Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Summer Reading--The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Since yesterday I've been trying to figure out why Cormac McCarthy's The Road was such a remarkable reading experience. The setting of the novel—a post-apocalyptic world in which the few remaining survivors either live in terror of each other or treat others with unspeakable brutality—is one of the darkest, most terrifying premises I've ever encountered. The plot is almost nonexistent. A man and his son travel the road on foot, trying to go south to reach warmer weather and, for reasons never fully explained, to reach the sea. Along the way they search for enough food, clothing, and blankets to keep themselves alive as they continue their journey. These two are the only significant characters in the novel, and the few minor characters—a killer, a dying old man, and one or two others—appear only for a few paragraphs or brief scene. And the sadness and misery of an annihilated, ash-covered world, where all the trees and animals and most of the people are dead and where every human encounter is likely to lead to violence, makes the reading emotionally difficult. On the surface, it seems a totally depressing story.

Why, then, did the experience of reading this novel so completely captivate me? Why did I find myself re-reading some pages, slowing down to read others aloud to hear the characters voices more clearly? Why, on the third and last day of my reading, did I find myself deliberately taking reading breaks to let the feeling of the story envelop me a little longer before I finished it?

I think my answer lies in the relationship between the father and son in the story. Because McCarthy does a wonderful thing in this novel. He takes a harrowing story of physical survival and wraps it in another, even more powerful story, a story about perseverance, about hope in a hopeless world, and about a father and son's love for one another. While reading, I found myself asking why they go on, why they continue to search for a better place which they both know doesn't exist. And McCarthy's answer, implied repeatedly both in the dialogue between the two and in the father's private thoughts, is that each of them is the other's means of survival, both physically and emotionally. Without his father to feed and clothe him and keep him away from danger, the boy would be physically unable to go on. And without the boy to take care of, to give meaning and purpose to his otherwise futile, empty existence, the father would have no reason to continue. And so they go on together, constantly stopping to ask each other "how are you", to question their reasons for doing what they do, to reassure one another that everything is "okay," although, of course, it rarely is.

They succeed, I think. They maintain their belief that they are the "good guys," even when the father has to make painful decisions which upset the boy, they maintain their hope that some possible good can come out of their terrible predicament, and most of all, they continue to treat each other with remarkable tenderness and love and concern no matter the hardships they face. In a world which clearly can never come back to life, where everyone in it is doomed, it's that tenderness and love which give their existence the only meaning it can possibly have and which account for my feeling as a reader that I was under the spell of a remarkable book written by a gifted writer (591).