Monday, 10 May 2010

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

This book makes me want to talk about a lot of things. Companionship, humanity, apocalypses, that sort of thing. But mostly it makes me want to talk about the world. Yes, that's what I'd like to talk about.

But I'm not sure I should. I'm not sure I should talk about the book at all, in fact. Because after reading The Road, talking about books seems like a pretty futile exercise.
For those of you who are even less zeitgeist than me, and have therefore not read this yet, it's set in a post-apocalyptic version of our world, where everything -- including the sun -- is covered in ash. There is nothing alive, except a few other people, and they mostly kill and eat each other.
All there is is survival. There might not even be reasons for survival: just survival. So talking about books? They're just bloated, damp-destroyed objects, unburnable, as useless as the happy lies they used to contain.

Okay, we don't live in that world. But it spills out of the book, into your head, and makes you think things like 'it's all pointless. Why do I own a ukulele? I am a vicious waster-of-things'. The ash gets under your skin, in your eyes, in your lungs, and in your head.

That infectiousness is what I love about The Road. It's what I wish I could do. It's what I want to talk about.

It's not the actual world in the book I like. That world is a little too hopeless, a little too inhuman, for me. Or at least, the hope and humanity are kept very well hidden until the very end. Maybe that's why the book is so powerful, and that hope feels so precious? Maybe. But I would have brought it in sooner, regardless. (I know that would have ruined this book, but that's okay. I would have been writing a different book.)

So it's not the world itself that I am envious of. It's the execution. It's the utter reality of it, its actual and complete existence within the substance of the book itself, that I want.

I have a few unorganised thoughts on how McCarthy does it:

The world is limited. We only see the tiny bit of the world that comes into contact with our two main characters, and they do their best to see as little of it as possible. We spend a long time in their small version of the world, and so we get to know it on a very real, detailed, human level. McCarthy could have told us a lot more, I bet, but he chose not to.

The world is distinct. It's different enough from ours to be interesting for its own sake. How did it get like that? How do things work? Who else is there, what else is there? It's different enough that the everyday rhythm and smell and routine and taste of life is new to us. Bitchin'.

The world is unexplained. If you told a story about Earth-as-it-is-now, you wouldn't bother explaining how Earth-as-it-is-now works before you start your story. And so if you do that about another world, about Earth-as-it-might-be, you are reminding the reader straight away that this is a story. Here I am, setting the scene, and we know you don't get scenes in real life. To explain the world is to admit it isn't real.

The world is in the text. I've not ready any other Cormac McCarthy (yet. I want to, now) and so I don't know how much of this is just his usual prose style. But regardless, the most convincing way the sparseness, lifeless, and formless shape of his world is shown is by the same things happening in the text. There is no calendar, no routine, no structure, in the world. So there is no dialogue tags, chapters, or apostrophes (mostly) in the text.
I would love to see this written in Microsoft Word. The whole thing would be underlined.

"Fragment. Consider revising."

Well it's a fragmented world. It could do with serious revision (the world in the book, not the writing about that world... clearly).

I will admit there were a whole load of sentences I didn't understand, because of the lack of helpful in-between words. And my vocabulary really needs expanding, or at least Americanizing (note the Z... er, the Zee.)
But the fact I often lost myself halfway through a paragraph, though I'm sure it wasn't intended by McCarthy, added to the whole experience. Because the words aren't just there as information-sharers. Words aren't just data, or a more complex binary. They are scenery, colour, and costume.

Words carry lots of baggage. That's why there is no such thing as a true synonym. Shovel might mean Spade, but you'd only take one of those to the beach. I want to learn to paint with my words as well as just picture. If that makes any sense at all.
McCarthy draws a picture of the world, but he also covers it, like the ash on every surface, with his prose. The words somehow have texture, and dimension, and that is what brings his picture to life.


  1. This:

    "I would love to see this written in Microsoft Word. The whole thing would be underlined."

    I thought exactly the same thing reading this! Or correcting things that it automatically fixed. How frustrating!

    Also, I found it hugely fascinating how the boy's knowledge of the world was so tiny and yet it spoke out huge volumes of humanity as a whole. What a piece of genius!

    I'm also keen to know if this style is similar with his other novels, or if he's particularly crafted it to work with the story.

  2. This book was my first introduction to McCarthy and the destriptions and prose are very typical to what Ive read of his so far. There is a paragraph in Blood Meridian where he sets the scene by just describing the sounds just still manages to place you right there.

  3. Don't Americanize your vocab. That means I would have to stick you in an elevator until you went gray in the face.

  4. I loved this book. The theme is very powerful, I think. It was my first McCarthy read. I've since read All the Pretty Horses. The prose is very similar but I found The Road's prose is fantastic. Still, I really liked Prety Horses, too. McCarhty's a master with words. I'm glad you liked The Road.