And it is about love.

Tend Your Garden, Carry the Fire

At some point, fairly early on, you begin to ask, “Why? Why struggle so hard to survive? Is it even worth it?” The situation seems hopeless to the reader. It seems hopeless to the characters. Still, they continue to push forward as if they are driven by something. And they are. Something beyond survival””almost mystical, or at least mythic. They have a mission, this father and his son. They have a responsibility to, as they put it, “carry the fire.”

This almost cryptic statement conjures up such powerful images. They survive to carry the fire. The world has collapsed, and someone must carry the fire. This is what good men do, they carry the fire.

--The charge to carry the fire reminded me so much of the famous closing advice from Voltaire’s Candide, which is equally potent, primitive, and open to tremendous speculation and varying interpretation. “Tend your garden,” he tells us. In the face of a seemingly incomprehensible world, in the absence of a benevolent higher power, in the shadow of existential absurdity, what do you do? You tend your garden. You carry the fire.

Within the story, where this idea of carrying the fire came from is unclear. Whether the father truly believes it or it was just something he made up to keep his son moving forward (or even to protect him from hopelessness?), it doesn’t matter. This has become their mission.

Fed on his father’s need to believe in something bigger than himself, the boy’s world is simple and clean. We are the good guys because we don’t eat people. And because we are good guys, we carry the fire. Even in a post-apocalyptic world, myth survives. Metaphor continues to have meaning. And these clean lines and neat definitions are both the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. Nothing changes, and nothing stays the same.

And more than that, the contrast of this fire (the carrying of which is such an ancient and deeply symbolic duty) with the destructive force that has completely destroyed the land they are making their way through is so potent. The father doesn’t know how to explain it, but in this cold, desolate place left in the vacuum of a blazing inferno, fire is a very fitting symbol and it is at the center of their journey. This is what keeps us men; we survive to remain men.

Final Thoughts

I honestly can’t say enough good things about this book. The quality of the writing, the care with which each detail is added, the deliberateness of each character choice, the layers of meaning””all these things create a story that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. And I feel, in a sense, that my carrying this story with me as I move forward is a lot like carrying the fire into the world myself.

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16 Responses to The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  1. Ramona says:

    Countess – I have long had this book on my to read list – not my active written down list, but the “someday I am going to read that book” list I carry in my mind. You have put “The Road” as #1 for my new reading nook once we are moved and the craziness has settled down.
    Thank you for your insightful and eloquent reviews. I always enjoy your posts even though I may not always comment.

  2. kaizerin says:

    You ladies are giving me a taste for the good stuff, between Ramona giving me Moon Tiger and The Stone Diaries, and CountessZ writing this irresistible review of The Road. I’m putting this right on top of my “to read once the weather turns cold” list. I don’t think I could take it just now, with temps in the 100s outside; serious books require serious weather.

  3. Ramona says:

    Isn’t it funny we want “light” reading during the summer and save our “heavy” reading for the dark months. Have we been programmed such by advertising for beach books? Or is there an ancient imprint somewhere on our psyches?
    Perhaps it is as simple as the school calendar – serious reading/study during the fall, winter, spring; fun reading during the summer vacation. What do you think?

  4. Ramona says:

    p.s. What is there about temps in the 100’s that you don’t consider serious!?

  5. kaizerin says:

    It is kind of funny, and I hadn’t considered the school connection–I think you’re on to something there.

    The 100-degree temps are ridiculous. I have to assume the weather is just kidding around.

  6. CountessZ says:

    Interesting thoughts. I think there is definitely a school connection, but also–aren’t we perhaps a little preconditioned to think heavier, more somber thoughts in the fall and winter months because that is when life has traditionally slowed down enough to allow that kind of introspection? Maybe it is part of our agrarian way of life? Even the rhythms of school as we know them are rooted in the need to have everyone working on the farm full time in the summer months. Of course, summer has now come to be more associated with leisure, so its hard to know if or how much we may still be influenced by that way of life.

