Apocalyptic stories fascinate me. Man’s struggle to survive when all is lost holds my imagination. I attribute that to growing up in the 80s when the threat of nuclear war was at its peak and there were dozens of post-apocalyptic tales in book and in the cinema.
I also have a predilection for stories that explore the love between a father and his son. I don’t know whether I’m seeking to consolidate my own childhood experiences or its because Debbie and I are on the cusp of starting a family and I’m trying to weigh up the kind of father I’ll become. Tales and stories from other’s experiences and imaginations may help me shape my expectations; to give me a compass to follow.
I’m sure brief psycho-analysis could find the link between the two genres but in the mean time I was delighted when I come across a tale which combines both elements.
Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road” chronicles the journey of a man and his son as they struggle to survive in a dying world. The fate into which the world has fallen is never fully explained. Everything is dead or dying. Ash and snow fall from the sky to cover what the great fires have destroyed. One can easily imagine a nuclear winter or at least a self-imposed disaster.
If you are new to Cormack McCarthy then the first thing that will strike you is his sharp and sparse writing style. There are no speech marks. There are no apostrophes. There is nothing so bold as a colon or as pompous as semi-colon. This makes the text feel fresh and precise. His intelligence isn’t in multi-syllabic words but in structure and verse. Make no mistake, this is an easy read but it’s a piece of literature that will studied in schools in our own future.
The story picks up a good few years after this disaster. The unnamed man (“Papa) and his unnamed son (“the boy”) are trying to travel south where it may be warmer. There is virtually nothing left; not mankind nor nature. The few scattered people are either emaciated solitary travelers wrapped in stinking, filthy rags delaying their own inevitable death or gangs of men reduced to cannibalism to survive. The infrequent towns and cities are either burned to the ground or scavenged of everything useful.
The tale probes the love the man has for his son. Total and unconditional love. The powerful bond that every man should have for his child. In the bleakness of the dead and the dying the child is the man’s sole light. He tries to shield him from the brutalities of existence and the reality of delaying an inevitable death. Can the man die knowing his son will have to live on alone and without hope?
The man is often haunted by his dreams. Dreams of blue skies and green grass. Dreams of his wife before she took her own life so she couldn’t exist in such a world. The boy is born after the apocalypse and has no knowledge of what the world was like.
The book is intentionally repetitive which builds up the emotional impact of their relationship. McCarthy is at his best when he probes the painful nature of existentialism. He allows his lead character to poetically reflect on many things such as morality:
Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.
On how to give comfort when there is nothing left to give:
He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believe to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The scared idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.
On how pointless it is to survive when there’s little hope:
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
And on being stalked by Death:
The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distant low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again.
What time of year? What age the child? He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.
The genius of McCarthy is in his writing. His prose so bleak you can feel the pain through the pages. His efficient description so powerful you can envision every word. A tale to end every tale.
This is an emotionally heavy book with an inevitable ending. There is no plot twist. There is no escape. The beauty isn’t in the plot but in the writing.
One can easily allegorize God and Christ but I think that’s too literal. Certainly the child carries a terrible burden and acts compassionately to those who would harm him but I think that simply displays the innocence of youth. For me, the book is a rite of passage under the most desperate of circumstances. An exploration of living without hope of salvation. Where man’s own destruction all but proves that God cannot exist.