Is there a bleaker, sadder book than The Road? From its first page we are thrown without warning or explanation into a world where survival is the characters’ only concern, and not necessarily a victory. It’s a world we recognise as our own transformed by some all too easily imaginable apocalypse (and one which we are left to imagine) into a death world. Nothing grows – in lifeless forests the trees fall one by one – and no birdsong is heard; buildings warp and collapse in the brutal weather, ripped apart for firewood; corpses are found wherever people once were. And yet the question is not entirely rhetorical: at the centre of this story is the love of a father for his child. This juxtaposition is clear form the first line:
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”
And from that very first sentence we are gripped by their relentless need to live in a world that gives nothing. Food and fire must be constantly sought for. It would be interesting to track just how many times the need for food is mentioned in the narrative, but it is that very repetition that creates an unremitting tension centred on survival: rarely, as a reader, have I found myself so identifying with the characters.
Cold and hunger are not the only enemies, however. Many of the other survivors are also to be feared having descended into cannibalism in order to eat. This is touched upon a number of times: when they see a procession of armed men followed by a group in chains; when they open up the hatch to a cellar to discover a human larder, one victim having already lost limbs; and, most horrifically, when they come upon a baby on a spit. The horror is never gratuitous. Not only does it remorselessly follow the logic of the imagined world, but it raises the question of how we can survive and remain “the good guys”. At one point the boy asks his father directly, “We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?” To some extent, the boy is the father’s conscience, encouraging him towards kindness in a way that is both naïve and seems to offer hope. More than once, the father speaks of them “carrying the fire”, on many levels a symbol for civilisation. He says to his son near the end:
“It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”
This is only one of the ways in which their story takes on aspects of myth and legend. Again, this is indicated from the beginning (“like pilgrims in a fable…”) and by their anonymity. The journey, and the series of tests it entails, is a common pattern in myth, as is the boy’s initiation into manhood by his father as he teaches him the survival skills he will need. That the road is an important component of modern American myth is not accidental either – think of road movies, the number of popular songs which mention roads, and, of course, the coast to coast expansion that created the country in the first place. In the novel, the road is actually a place of danger, but, despite his keen instincts when it comes to survival, the father has a compulsion to follow it to the coast (i.e. its end) for reasons that, beyond the initial desire to head south, are never entirely clear.
McCarthy’s style also plays a major part in creating a sense of myth, with its polarised passages of prose and poetry. Sentences are short, frequently non-sentences, creating a steady rhythm that echoes their journey. The dialogue is as bare as the landscape, yet interspersed with passages of strange, desolate beauty:
“The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
Such intensity is rare but resonates across the narrative creating a contradictory message: almost nihilistic in its description, it also provides evidence of the rich inner life that makes us human.
And so we return to the question with which we began: how bleak is this novel? The answer probably depends literally on your point of view, whether you go wide-angle on the dead earth, or close up on the father-son relationship. Even the conclusion offers us no straight forward answer. At perhaps its most optimistic when the boy meets a group of survivors, including another child, the author does not forget to remind us that the world is “a thing that can not be put back. Not made right again.”