  7. CountessZ says:

    BTW, they are in post-production on a movie version of The Road starring Viggo Mortensen. I know that many fans of McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men were displeased with the film adaptation. I, personally, was absolutely riveted by the movie, but I also hadn’t read the book. Though, I certainly plan to now. I can’t find any official trailers for the movie yet, but I remain hopeful. I am always tempted to get sad when they turn great books into movies, because I always feel like it means people won’t read the book. But I’m starting to rethink that idea, and I wonder if perhaps the broader exposure means MORE people will read the book. What do you guys think? I’ll definitely see the movie when it comes out and perhaps I’ll toss up a post here comparing the two and talking a little bit more about how movies and books play together in general…

  8. kaizerin says:

    I have mixed feelings on the book-into-movie issue. I think it does encourage people to read the book, but that can backfire, depending on how much the adaptation varies from the book. I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, if a certain percentage of the people who picked up “Under the Tuscan Sun” because they enjoyed the movie were disappointed to find there was no affair with a charming Italian rogue, nor did it end with a cinematic wedding. I seem to recall a number of Amazon reviews complaining that the book ‘wasn’t the same story’ as the movie. Still, another percentage will be like me, able to appreciate them both for what they are, even if they are quite unlike.

    Whether I will watch a movie based on a book I like really depends on whether I get a sense they’ve done a good job with it, and how disappointed I’ll be if they don’t. I understand that it’s simply not possible to literally film a book and put it on the screen; of course there will be compromises and abridgments. But these may be done intelligently (V for Vendetta, Lord of the Rings) or stupidly (the last Harry Potter film is the first one that comes to mind, but there are many others.)

    I can’t tell you how nervous-yet-hopeful I am about the Watchman movie. So many opportunities to mess it up, and such an achievement if they get it right. The only really off-putting thing I’ve seen so far is the casting of Ozymandias– the rest of it looks pretty good, so far.

  9. Ramona says:

    Funny you should mention V for Vendetta – it was one of the movies I thought of when I read Countess Z’s post. That was a movie I really enjoyed but it did not entice me into reading the book….just a bit outside my genre.
    The only movie I can remember liking better than the book was “The Women’s Room”; perhaps because of Colleen Dewhurst.
    Like Kai, I enjoyed both the movie and book of “Under the Tuscan Sun”. (The romance with the countryside better than a romance with a roving Italian.)
    I don’t know if a good movie entices people into reading the book it is based upon. Most people probably think, “been there, done that.” I think it is much more likely the reader will go to a movie of a book they’ve enjoyed to 1) see if the movie makers got it right and 2) relive the enjoyment of the book in another art form.
    Don’t you think readers are born, or at least formed in early years by being read to, rather than made into readers by movie attendance? (i.e. Can you teach an old dog new tricks?)

  10. CountessZ says:

    I do think on some level that readers are born and formed. I read a study once that talked about how only 20-40% of people are born with the kind of wiring that makes reading (and writing) easy. For the rest, it is a much more labor intensive process. Supposedly that means the other 60-80% would opt for the movie? I suppose that explains the vast difference between profit margins on movies versus those on books? (Maybe the one good thing about the tendency to turn good books into mediocre movies is that it puts income into the pocket of the writer and allows them to keep writing more books?)

    I have to admit that I have a tendency to want to reject the idea that readers are born, because it seems a little…privileged? I mean, on some level, people who read are people with access to books, or those who had an education that placed a great deal of emphasis on reading. But this isn’t always true. I was pretty much born with a love of reading and I’m not sure how much encouragement I got. I was never discouraged, but I had to work to get my books. Especially in the summer when I didn’t have access to the school library.

    But I’m getting off my point. I have heard a few people here and there who loved a movie feel compelled to read a book, but they are certainly few and far between. I would be interested to see what kind of increase in sales booksellers get when a “movie cover” of a recently adapted novel is placed in their stores. It has to be doing something for their bottom line (and the publishers), or they wouldn’t bother doing it.

