Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book Review: The Road

Father and son walking The Road in a post-apocalyptic world. We don't know the cause of the devastation. We can infer from the telling of the story that it has been many years since it happened (maybe 5 or more). All plant and animal life (save humans) are dead. The landscape is permeated with ash. The blocking of the sun's rays by the ash has rendered the planet cold.

The goal of their trek along "the road" -- getting to the coast. What awaits them, they don't know. But it is a goal. They live on scavenged cans of fruit from abandoned houses. They spend their days hiding from fellow travelers on the road. Some may be good ... others they know are bad.

It's a the story of a man's love for his son. What are you willing to do to save your son? And not just in the sense of life and death. How do you save his soul from the horrors he sees and has to endure?

You could call this a science fiction story, though many have tried to say it is not. It is not an environmental book, but it's not hard to take an environmental message from it. They're basically living on borrowed time in a world where the rest of the ecosystem has vanished. Though not inhabited with the zombies of another similar world's end tale, I Am Legend, the cannibals of this world are just as scary.

Written by Cormac McCarthy of No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses fame, the author says more with less. He's effective with creating terror from the silences between events instead of the events themselves. Behind every shuttered window or blocked door, you steel yourself for the monster behind it. When it isn't there, you know you should feel relieved but like the characters in the story you know that they are only prolonging the inevitable. They almost crave the end because it will cease the agony of not knowing.

This is not a pleasant book to read, though it is not a hard read. The pleasures are fleeting and abstract. But it is well-written and The Road will stick with you. McCarthy has an odd writing style without quotes, apostrophes, or even most punctuation. It is dry but will go into highly poetic and symbolic flourishes, most of which I can't even pretend to understand. One of my favorites:

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy, I have you.”

That's the type of writing that we all aspire to, but few attain.

Like other McCarthy stories, The Road doesn't have a tidy ending. But, life doesn't really have a tidy ending. A movie of the book is coming out this fall, starring Viggo Mortensen. Hopefully, they won't Hollywoodize it. The power of the story comes from it's bleakness. I recommend this book.


CyberKitten said...

I can't help wondering if this will be too depressing even for me!

Scott said...

Well they certainly didn't hollwoodize No Country, that movie was about as bleak and depressing as any I've ever seen. Looking forward to this since I don't think I'll get around to reading it.

dbackdad said...

I haven't read No Country yet but I had heard that the movie is fairly faithful to the intent of the book. Having read this other McCarthy book, I guess I'm not surprised by the tone.

CK -- You should definitely check it out. If you've ever read other post-apocalyptic sci-fi like A Canticle for Leibowitz or I am Legend, or even King's The Stand, I think you would like it.

wunelle said...

Nice summary. The style of the book, the confidence of his vision and presentation, really do stick with you, as you say.

It's a book to greatly admire, if not exactly to love.

I'm afraid that, bereft of its literary pungency, the movie will leave me absolutely nothing to like (but like you I tend toward dark and dreary in movies, so who knows...)

Monster Paperbag said...

A devastating book but also one of my favorites. I'm scared though that the movie might not live up.

dbackdad said...

Paperbag -- Thanks for stopping by. I'm with you on the movie. I love who's involved with the movie (director, actor) but so many books have been ruined by the movies made of them. We'll see.