The Road – bleak magic

I’d read a lot about The Road and I love a good old apocalyptic tale so I was excited when my latest Amazon package arrived. I wasn’t disappointed. The Road is bleak and unrelenting, full of terror and despair and I read it hungrily from cover to cover.

That’s not to say I didn’t have reservations, mostly of the pernickety kind. Cormac McCarthy overuses compound words with a kind of reckless mania and I hate the way he discards apostrophes in ‘didnt’ and ‘couldnt’. Okay, okay, compounds are his thing – that’s a style choice, fine. But there’s no benefit to misspelling ‘didn’t’. I don’t see why he thinks he’s above the rules of the English language.

Petty grievances aside though – The Road is fantastic. I was totally transported to the world inhabited by the Man, the Boy and the violent gangs traipsing across the ash-covered earth after the world as we know it has ended. You don’t need to know the names of the Man and the Boy, their cares are universal. On the Road, people are stripped of their civilisation, thinking only of food, shelter and safety, acting out of love and fear. Everything is simple and yet daily life is so hard and not just in the way of cavemen who had to struggle for survival without modern comforts. The Man is tormented by memories of the past, of the life he once thought was real life before it was reduced to ashes. Indeed, one of the most poignant things about the book for me was the difference in the way the Man and the Boy see the world. The Boy remembers little before life on the Road. He has no frame of reference for the Man’s stories about the past. When they see a train abandoned on some tracks, they climb into the driver’s seat and the Man makes a honking sound but the Boy has no memories with which to connect the sound to the train. He is not of the Man’s world. Then McCarthy says:  “If they saw different worlds what they knew was the same. That the train would sit there slowly decomposing for all eternity and that no train would ever run again.” I found that incredibly sad.

McCarthy’s language is always simple but beautiful. He states things so matter of factly that it sometimes takes a moment before his words smack you with the full force of meaning. I’m not surprised that someone saw fit to turn the book into a film because the way McCarthy sets the scene is pure cinema. Even though the things he describes are horrible, he paints them so vividly that you’re fascinated at the same time as being repelled. When father and son see a badly burned man stumbling painfully through the streets, McCarthy recounts that “his hair was but a nitty wig of ash upon his blackened skull.” What a vision! His prose is spare and harsh but it compels you to read on. A reviewer at The Times stated that The Road is “a work of such terrible beauty that you will struggle to look away”, a sentiment that pretty much sums up the book for me. It’s not comfortable reading, it makes your stomach churn and part of me didn’t really want to read on because I knew it wasn’t going to have a happy ending – but I couldn’t turn away from it. I feared for the Man and the Boy, I worried about what might be looming up ahead of them on the Road. I wondered who would die first. I had to know.

When I’d finished reading it, I curled up in my comfy bed feeling thankful that I wasn’t on the Road and I had food in the fridge. No marauding gangs were coming for me. But still, I twitch when the CO2 emissions ads come on TV because The Road is a cautionary tale. You can imagine it appearing on the syllabus for future English students and I think it would be a great choice. For me, The Road is a modern classic.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Road – bleak magic

  1. Loved this book, but I never did get to see the movie.

  2. vaughan

    I also loved the book, I felt like I was following a silken thread through a particularly vivid nightmare.

    Its a thought experiment really, a “what would happen if …”, and there are some wonderfully perceptive details like falling trees, scarcity of shoes and cannibalism. In fact, just the kind of thing that I like to waste the hours away nattering about in the pub.

    I can’t decide as to whether or not I would “carry the fire” but I hope that I would.

    PS cant we all be above the rules of the English language. Shakespeare was. innit.

  3. I missed the movie as well.

    The opening sentence of your final paragraph mirrors my reaction when I finished the book – thank god that’s not me! It was a bleak horrific read, but, so thought-provoking, that I think it’s become a favourite.

    Read it about three years back, and wonder if it’s time for a re-read.

  4. nicus

    I’ve been wanting to read this but wasn’t too sure – the snob in me was put off by the fact that it’s been made into a film, and one that everyone is talking about.

    After reading this review I feel keen to get stuck in!

  5. I agree this is a modern classic. What brilliance. You articulated most of what I felt about this book, even though I wasn’t at all bothered by his deviations in punctuation.

    I’m not keen on seeing the movie but my husband wants to so I might.

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