  11. Ramona the Reader says:

    Mz Z- How can being “born” a reader translate into being privileged? I truly believe we are born with a complete set of imperatives – one of which, if we are lucky, is “I must read! I must learn!” Kai and I have discussed this often. Perhaps it is in the genes as both her parental units were/are readers. We agree we were born with a thirst to learn, and reading was our way to accomplish the learning.
    You mention having to work to get your books, as did I. Country kids weren’t allowed access to the public library unless they paid a fee. My parents could not afford the fee. But we could climb three flights of stairs in the old courthouse and check books out of the county superintendent’s office – IF we could coerce one of our parents into taking us there and IF we could overcome our fear of the ogre county superintendent.
    Kai will tell you I was often admonished by my mother that I’d better “make” my kids do chores instead of letting them read. My response was that I would rather have them reading than doing dishes.
    I do agree with you about turning good books into mediocre movies in that it does allow the author to write more.
    Another thought on the “winter” slowdown and the time to think somber, deep thoughts, plus the agraian connection which I hadn’t thought of – I was in agreement until I considered the readers in FL and AZ and other tropic climes. Without the cold and snow and long winters, do their reading habits change?
    Bottom line; I’m so grateful I am a reader. I feel so sorry for those who aren’t.

  12. CountessZ says:

    Privileged wasn’t quite the right word. Maybe exclusive is more what I was after. And not necessarily exclusivity in a negative way–after all, we all have different interests and these frequently pull us toward others who share our affinities. But I have this nagging guilt about saying I’m part of some exclusive club, even though I clearly am–I read, passionately and voraciously, and many people do not.

    Is that a nature thing or a nurture thing? Probably a bit of both.

    A big part of me has felt uncomfortable with the idea that there were simply readers and non-readers. Bookish folk, and non-bookish folk. I mean, those of us born with a natural built-in love of language and reading will always find a way to feed our hunger. But there is also the nuture side of things that I don’t like to ignore. I want to believe that just about anybody, given the right book or subject matter, could pick up a novel and get lost in it. They may not read as deeply or as obsessively as I do, but they would find value in it. My idealist self wants to believe everyone can be taught or encouraged to value knowledge and books. And to a degree they can, though I also have a number of close relatives who challenge this assertion with their complete insistence on remaining closed to new ideas and a (related? probably.) disinterest in reading, no matter the subject, author, length, or level of encouragement.

    Ramona, I think you will appreciate this most of all. In regard to choosing reading over chores–I was once part of a very amazing group of women in Minneapolis that was led by these three dynamic and empowering ladies. One of them once said to us that the world would be a better place if women stopped worrying about dust bunnies and wrote more books. I think the same applies to reading. Chores Schmores! Let’s read some books!!

  13. Ramona the Reader says:

    I finished reading The Road last night. I am still disquieted. Reading about the end of the world as we know it only reinforced fears I’ve known most of my life. I no longer worry about myself – but I do worry about my grandchildren. The current economic melt down adds to my concerns.
    I would not be capable of carrying the fire. I don’t mean physically, but mentally. Ah, but what if I had a child depending upon me? Hmmmm.
    I did not understand why don’t and can’t and won’t became dont, cant, wont although it’s was still it’s. Can you explain what I missed?
    I was glad to have Robin Paige to read a couple chapters of before falling asleep. I might have shared the boy’s dreams.
    What’s up next for Bookishdark review?

  14. CountessZ says:

    His determination to go on was the most fascinating aspect of the book. Much of the time he didn’t even seem to have a clear handle on what he was doing. It was almost compulsive, and something he questioned every step along the way. Was he doing some noble thing as he hoped? Or was he merely prolonging the inevitable? Without giving anything away, I did find the ending to be satisfying.

  15. Ramona says:

    You are right about the ending. It was appropriate. He did not know what would happen to the boy, yet could not end it for him also even if it meant the boy would suffer. It ended in hope. Hope (and love) is all any of us have. Much as I fear for the future of my kids and grandkids, I also have great hope for them. The world as we know it now may change (economy/politics), but how do we know that it might not be for the better for us to go back to less? (You and Kai will be ok growing veggies, knitting and taking care of kitties & puppies.)

  16. CountessZ says:

    Well put, Ramona. It’s hard not to be afraid when we are surrounded with messages of fear. But as you say, hope and love are the only things we really have, and what precious possessions. I agree that less will be better in the long run, but the transition and upheaval of it all is what will be hard for so many people. But life is loss as much as it is gain. I think the key is probably to always move forward in hope.

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