THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy: Love it or hate it?

Sunday, May 04, 2008, 4:40 PM

In my previous post, I mentioned The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Having finished it in record time (but about a year after the rest of the world), I must say I was completely blown away by this book. I know opinions on it range from the glowing, to the ambivalent, to outright hatred, so I've been trying to put my finger on what I loved about it.

And I've mostly failed.

All I can say for sure is it hit me right in the gut like no other book has for a long time, the last being Ellroy's American Tabloid (which I think has the very best last line of any novel I've read). The Road hit me so hard, in fact, that I actually dreamed about it for a couple of nights after it was done. The one aspect I can specifically name as affecting me was the relationship between the boy and his father, the depth of their love and dependence, and the terrible choices that love might mean for them. Essentially, that's the core of the book. The post-apocalyptic setting is, to me, a secondary consideration. Their journey could just as easily have been through the American South during the Depression.

The high-water mark in end-of-the-world stories has always been The Day of the Triffids, for me. And there are many other books within the broad sweep of speculative fiction that tackle this kind of scenario, I am Legend being among the most notable, along with movies like 28 Days Later and various tales of life after nuclear war. Can The Road be compared to any of them?

Well, yes, of course it can. It must be, simply because it will be labelled as a genre piece, even if its genre is incidental, rather than fundamental, to its story. But, honestly, those other post-apocalyptic tales didn't enter my mind as I was reading The Road. A big difference is that while books like Day of the Triffids explore the new desolation as part of the storytelling, The Road simply gets on with its primary business: the relationship between father and son. While the mechanics of their survival are part of the story, they are not the spine of it.

Here's a question, though: If The Road was a first novel, would this Pulitzer winner make it over the transom to an agent or editor?

My opinion - absolutely not. Any agent or editor would respond with a form rejection. And you know what? They'd be dead right. This award-winning, Oprah endorsed, triumph of a novel would be an insane choice had it been a debut.

Here's my reasoning: an author of Cormac McCarthy's skill and experience has earned the right to stretch and break the boundaries. No punctuation, flip-flopping point-of-view, unmarked dialogue, no chapters, episodic structure, fragment sentences, a bleak and desperate theme - all lunacy in a novel, and an agent or editor would rightly run a mile if presented with these in a debut. When a reader opens a book, they are entering into a contract of trust with the author. In return for their investment of time and brain-power, the author will guide them on a worthwhile journey, confidently and skilfully, to a satisfying conclusion.

An author of Cormac McCarthy's stature has earned that trust. New authors have not. This is why new authors arguing that they can depart from certain conventions "because McCarthy did it" are entirely wrong in that assertion. McCarthy can do it because he has earned the trust that new authors haven't. Another example is Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand, with its stuttering fragmented prose - you need to pay your dues, prove you can do it, before making such stylistic choices.

And one last note on The Road's style - I don't know if it's by design, or just a side-effect of the structure, but a big part of its page-turning power is down to those constant breaks in the narrative. We all know the psychology of the short chapter -- if there's only a few more pages, the reader will keep going -- but McCarthy has stretched that idea even further. At every moment that I considered putting it down, I looked ahead and thought, well, the next bit's only tiny, so I'll keep going.

And going, and going, and going…



Blogger Josephine Damian said...

I stopped reading it because there was nothing happening in the beginning - no conflict!

It suffered because I compared it to/expected it to be like BLOOD MERIDIAN. It fell short, just as after reading ATONEMENT, McEwan's books fell short.

When I writer proves himself capable of greatness, I expect great things, not self indulgent projects that don't follow story telling basics, that coast on the author's reputation.

OK. It's back to pit bulls for me...

8:21 PM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...


I enjoyed THE ROAD. I read it through (I'm a fast reader and it was a particularly quick read, I agree. Its style pushes the reader forward.) And I, for the most part, enjoyed the rules-breaking style. He's deft enough to weild a tricky pen. I enjoyed it, rather in the manner of DAVINCI CODE.

