The AHS faculty talk about books.

"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy

Reviewed by: Chan Ylagan

We all have a very good idea of how the world is going to end: amid torrents of sulfur and brimstone, tidal waves of flame, an armageddon of carnage. Apocalypse might come in the form of an incurable pandemic, a cataclysmic meteor hitting the Earth, or some destructive variant of Mother Nature’s wrath that will cauterize the terrain and wipe out most of humankind. This will usher in the collapse of governments and societies as we know it, and the unfortunate few who will be left behind will be forced to take up arms and relapse into a primitive and pernicious brutality in order to survive. Even these, however, will come to pass as the inevitable destruction of everything and anything becomes more and more imminent.

Cormac McCarthy’s tenth novel, The Road, undertakes the difficult and ultimately bleak task of contemplating the end of, well, the world. In this novel, McCarthy presents to us a dying Father and his Son, and their heartbreaking struggles in the irrevocably damaged landscape of a post-apocalyptic, unnamed country that has succumbed to an abominable nuclear winter. Armed with a pistol that has only two bullets and chased by degenerate marauders, other survivors who have turned to thievery and cannibalism, the Father and Son plod together desperately to the coast on the far side of the country, on the blind and perhaps foolish hope that they will be able to glimpse something—anything—other than gray snow, melted stumps of buildings, mummified corpses on the road, and ashes of what was once civilization.

The Road, like McCarthy’s other works such as Blind Meridian or No Country for Old Men, is a challenging read. Rivaling the hand of even the foremost master of apocalyptic writing, Samuel Beckett, McCarthy’s minimalist style, influenced greatly by Hemingway, shines brightly and consistently throughout the novel, but which in turn makes it deceptively simple. He paints the calamitous state of things in stark, unflinching language that is terrifyingly beautiful and endurable only because of its integrity, as when he describes the overcast days and nights as “sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening…. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees.”

Underneath his lucid, lilting prose, his spartan paragraphs, and his short, seemingly innocuous episodes lies perhaps the greatest truth of the book: that life, especially a dying life, is hardly neat or simple. On the contrary, the closer one stands to the face of death, the more morally complex one’s thoughts and decisions become. Indeed, as the Father comes to realize that his bloody coughing fits will soon take him, he begins to seriously reconsider if his moral obligation to protect his son extends to killing him instead of letting him be eaten by the cannibals around them. In the end, a father’s got to do what a father’s got to do.

Perhaps it is on this unabashedly moral point that The Road succeeds immensely. It is not merely some Camusian commentary on the bleakness and futility of human existence. Evil exists, and in this context, evil is triumphant. In this make-believe but thoroughly believable world, visions of a society and its people reduced to rubble and moral bankruptcy are absurd. What is even more absurd, however, is how two people’s love for each other can see them through even the most nightmarish things the world throws at them, and how it can sustain them enough to believe that their years-long journey will end in anything but despair and defeat. As one reads the book, one begins to wonder where the long and difficult journey in the novel will end. At the end of the road, one realizes that it only leads to one place: hope.


benjieb said...

I really liked this book when I read it a couple of years ago, very melancholic... Unfortunately, when I saw the recently-released movie trailer, it seems as if the studio wanted to give it an "I Am Legend" feel and ultimately missing the whole essence of the novel.

Chan said...

I haven't seen any of the trailers of the film adaptation, so I can't comment on that. However, if what you said is true, then that would be very sad indeed!

Josef said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josef said...

(ignore above)
I didn't know that this book was actually a novel; I glanced at it and dismissed it as one of those inspirational books or whatnot. The book cover concept is good, with the black dominating the paper. But the feel of the typeface used (Clarendon) doesn't properly convey a thing to people looking at books.

Aesthetics aside, I think I will buy this book and read it. However, regarding your conclusion, where does hope lead? I recall something like the "tragedy" (I forgot the actual word) of hope, its futility. But the hermeneutics of hope is such that there can be darkness and light, optimism and pessimism. Contextually, however, it's very difficult to be optimistic in a bleak and destroyed world. Or perhaps it's easy, i.e. living in a state of hopeful ecstasy, but that's not living at all...

Sassy Brit said...

Hello, I was curious about this book, now I really want it -- not doubts now.

Thanks for sharing your review.

I didn't know this book was also a movie, either.

Take care,


Chan said...

@ Josef: I suppose the reason why the typeface and cover are bare is similar to why most of J.D. Salinger's books are also bare: to prevent any sort of preconceptions about the contents of the book. This way, a reader would delve into the book without any expectations about what it's all about. Or something to that effect :P.

Chan said...

@ Josef: Regarding your comment about the hermeneutics of hope, I think it was Gabriel Marcel (or Paul Ricoeur, I can't be sure now) who pointed out the difference between optimism and hope. When we are optimistic, I suppose we feel that "hopeful ecstasy" you mentioned: we expect things to turn out for the best without personally having to go through the evils of bad experiences. True hope, on the other hand, means believing that things thing will turn out for the best even after we go through the experience of brokenness. I think it's on this note that "The Road" impresses on us the viability of hope as a response to what Ricoeur called the "properly metaphysical evil" around us. After all, hope does not have privileged knowledge of redemption; we cannot separate hope from the temptation of despair--as is the case of the Father (and the Son) in "The Road" :).

Chan said...

@ Sassy Brit: Glad the review helped!

Pepito said...

@Sir: If true hope means believing that things will turn out for the best even after we go through the experience of brokenness, wouldn't this be a form of 'self-deception'? However, I think Heidegger's "the future shapes the present" would be appropriate: that in hoping for the best, by having a vision of something for the best, we make it happen. It is not a belief, rather it is a vision. That, perhaps, is what underlies true hope. But then there is another side to the coin, where hope becomes a fanaticism, or a neurotic kind of belief that everything will turn out for the best.

Perhaps, in the face of death and absolute despair, true hope entails the desire to live, to fight for your life, because you are looking at the future. This is nicely pointed out in the anime series Gurren Lagann. It might look childish at first, but it tackles good questions as it progresses. At least check the wiki on it, if you may. :)

Pepito said...

Oops, changed my name, sorry. This is still Josef from 4F 2007. XD

Post a Comment