The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road was the first Cormac McCarthy book I ever read – quite soon after it won the Pulitzer prize and everyone from Oprah Winfrey to George Monbiot started proclaiming its unprecedented and potentially world-saving amazingness. I remember at the time thinking it was kind of like an Old English alliterative poem mixed with an ITV survivor documentary (man hacks off own leg with toothpick to survive avalanche, etc) – The Wanderer meets Touching The Void, with added cannibals.

Having re-read it, I can’t shake off the same ambivalence. Somehow the manly-yet-beautified language – the striking descriptive sequences, the sweeping vistas, the strange Anglo-Saxon syntax, the eulogistic tone, the near-metric, unpunctuated pulse of the prose – is mixed with the uneasy feeling that you’re getting a bit of a cheap thrill. Part of you says ‘this is proper bollox – end of the world? cannibals? really?’ – while the other says: ‘just shut up and enjoy it like everyone else, you pseudo-intellectual tosser. George Monbiot likes it, and he seems like a really good guy’.

To elaborate, it strikes me as kind of a strange combination of deliberate high-brow obscurity (alongside William Faulkner, McCarthy’s biggest influence is Roget’s thesaurus) and low-common-denominator (or as McCarthy would write, lowcommondenominator) appeal: ever-so-slightly nonsensical pseudo-Biblical bombast; a page-turning lack of clauses and generous spacing, but with the surface appearance of canonical gravitas (it just sounds like it should be important); absence of difficult-to-digest psychological complexity or nuance (the characters don’t have names or personalities, don’t really speak, don’t make decisions any more complicated than whether or not to eat each other); scare-factor (end of the world, small boy getting raped and eaten alive, that sort of thing); almost sublime, prelapsarian obliviousness to irony.

Quite a lot of the time it sounds a bit like a sci-fi thriller written using a set of St James Bible-vocabulary fridge magnets.

The effect may be striking, I scoffed, but it only really works if you read it quite quickly and don’t spend too much time thinking about it. That said, I won’t pretend that I didn’t then go out, lay hands upon and devour all of McCarthy’s (nine) other books in reasonably quick succession. I guess the Monbiot voice won.

Now, I think I can locate part of said unease in a fundamental, biologically encoded aversion to sci-fi. I won’t try and justify this to anyone who pipes up citing the universally acknowledged merits of Philip K. Dick or Russel Hoban or Neil Gaiman or whoever. You’re probably right – it’s just not my cup of lapsang souchong.

Unlike The Road, all of McCarthy’s other stuff – with the possible exception of Blood Meridian – is set in the Real World (prior to some inexplicable apocalypse in which every form of life is razed from the earth apart from quite a few people). Not that it’s a Real World most people who read McCarthy will have a great deal of familiarity with. The earlier stuff – The Orchard Keeper (or, Being William Faulkner), Outer Dark (a crazed, freakish, semi-mythical, sacrificial gore-fest – Flannery O’Connor meets the Brothers Grimm), Child of God (the profoundly delightful chronicle of the life, times and misadventures of a serial-killing necrophiliac), and the hefty Suttree (McCarthy’s autobiographical, modernist epic – Ulysses rewritten amidst the riverside detritus, moonshine-drenched camaraderie and grotesque comedy of the Jacksonville underworld) – is set in deep-South, God-fearing, isolated Appalachia: but it might as well be Faulkner’s Yukutawa County.

From then (1978) until The Road (2006), McCarthy focused his attention on the barren borderlands of New Mexico. Blood Meridian (1984) – surely McCarthy’s main claim to lasting significance, and anointed by arch-canoniser and professional Grey Eminence, Harold Bloom as ‘the greatest imaginative work by a living American author’ – is revisionist history meets picaresque meets slasher-epic: Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, Titus Andronicus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, spaghetti western and action movie all rolled into one still-twitching, brutalized word-corpse.

