The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road is an absolute critical darling, one of those rare crossover genre fiction hits; I can see why. The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic setting, but doesn’t focus upon a world building element such as Stephen King’s The Stand did. This is a novel about other things, and uses science fiction as a backdrop, as Kazuo Ishiguro did in Never Let Me Go. Quibblings about genre aside, The Road is a harrowing and powerful read, one which should be experienced by genre fiction lovers and haters alike.
The Road follows a father and son as they traipse towards the coast in an apocalyptic landscape. Exactly what happened is unclear, but the vast majority of the population are dead, with the survivors more often than not cannibals or rapists (or both). The unnamed father and son try to avoid all other contact as they make their way through this wasteland.
Some writers make their worlds fascinating through imagination, an understanding of what makes a setting fascinating, barraging the reader with interesting detail; it’s this talent which gets me so obsessed with Steven Erikson. Other writers conjure a sense of place in a genre fiction setting through atmosphere rather than detail, such as Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. McCarthy sits firmly in the latter, with The Road standing as one of the most haunting visions of post-apocalyptic America that I’ve ever read. There isn’t a gimmick to set it apart; it’s conjured through the palpable atmosphere of dread and fear which permeates the entire novel. The lack of detail actually makes this novel profoundly scary; we don’t know what happened, we just know that it was bad, and that’s enough.
The actual plot of The Road is, by definition, fairly meandering. The closest thing that we have to a plot arc is the steady worsening of the health of the father, but by and large this is a story of a steady painful, boring trudge punctuated with bursts of extreme terror and horror. These moments can often come from nowhere, with moments of visceral horror popping up at almost any time. This is a book fundamentally about atmosphere rather than ‘plot’; in most novels, particularly genre fiction, almost everything serves the plot. Atmosphere, characterisation and use of language exist to support the plot, but that isn’t the case with The Road. Those who read mostly for the sake of just getting a great story may not find The Road to their taste, but that’s not really what this novel is about.
The Road is structured as a series of very short paragraphs, but no chapter breaks. It’s pretty interesting structurally; the lack of chapters really drives home the slog that is the lives of The Road’s characters, but the short paragraphs highlight how fractured and uncertain their lives are. It creates an uneasy feeling when reading this novel, which is quite hard to define. The prose is wonderful, often plain but with the odd use of more flowery language working well. McCarthy indulges himself linguistically during dreams, but it’s the more plain prose during the long waking hours which really shines through.
The relationship between the father and his son is extremely moving, and rather different than we’ve come to expect from ‘apocalypse fiction.’ In stories like these, the parents usually seem to try to harden their child to be able to face the cruel world they live in, but the father here seems to be desperate to preserve his innocence. He regularly lies to his son, although his son usually calls him out on it. There really isn’t anything else quite like it, with the actual personalities of our characters not really being that important. In a way, these two are totems, they represent the father/son relationship rather than standing as individual characters themselves.
The Road is a stunning novel, and I look forward to reading more books from Cormac McCarthy. If you want a fun post-apocalyptic novel, I recommend going for The Stand, but if you fancy something a bit more harrowing, I’d definitely give The Road a go.