They were entertainment for me, pure and simple. The themes, while I'm glad they struck you, didn't really hit me hard. Any set of parents realizes the limits of what they will do for their child, even if they do not admit it out loud. Any set of parents realizes that in their partnership, one is stronger than the other in certain aspects of parenting, down to survival. So I could accept that the mother could not carry on, that the father didn't really resent her for it but grieved for her, and that he would do what he must for his son. The relationship didn't strike me as all that unusual. I've seen deeper parental sacrifices portrayed, like in the film THE RED VIOLIN or in Carol Berg's fantasy series in which parents put themselves into slavery to save their son, undergoing brutality, even at the hands of said son, and still loving him.

All in all, I think it was a good book. I didn't think it was an important book.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Ello said...

I disagree. Sorry. I loved it and felt it was gut wrenching and horrible and wonderful all at the same time. I enjoyed it so much I pushed it on my husband who absolutely hated it. So go figure?

This is probably bias speaking but I loved it so much I feel like it would have done well regardless of it whether it was a debut or by an established writer. But this may be bias because it is hard for me to pick out another book that struck me as so different and yet so amazing. But clearly even from this post you can see how subjective people's tastes are and what one reader finds compelling receives an ambivalent response from another.

But glad you loved it!

6:45 PM  
Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

I agree with you that "The Road" was a wonderful book. I read it straight through as well. I don't know how anyone could hate it. Powerful and, as ello said, gut wrenching.

Congrats as well on getting an agent.

6:58 PM  
Blogger The Writers' Group said...

I never put it down. It's one of my all time favorite books. And I do think many agents and editors would have wanted to count it among their titles. It's brilliant.

Congratulations on getting an agent and even better luck with the submission. I'm sure you'll do just fine.

Amy MacKinnon

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Here's a question, though: If The Road was a first novel, would this Pulitzer winner make it over the transom to an agent or editor?"

I have posed this question a few times with no takers to engage in the debate. But I came up with the same conclusion as you. I'm so glad someone else entertained the thought other than me. I am nearly finished with The Road. I started it several months ago, but kept getting distracted, and quite frankly, bored--but I'm hard to hook.

BUT, now that I've given it my due attention, I believe the esteem comes from its simplicity. McCarthy brings to life a gray time that could easily happen. He touches on the fine line we all walk out between humanity and savagery—cultural rights and wrongs. Where you fear other humans instead trusting an innocent “hello” due to the preservation of self. When chaos and life as we know it falls apart, what part of our human nature would arise? (The aftermath of Katrina is quite telling--good and bad.)

I believe when I close the cover of “The Road,” I will find this book teetering on “brilliant,” but I also believe a Pulitzer would not have been granted if an unknown writer had penned the prose. (in my HUMBLE opinion, for what it's worth)

1:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My "Sci Fi" book group just finished this book, and I can't even begin to tell you what unnerving, almost cult-like love there is for this absolutely worthless piece of crap. Only my friend and I saw it for the schmaltzy cliche it was. The emperor had no clothes, but boy did they look like high fashion. The only reason I came away with that people love it is that it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy about how the father will do anything for the son to make sure he survives. But the writing style is horrible and full of devices obviously meant to make it seem unique (no punctuation, sentences that make no sense, switching from first to third person) but NO MEAT WHATSOEVER to the story. And of the only two notable points of conflict, the message is: let people be hacked to death and slowly eaten while being kept alive for food, and you're ok; but hunt down a thief who takes the last bit of your food, ALL of it, to teach him a lesson, then you're a monster of the highest degree. This book boils down to one horrible message. As long as you take care of you and yours, you're a good person, but the rest of society, to hell with them. Worst book ever. Literally has put me off books for a while.

12:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heads up I am using this post in my review of The Road which....I didn't love. (Sorry ello.....)

4:49 AM  

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