Following the exploits of a precociously vicious and borderline-autistically taciturn protagonist known simply as The Kid  – who drifts around on mangy steed from whorehouse to psychotically dodgy boozer before ending up in a bounty-hunting gang exchanging scalps of indigenous Indians for cash – Blood Meridian is both a carnival orgy of stylised horror, an explosion of the Little House on the Prairie, Cowboy-and-Indian American pastoral mythology, and a Girardian/Nietzschean exploration of the nature of evil – with the occasional shout-out to semiotic theory to keep the academy happy.

It also features McCarthy’s best (in an admittedly weak-ish field) character: a colossally bad-assed, proto-existentialist anti-Christ called The Judge – a persona reprised in (slightly) more domesticated form under the guise of the No Country For Old Men hit-man, Anton Chigurh.

McCarthy’s commercial break, however, didn’t come until the 1990s Border TrilogyAll The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. Again, the format is picaresque, the mode of conveyance is equine, women are seldom seen and almost never heard, Mexicans are all pathologically violent liars, and a well-placed punch is worth a thousand words. Rather than the groundbreaking bad taste and histrionic excess of Blood Meridian, however, the violence is restrained to the upper limits of general acceptability. There’s even a love interest. All The Pretty Horses bagged McCarthy the National Book Award and made him really, really famous.

So, having read and largely enjoyed the back-catalogue – Suttree, though uneven and overlong, manages to add some psychology, characterisation and humour (!) to its lavish lyricism, Blood Meridian is a 350-page face-melting prose solo, No Country For Old Men is slick and deceptively sophisticated, and the Border Trilogy contains some genuinely stunning descriptive passages amidst its swashbuckling silliness – I found myself more, rather than less sceptical about the western-culture-climaxing success of The Road.

On reflection, it seemed like there was a lot of amazing stuff in McCarthy, but his work in general – and The Road in particular – uses, in a fairly cheap way, one identifiable mass-cultural inclination to mask its shortcomings: the reverence for antiquity. Make it sound old, as Ezra Pound didn’t say. Or: if you find you don’t have anything that interesting to say, just add a venerable sheen of epic diction – which, as Goethe did say, does your thinking and your poeticising for you.

And then there’s the whole end-of-the-world, ‘carrying the torch’ for humanity histrionics – it’s just somehow too crass, too easily emotive: pressing big, populist sentimental buttons in a way not altogether dissimilar to, say, Schindler’s List (the cinematic equivalent of a bog-wash: make people cry by shoving their face in the worst genocide in mankind’s history). Or Armageddon.

Wouldn’t it be terrible if there was some huge, inexplicable apocalypse and the only people left were you and your small boy, stranded in a desolate, godless wilderness populated only by marauding gangs of cannibals, with possible but unconfirmed rapist tendencies?  Well yes, of course it would. So what?

Throw-you-hands-in-the-air descriptive sequences aside, the bits of The Road that work best are the bits that take place inside the man’s head. The way I read it, the main narrative basically consists of his interior thoughts. You’ve then got the objective narrative bits that move the characters around – deliberately drained of any sort of emotional content or commentary, and sometimes reading a bit like a self-parody (‘they did this and then they did this and it was cold and he was hungry’ etc etc – this is all ripped out of Hemingway, Carver and Bukowski, incidentally). And then you’ve got the dialogue with the boy, which is ridiculously pared down and minimal. The contrast sometimes works pretty well because a lot of the flashy, poeticised language takes place inside of the man’s head (often when the boy is asleep, like in the opening paragraph), and refers to a world that doesn’t exist anymore. The words still exist but the things that they refer to have all been destroyed.

So it’s kind of tragic because all of this language is dying with the man, and also the values that people have created using this language – like not eating each other – seem to be dying too. All of this is inaccessible to the boy, who has never known anything else. Which is why McCarthy makes it all take place inside the man’s head.

Basically McCarthy’s philosophy boiled down is that the world is a fundamentally meaningless, random and violent place – and things like morality and being nice to each other are flimsy constructs. Though that makes them all the more important. A bit like Lord of the Flies, the premise is that left to our own devices and without any of the restraints that society has placed upon us, the vast majority of use would rape, pillage and murder to get what we want, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves otherwise. But in a perverse kind of way that makes something simple and genuine like the bond between the man and the boy all the more sacred – because it’s fragile. Which, when you think about it, isn’t really all that profound.

