The Road

April 14, 2007 § 1 Comment

The Road (Photo: Quarterly Conversation)

The power of a myth is measured by the progeny it inspires, and that of Sisyphus is no different. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the latest work to pay homage to the Greek hero’s plight, namely by setting out to do the seemingly impossible—write a postmodern fable about apocalypse. Unfortunately for McCarthy, not only are the characters in The Road destined to Sisyphus’ fate, but so is the book itself.

The Road includes all the ingredients for a memorable fable—an economy of characters, each serving a unique and indivisible role in the story, a sad set of circumstances, and a strong sense that there is a moral to be uncovered. A father and son journey in search of warmer climates in a post-apocalyptic America. Virtually the entire landscape has been reduced to ash and overrun by lawless bandits who secure their own survival by robbing and cannibalizing others. The only reprieve this world offers is the occasional undiscovered stash of canned goods and blankets and the love between father and son that encourages both to persevere. McCarthy even adds direct references to Greek myth to cement the fable overtone. Sisyphus’ rock makes a frequent appearance as the heavy cart filled with food and supplies that father and son must push throughout the bulk of the journey; and the book even wraps up hastily with a deus ex machina. Where The Road stumbles is in its dissatisfaction with the fable as a form of storytelling—it wants to retain its substance, but place it in epic form. There is a reason, however, why the fable is meant to be short. To make it longer is to drown out the potency of the fable’s morals in unnecessary, self-indulgent prose for prose’s sake. Indeed, it is the constant wishing to be something that it is not that causes the book to ultimately tumble down the hill, and one gets the sense that McCarthy probably would not know where he went wrong.

The darling of American letters, McCarthy justifiably feels no need to rid his prose of obscure metaphors and the signature long sentence welded together with only a multitude of conjunctions. When done well, the latter can be rather poetic in a down-to-earth way—how simpler to achieve rhythm and poetry than to join a lot of clauses together with the word “and”? In all seriousness, this writing style can give the text sonority, which is very apt for a fable of apocalypse, when done judiciously. For example, there was this gem: “They pulled the cart from the brush with which they’d covered it and he raised it up and piled the blankets in and the coats and they pushed on out to the road and stood looking where the last of that ragged horde seemed to hang like an afterimage in the disturbed air.” There is no wordiness or dullness in this sentence, only the grave march of a story too unhappy to have a less plodding rhythm. Contrast that to this: “He pulled the wick out of the bottle and poured the bottle about half full, old straight weight oil thick and gelid with the cold and a long time pouring.” There is no need to repeat the word bottle twice, and “a long time pouring” is awkward and jarring amidst the relative straightforwardness of the rest of the sentence. Also, to describe such a simple task as pouring oil out of a bottle, McCarthy’s signature sentence structure is actually a hindrance. Rather than add anything, it makes the prose sag under the weight of a droning rhythm.

Then there is the unfortunate metaphor: “sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat;” “any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.” These are both so original that they are immediately thought provoking, but after attempting to make sense of them, one wonders why they are there to begin with. How does a sacred idiom draw down to preserve heat? And isn’t something shorn of its reality by definition not preserving anything? The second metaphor obviously refers to the universe outside Earth, but since the rest of the book focuses on the Earth itself and more abstract notions of reality and existence, why are we talking about outer space all of a sudden? For a writer of McCarthy’s caliber, these lapses should not be happening but are forgivable if sparse enough. But they happen so frequently—indeed, the inappropriately plodding sentence is the primary way in which the story is told—that the spell McCarthy’s poetry could have maintained for the entire book is only cast and then recast in fits and spurts. Impeded by useless words, the book keeps rolling down the hill.

It’s not entirely the prose’s fault. Though facing death naturally leads to a good deal of philosophizing, the book goes about it in a largely awkward way. The profundity runs the gamut from the random: “Damn, he whispered. He looked down at the old man. Perhaps he’d turn into a god and they to trees.” To the nonsensical: “She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” To the trite: “Who will find the little boy? Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.” And from the postmodernly obscure metaphors in the rest of the novel, one would have expected the recurrent reference to fire to be equally original. Sadly, the father only had this to offer: “You have to carry the fire. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”

Stylistic failings aside, uncertainty about The Road’s merit as a whole comes mostly from its straddling of the thin line between innovation and utter mishandling of a genre. The story’s many associations with the fable strongly suggest that it would eventually reveal a central wisdom. But when the last page is turned, we feel confusion from having been sure we would find something and then coming up empty. In this regard, The Road teases us with the father and son relationship, their insistence that they are the good guys in this world, a pregnant woman, the symbol of humanity and history beginning, and the notoriously abrupt and artificial deus ex machina. Indeed, in case these elements seemed overshadowed by inevitable doom, McCarthy graciously provides us with the character of the son, who is so immune to corruption by suffering, so steadfast in helping others despite barely being able to survive himself, that he seems inhuman. After refusing to rescue another stranger, the father tells his sobbing son, “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything,” to which the son replies, “Yes I am. I am the one.” It is odd to see such a moral certainty and purity in a book that denies either exists, but then again there is nothing wrong with a stylized character in a fable. Although it would be far fetched to think the ashen world could repopulate and rebuild itself, there appears to be hope that humanity will defiantly continue to exist.

Alas, lies, all lies. The Road closes with a eulogy of the world, and a world still in existence, even one as desolate as this, would render a mark of its passing premature. Is this what we are supposed to learn then—that every hope in a postapocalyptic world is a lie? Even the darkest fables and myths have a more actionable takeaway. It becomes almost amusingly clear, then, that despite borrowing some of its trademark techniques, McCarthy never intended to be more faithful to the fable than was necessary to introduce his new interpretation of it. The fable was set up to undermine itself. Fitting, considering there is no objective more quintessentially postmodern. Indeed, this is perhaps the most modern fable of all, a text too big to contain itself and a story that reveals its own lie.

For all of The Road’s technical imperfections, we do eventually come to care about the boy and his father. We want to finish the journey with them. McCarthy has created a coherent, self-contained world, and despite the ripples that prevent us from being truly drawn into it, we are eager to keep reading. Ironically, this may be the genius of the novel. Our reading experience mimics that of the father and son’s journey. But is it really genius? For the pleasure is not in the writing itself but in the analysis of the writing. The intellectual intervention required to enjoy the story means that we focus not so much on the work itself, but its explanation, so can we call it artistic success? How appropriate that like for Sisyphus, the ultimate justification for The Road comes from the journey it takes, not from having reached its destination.

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