Fiction Review: "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy
“She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift.”
It is possible that I've experienced a more depressing novel than The Road but I tend to doubt it. The key word here is experienced. The Road is not really a book you read, it is one which you experience.
Just describing the setting itself is depressing. Some ten years ago something really bad happened. We don't quite know what it is. We know there was a lot of fire and a lot of heat. We know that all the power is gone. And the Earth's biosphere has pretty much failed. All the trees and grass are dead. They are still there but they're dead. Doesn't appear that any animals have survived. The beach is littered with the bones of dead fish. The book mentions some migratory birds last seen a few years ago. There seems to be an awful lot of earthquakes in the course of the book. Everything is covered by ash and dust. It's getting colder.
We don't know if the initial disaster killed a lot of people or not. I get the impression it didn't. The houses, supermarkets, and the like have been picked nearly clean. Many of the few remaining humans have taken to eating each other, keeping their prey alive and cutting off pieces as needed.
The book is written in extremely short prose. The Road makes Hemingway seem positively verbose. The Road also dispenses with unnecessary punctuation like apostrophes and quotation marks. Thankfully McCarthy allowed us commas and periods. Flippancy aside it works. The world of The Road is one of despair and desperation and the prose fits the setting perfectly.
The story is a tale of the Man and his son, the Boy. We do not learn their names. The Boy was born shortly after whatever catastrophe descended on the Earth, with his mother being pregnant. His mother could not bear this world and took her own life, preferring that to being raped and eaten.
The Man and Boy are traveling south on the road, trying to get to warmer climate, knowing they will not survive another winter where they were. The road is a dangerous place. While we are told the Man and Boy are "good guys" who are "carrying the fire", the road is full of "bad guys". And we do get to meet some of them. The Man is not being paranoid in his need to protect the Boy. McCarthy shows us clearly what sort of fate could await them.
That said, his desire to keep his son safe makes the Man himself rather brutal. A little googling will show lots of online debate as to if the Man really is truly "good". He doesn't trust others, he doesn't want to help anyone else but his son. I tend to side with him being essentially good - or at least as good as a person can be in this world. He truly loves his son and there are things he would not stoop to - he never considers resorting to cannibalism even as they are starving in points. As a father of children around the Boy's age I definitely empathize with him - I'd like to consider myself an essentially good person but I too would do anything for my children.
However, the Boy is most definitely good. He wants to help people even when doing so might not be wise. His goodness is an aberration in this colorless world and one that you would think would guarantee the death of both him and his father.
This is not a world of heroics. There are no mutant bikers facing off against warlords in the ruins of Nu Ork. This is a dying world. When the Man indicates the bravest thing he's ever done was "waking up" on that day I don't think he is being flippant. Facing another day in such a world is an act of supreme bravery. The Man is no superhero. He is not a deadly shot with his gun, a gun which has a pitifully depleted magazine. He isn't a survival genius, he does the best he can, day after day.
The Road is a mercifully short read and I'll avoid going any further into the plot. I'll freely warn it is an extremely difficult read. You of course put yourself in the place of the Man and possibly his wife. What would I do in such a scenario? Probably die pretty quickly. I actually hope I'd die pretty quickly. I love civilization. I love technology. I'm the type of person who is selling tablets and phones on eBay every few months so I can get the newest one. I love society, I think the social contract is an absolutely wonderful thing. I sense I'd not last long in that world.
But would I check out like the Woman? I don't know. I couldn't leave my children to face such horrors. Could I kill them "for their own good", as an act of mercy? I don't think so. If they were about to be captured by people who would rape and eat them, then yes. But aside from that? I don't think I could.
Most people reading this have hobbies similar to mine. Comic books. Role-playing games. Science fiction. Where does The Road fit in that, despite not being considered genre fiction? It's the extreme end. You couldn't make a setting more hopeless in an RPG. Interestingly, Hero Games' Post-Apocalyptic Hero supplement has a setting clearly based on The Road. I don't think I would ever want to play in such a setting. Maybe there's people who would.
I have a strange fascination with the post-apocalyptic genre. For me it is a genuine horror genre. That might be why some of Stephen King's works such as The Stand and The Dark Tower series fascinate me so much, being a blend of horror and post-apocalyptic fiction. As a child who came of age in the 80s I lived through the last gasp of the Cold War with movies like The Day After and the British equivalent Threads. There was a time in my life where the fear of nuclear war had me making sure I had my sneakers right next to my bed so I could get out in a hurry. Get out to where I'm uncertain...
The genre however often has people building something anew or fighting the efforts of an evil warlord trying to build something horrible. McCarthy gives us no such luxuries. Nothing to hope for but living another unpleasant day on a doomed Earth. An almost certainly literally doomed Earth which may soon be incapable of supporting any life at all. Read at your own risk. You will find it difficult to forget.