Shadows of Beckett in a fallen land
The frontispiece of Cormac’s novel The Road depicts, from the travellers perspective, an eerily deserted road on either side of which spring the bare spindly trunks of a dozen or so trees. We may think that the white haze that coats the road, wraps the trees and entirely obscures the view ahead is snow. What we think we are seeing is a deadly bleak winter scene infused with a nightmarish blue hue. Pages in and this understanding is brutally disordered. What we have actually been looking at is a post-apocalyptic landscape: the trees are dead, the white is ash. And what lies in that impenetrable darkness beyond? This is exactly the question that preoccupies the nameless man and his small son as they make their way towards the US east coast, pushing their cart of salvaged possessions along the limb strewn highway. Fear soaks the prose as pervasively as the ash covers the ground. They fear the organised gangs of marauders who will make of the child a catamite, of the man a longed for meal. They fear the future. Will they have the provisions to get them to their destination? What will be waiting for them if they do? And they fear the despair which threatens to engulf them, as it engulfed the mother. Why continue at all? What hope for a humanity that has already willed itself into destruction?
The prose is searing in its simplicity and precision, as pared and stripped as the landscape itself. But what need for elaborate signifiers when the signified has been incinerated? The language, it seems, is ‘drawing down’ to ‘preserve heat. In time to wink out forever’. The dialogue between father and son is similarly sparse, but their brief staccato exchanges are moving and in them we perceive the father’s desperate but impossible desire to shield his son from the horror of their existence.
And these nameless survivors – at once so personal and universal – who are they exactly? In them both shines a Christ-like quality. In the father we potentially have a carpenter (it is casually mentioned that he has whittled a flute for his son) and a doctor (he is able to name the parts of the brain and skilfully responds to his own injury: physician heal thyself.) But the boy himself is presented as a redeemer of mankind whose life the father sacredly protects. In the boy we find beauty, compassion and innocence - all miracles in a world grown brutally ugly with vicious self preservation and guilt.
Or perhaps they are just two more sinners in a fallen land: McCarthy, after all, has us chasing hermeneutic shadows all over the text. As the tramp puts it in a bleakly Beckettian exchange with the father: ‘Where men cant live gods fare no better…Things will be better when everybody’s gone.’
Upon its release, The Road received high praise from critics, many of whom regarded it as Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece. Indeed it certainly takes a master of imagination and words to create a piece as mesmerising as The Road.
Equal in its beauty and its grim surroundings, McCarthy remoulds the modern world into a harsh, grey, post-apocalyptic nightmare. Gone are the gadgets, skyscrapers and technology, to be replaced by rations, rags and rivals. The father and son, the central characters of this story, travel towards the coast in hope that they will reach safer conditions. Along the way they face a devastated environment and torturous weather with nothing to protect them but the clothes on their backs, the tarpaulin they carry in their shopping cart, a few tins of scavenged food and a pistol loaded with just two bullets. The father is sick and dying, but we learn of the love and devotion he has for his son as the story progresses, especially in the tense instances where they meet other survivors. Each encounter leaves us waiting with bated breath for what might possibly unfold. Cannibalistic killers, kidnappers, thieves and the injured all pose a threat. We also learn of the father's painful story in flashbacks to the last moments shared with his wife, who took her own life.
McCarthy not only diminishes the world to a dying speck of its former self but also takes away the very essence of humanity: compassion for our fellow man. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, 'every man for himself.' The novel will stay with you long after you finish reading, and will provide plenty of food for thought. McCarthy wrote the book with his own young son in mind, which explains the passion poured into every word. It is no surprise that the novel won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The Guardian: "The Road affirms belief in the tender pricelessness of the here and now. In creating an exquisite nightmare, it does not add to the cruelty and ugliness of our times; it warns us now how much we have to lose."
The Observer: "Part of the achievement of The Road is its poetic description of landscapes from which the possibility of poetry would seem to have been stripped, along with their ability to support life."
The New York Times: "This is an exquisitely bleak incantation — pure poetic brimstone. Mr. McCarthy has summoned his fiercest visions to invoke the devastation. He gives voice to the unspeakable in a terse cautionary tale that is too potent to be numbing, despite the stupefying ravages it describes. Mr. McCarthy brings an almost biblical fury as he bears witness to sights man was never meant to see."