I’ve been hearing a lot about this book in the past few years, since its Pulitzer Prize win in 2007, to the news that a movie is in the works (starring Viggo Mortinson!). I actually bought a copy for myself two years ago and set to reading it, but after the first 20 pages I just couldn’t go on. So it sat in my room until my mom found it a few weeks ago, finished it, and encouraged me to finish it as well so discussion could ensue. After the two-year struggle to end this 287-page paperback, I have come to the conclusion that The Road is a new brand of heavy reading.
Based in a post-apocalyptic landscape vaguely reminiscent of the western United States, The Road is the story of a father and son who are on a journey to the elusive ‘South,’ a place that the father hopes has retained some part of civilization. The entire narrative is set in a number of instances, pervaded by a strong sense of grey. Perhaps that is the best word to describe the deep tenor, not wholly of loss, but of hopelessness.
McCarthy’s narrative is woven with Christian allusion, but at first glance the story is focused mainly on human endurance; how much the mind and body can take before resigning. What is intriguing and confusing about the man is his motivation, never wavering for an instant, to keep his son alive in a world almost dead.
To understand this confusion, you must picture a world where the sky is so polluted with fallout that you can never see the sun. Light lasts for perhaps eight hours, maybe less. All plant and animal life is dying, if not already dead, and it is cold. Clothing is scarce, and what is left is worn. You are always on the verge of starvation, and, most often, you live without shelter or heat. Towns are dangerous, yet unavoidable, looted. As empty as they seem, the connecting roads are used as a throughway by a motley conglomeration of survivors—rapists, cannibals, and those driven to madness. Corpses are unavoidable. Every promise is thwarted with some awful realization of sheer desolation. In this world, hope seems completely pointless, for if what we hope for is life—better life for ourselves, for our children, for civilization, even for the natural world without us—what is left to hope for in a world so utterly destroyed?
It seems McCarthy’s novel makes us ask the question: Would we go on? What would make us want to live even in a world so utterly destroyed, vacant, dangerous, and without the beauty of human creation that usually drives so many to continue? As the narrative progresses, the man’s every hope of finding some piece of color in a dead world is dashed. We are continually forced to question why he does not give up and end the misery of both himself and his son. Rationally, we do not know why he continues, but, considering his memories of a world before the desolation, memories of the world we live in—secure, enjoyable—we can sympathize with his desire to hold on to life.
But the boy is an interesting case. He is born on what may be the last day of the world. His mother, a vague and terse figure in the past, has killed herself sometime before the narrative starts. The three—man, woman, and child—prove themselves to represent the three options for us to consider, not as survivors, but as people. The man—who is driven by some deep, untouchable hope for life, even until the end of the story—seems to defy rational thinking in his compulsion. The distances to which he goes for his son are admirable and confounding, when others, most notably the woman, would see the future as over and simply refuse the struggle. The woman herself is another person for readers to consider. Her suicide is something we could see as cowardice, considering she leaves her family to struggle without her, but it would also be irresponsible to say that we would not consider doing the same. She sees the sheer extent of the lifelessness she is faced with and simply chooses to preempt the inevitable course of nature. This is not an unsympathetic action.
But the boy, whose knowledge of life is limited to this desolate world, harbors a terrifying view of life as only fatigue, hunger, and cold. In the end, his life is, and has always been, pain. It is almost shocking for us to consider this kind of worldview, our lives being as relatively comfortable as they are, but it is not unreasonable. This boy is unlike the woman and the man who are able to compare the past and the present; he has been given no basis for comparison. He has no past to either compel him to give up or to continue. His life is hopeless. He does harbor notions of suicide, but still he walks the road.
Why? What is it in us that makes us want to hold on through pain and hopelessness? Beyond hope, beyond any idea of a salvation, what is left? For the boy there is a basic ideal of the ‘fire,’ a virtue instilled in him by his father. The pair carry the ‘fire,’ a symbol that encompasses the physical properties of light and warmth, but also stands for intelligence and, like the tongues of flame that descended on the apostles, enlightenment. The touch of the fire of the Spirit, perhaps. I do not think it is too bold to say McCarthy certainly had this in mind.
I would be loath to divulge the ending of this intriguing exploration of the human will and so I will leave that up to you to discover. It is a heavy novel for one so short—its sense of the indescribable prompts most of the philosophical questions surrounding this story. Perhaps it is appropriate that post-apocalyptic fiction is popular in the falling season that is autumn, but beware—or perhaps be on the lookout—for The Road. It is no Zombie Survival Guide, but it is quite infinitely more terrifying and more satisfying a read than I have encountered in a very long time.