In The Road the reader is transported to a grim, desolate wasteland—one where the sky is eternally black, and corpses and dust and ash cover the landscape. Here the two central characters, father and son, both nameless and wasting, must struggle on forward to the bitter end. Their destination? South, where they do not know what awaits them, if anything.

Thus begins one of the most grim and depressing novels ever written, and the most grim and depressing novel I have ever read. There is no comfort to be found in these pages, none at all. Everything—from the writing style, to the plot, to the description, to the characters—everything works together in unison to paint an utterly bleak and hopeless experience that surpasses any I have experienced before. It is not a novel in the typical sense of the word, where the elements are each separable and can each separately be enjoyed. No, it is more like a lyrical poem, where each element works together to form a cumulative whole. The book is hard to appreciate as you read along, and in the end it may leave you feeling sick and nauseous, and you may have to rest to get rid of that throbbing headache. At least I did.

The biggest obstacle, and biggest source of anguish to me, is the rough, gritty writing style. It lacks rhythm and grace. Each sentence crashes awkwardly into the next; each image submerges another. At first glance it may appear unpolished and hackish: anyone who has been reading literature for long can almost hear it, the subtle cadence of an author’s voice, and McCarthy’s narration here sounds like an amateur shrieking blood and anguish into the text. But considering the long term effect it has on the psyche of a reader, I think it is genuine and deliberate: like Faulkner, or Woolf, or any of the literary greats the voice leaves an emotional imprint on the reader. In this case it establishes itself as a kind of sickening chaos: no sensation of comfort or closure to be found anywhere—just a grim sense of isolation. So I give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt: I don’t think his narration is this way by pure accident.1

The next great obstacle is the plot, or rather the lack of it. I picked up this book expecting an exciting and dark post-apocalyptic novel. Rather what I got was a slow-paced nightmare. A horror-affectionado, I expected a thrilling horror element to it; but it’s not thrilling at all, just horrifying. It is dull, uninspiring, and lethargic. There is only one plot line: to reach the end of the road. And since the world is over, there is nothing much to do; everything is dead, dying, rotting inside. And yet it’s this very lack of purpose that gives the novel such destructive, nihilistic power over the reader—the type of power that reaches the darkest facets of your soul and reminds you they’re still there, waiting.

Though there is only one plot line, and the events are far too spread throughout it, the world the father and son inhabit is empty and bleak, and whatever events do happen make you wish they never did. They are horrifying in the worst sense of the word: they seem an inevitable part of human interaction. For though the father and son are but two of the handful of survivors, they travel alone for good reason. It is a world where hunters capture and enslave other men, where survivors engage in grotesque acts cannibalism (one vivid scene involving a baby almost made me physically vomit), and where violent rape and gun power are the rule of the land. The father carries a gun loaded with two bullets: one to shoot his son, and another to kill himself with—should the worst come to worst. And throughout the entire book in never feels like there can be any other ending to this hopeless journey.

Apart from these two major ‘flaws’, this book is a must read. It really is literature in the whole sense of the word; it transforms the way you see life and death. It is unbelievingly depressing, and the most terrifying part of it all is the fact that it’s realistic and probable. It shows precisely how humans are codependent on each other and the world at large; it shows precisely what happens to living people in a dying world, and how their humanity dies with it as they struggle to live on. It is not an environmental book—we never find out precisely what it is that injured the planet so badly—but we see how the environment ultimately effects us all. If a nuclear winter ever were to cover the planet terrible, terrible things would happen not only because of the dying but because of the living too—or could you call such a miserable existence life? This is just one of the numerous interesting questions this book leaves you with as you turn over the last page.

So was the headache I had to endure ultimately worth it? Definitely. Though I probably won’t be able to force myself to plow through this again anytime soon—the first time was too painful mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—I ultimately found it rewarding in it’s own right. It’s not a pleasurable read—do not expect fun, comfort, or any of those things you usually expect find in a book—but it leaves you with something more than what you started with if you can resolve enough courage and stamina to read through it. Unless strong enough to make it to the end, this book is probably not for you; if you hate depressing reads, this book definitely not for you; and if you’re looking for the solace of escapism this book is most definitely not for you. Read this only if you’re looking to understand what it means to be human, and if you’re ready to confront some of the ugliest—and a few of the most poetic—answers to this question.

1 Having established that, I do warn any reader contemplating to read it to be prepared for a jilted experience. I took me an hour to plow through the first ten pages because I kept having to reread passages and adapt to the writing style. And later, even when I did adapt to it, I often felt unattached and despondent at the same time; and there was even this one moment towards the middle where I decided to skip an entire section or two, irritated and confused. So while, ultimately, the style is indeed what gives the book so much power and effect, it can become bothersome, and it can turn off readers without the willpower to carry on—or a review to write.

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Comment

  1. Parthenon on 19 November 2008, 14:00 said:

    There are those who would say of writing and filmmaking that it’s the mark of a great that you can tell their style in the first ten pages/minutes (I think Roger Ebert advocates that theory, IIRC). I can’t say I agree. Cormac McCarthy has one of the most distinctive styles of any American ever this side of Mark Twain, and I find much the same as you do – it gets in the way. I prefer – and I try to accomplish in my own writing – authors that put their style at the service of the story, rather than vice versa.

  2. Mumbling Sage on 24 February 2009, 21:22 said:

    I will say, so may people claim the Road is the sequel to the Bible and the greatest story witten EVER EVER and—well, I read it and was acutally pretty bored.

    It might be the writing style, the lack of plot, the fact that I couldn’t believe in any of it (the apocalypse is never explained well enough for me to really feel like it happened or any of the characters acutally lived through it), or the fact that it seemed almost contrived in its dark and angsty manner. The only part I really liked was the dialog, which was effective, because McCarthy mercifully keeps his poetry/writing style/thesarus mashing/whatever out of his character’s mouths. I want to see the movie when it comes out because I see the potential for something awesome with some actor’s interpretations and the prose cut out.

    What I really resent is the fact that most reviews of this story suggest you’re a mindless fool if you don’t appriciate the deep, abiding tradgedy of this book, but really—I just can’t get that into it. I read Primo Levi’s ‘Survival in Auschwitz,’ so it’s not that I can’t take depressing matter, or that I’m heartless or something. I just couldn’t get deeply enough into McCarthy’s world to care.

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