The Curmudgeon


Monday, July 26, 2010

The Road

If you'll pardon the blasphemy, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is not a very good book. It is not an uncompromising vision of the Apocalypse; it is not a brutally realistic vision of the end of civilisation; it is not more frightening than the most frightening horror story; it is not more convincing than the best science fiction; and it is not a brilliant allegory of parenthood in the dangerous twenty-first century.

The Road, as everyone knows by now, is the story of a father and son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic America roamed by gangs of cannibalistic marauders. The father is an evangelist of what he supposes to be basic human values; he constantly tells his son that the two of them are "the good guys" who are keeping the flame of virtue alight. When the father falls short of this ideal - by depriving a pathetic thief of his clothes, or by refusing food to a fellow wayfarer - the child is always ready to act as a conscience, whether by throwing away a carved flute or by tears and plaints at the plight of the underdog. The morally superior infant is a mainstay of sentimental literature and an efficient emetic from Little Lord Fauntleroy to innumerable works by Stephen King and plenty of others; but any pretence the device may have to realism can be dispensed with by ten minutes' observation of the fate of an unattractive weakling in the school playground of your choice. Children are brutal, opportunistic primitives with so clear an understanding of the realities of power and deprivation that entire political classes can be manufactured from those who never properly grow up. A child in a highly dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape, with only its father to rely on, would join its father in humiliating and murdering the thief, and give the corpse a good kick in the face to show it just how good the good guys can be.

There is some ethical tension as a result of the father's assumption that everyone is a potential enemy; various encounters along the way serve to show that this is not necessarily the case, and the book ends with an affirmation of trust in a stranger. However, the ethical and emotional impact of this scene is compromised by the way McCarthy insists on stacking the moral deck. The stranger, of course, bears not the slightest resemblance to any of the various monsters and victims whose company the father and son have been trying to avoid for the past two hundred pages. Scarred but straight-talking, he is patently a far better risk than the slavers, cannibals, invalids, victims, starving wretches and non-positive-thinking wife/mothers who comprise the book's humanity in general. Appearing as he does, the stranger stinks of deus ex machina: fear not, keep the faith, and even should you lose your father, a new and better father will come along.

Even more aesthetically disastrous is the massive food cache which the father and son discover just in time to prevent their having to make a choice between losing their own lives and taking other people's. In this novel, something always comes along, be it a scarred stranger or an unclaimed larder. The father never has to choose between violating his moral code and losing his child. He never has to choose between joining a marauding gang and letting his son die. He never has to choose, as presumably some of those cannibals felt they had to choose, between watching his own child die and roasting someone else's child on a spit. As a picture of the world in general, this is neither realistic nor uncompromising; as an allegory of parenthood or God's will, it is complacent and contrived; as a vision of the future for which we are heading, it borders on the obscene. Family values triumphant: Papa vincit omnia!

The Road has some superb descriptions of the devastated landscapes our generation is likely to leave behind; but in terms of its characters and story it is as simplistic, soft-centred and morally timid as the blandest genre novel, and the ending comes perilously close to apocalypse à la Spielberg. A better book on the ethics of cannibalism is Shōhei Ōoka's Fires on the Plain, which was made into an excellent film by Kon Ichikawa. A better book on the end of the world is Thomas M Disch's The Genocides. A better story about post-apocalyptic survival and love is Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog". McCarthy's own outstanding Blood Meridian, despite taking place in the nineteenth century, is a far more convincing apocalypse than The Road: a good deal less compromised artistically and morally, and at least as impressive topographically.

Update Buck Theorem has posted an interesting and thoughtful (and flattering) response.


  • At 6:52 pm , Anonymous Felix said...

    Excellent review, Philip-I was deeply irritated for much the same reasons when I read the book recently. And the convenient larders-terrible, just terrible.

  • At 7:43 pm , Blogger Philip said...

    Thanks. As I've said before in this connection, I think many reviewers must have had very sheltered upbringings if they think The Road is tougher than The Genocides, or "A Boy and his Dog", or John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up. A few years ago, people were saying similar things about Michael Haneke's equally soft-centred Time of the Wolf, where innocence and common decency also triumph for no apparent reason other than that a global disaster with too much suffering and death would have been in bad taste.

  • At 7:53 pm , Anonymous Madame X said...

    Excellent analysis, on a number of levels.

  • At 9:21 pm , Anonymous mds said...

    'I think many reviewers must have had very sheltered upbringings if they think The Road is tougher than The Genocides, or "A Boy and his Dog", or John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up.'

    Actually, I think many of the reviewers who slobbered over it were not actually acquainted with any of the genre [said scornfully] works you mention. Because I looked at the dust jacket and said, "Huh. This is familiar." But it's by Cormac McCarthy, and hence is serious literature, not "sci-fi." I get the same gastrointestinal discomfort when (probably the same lot of) reviewers likewise slobber over Margaret Atwood, who will tell you herself that she doesn't stoop to writing science fiction [said scornfully].

  • At 3:19 pm , Blogger Buck Theorem said...

    Wholy agree with literary critics not accepting "The Road" as the genre work it is.

    I have a longer response, if I may, respectfully...

  • At 6:02 pm , Blogger Philip said...

    Thanks very much - I think I'll link to that in the post.

  • At 1:52 am , Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

    That was indeed an excellent response. The Internet can be awesome, can't it?


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