    • Ardin Lalui
    • September 11th, 2010

    You’ve got to admit though, The Road does contain strikingly beautiful, real, profound emotion. McCarthy handles the father/son relationship delicately, and with sensitivity. Like this part:

    And we’re still going south.


    So we’ll be warm.



    Okay what?

    Nothing. Just okay.

    Go to sleep.


    I’m going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?

    Yes. That’s okay.

    • Hi Ardin, thanks for stopping by. You’re right. there are lots of good things about The Road and, my penchant for ascerbity notwithstanding, it’s well worth a read. I’m perfectly willing to admit that there’s plenty of real emotion in it too. And of course, for all his occasional flaws, McCarthy is an extravagantly talented writer – his novels all contain passages that couldn’t have been written by anyone else.

      I do still think it’s generally a little overblown and melodramatic, but that’s not to say I don’t think it’s genuine in what it sets out to do. I think my gripe with The Road is more to do with the fact that it seems to be treated as some sort of magnum opus for McCarthy – whereas for me it’s not one of his better or more interesting books.

    • Ardin Lalui
    • September 13th, 2010

    I’d completely agree. I think the Road is excellent for what it sets out to do, but it’s mostly just entertainment. Some of McCarthy’ other work is for me, transcendental. I formed a passionate connection with the more dreamy, semi-biblical, contemplative parts of the Border Trilogy.

    Anyway, I like your blog Danny. I’ll be sure to keep checking back.

    • kate king
    • March 11th, 2011

    Hi,read all your comments. I don’t think Cormac McC
    says the world is fundamentally bad, violent and uncaring. He says it’s an incredibly beautiful place in which violent things happen, and in which people do their best with their limited resources and the
    circumstances they find themselves in. I don’t think
    there’s another writer with his gift for lyrical prose. His descriptions of landscape are the best I’ve ever read, and his metaphysics articulate things I’ve thought and been unable to put into words until I read his. I’ve loved his work for 20 years.

  1. Cheers for reading and commenting.

    I agree about his descriptions of landscape, especially in Blood Meridian. I should point out though that I said for McCarthy the world is a meaningless, random and violent place, which is philosophically very different from saying that it’s bad, violent and uncaring. In fact saying something is bad and saying something is meaningless are in a sense opposite positions. I wouldn’t have thought McCarthy thinks any adjective really describes what the world is – it just is. And that’s not necessarily nihilism either – you can find meaning to be arbitrary and god to be dead without denying moral imperatives or the virtues of people

  2. Hey there. First I just wanted to say that your article is very interesting, thank you 🙂

    I recently read ‘The Road’ very quickly and I agree that it is very good. I can’t shake the idea that ‘The Road’ is a parody (not in the comic sense, in the post-modern sense) of a western journey novel. A journey of hope, which looks like a journey of death… then turns out to be a journey of hope. Which also parodies the idea of Americana. What are your thoughts on this?

  3. Hi, thanks for commenting. Yeah I think there’s probably some truth in that. McCarthy is definitely influenced by classic American fiction (his favourite book is supposedly Moby Dick), and of course picaresque is its quintessential form – Huck Finn, Moby Dick, As I Lay Dying, On The Road, Augie March, Invisible Man, The Grapes of Wrath etc etc. The movement of the individual tends to have some sort of allegorical baggage relating to America/the American dream etc. There’s plenty of this elsewhere in McCarthy too – The Border Trilogy is a classic western journey novel (nothing parodic about it either, just horses, gun toting and the long open road), and Blood Meridian is a sort of parody of American pastoral mythology. Or going further back in the epic tradition, another way of looking at it would be that if the Border Trilogy is the Odyssey, Blood Meridian is the Iliad – and McCarthy’s hammed up archaism occasionally sounds pretty homeric.

    So yeah I think the mythology of the quest is something that definitely runs through The Road (clue’s in the title, right?) – in a sense McCarthy is returning Americanness to its pre-civilised frontier origins and seeing what remains of its values, beliefs etc. This excavation definitely has its more overtly parodic moments, like when they uncover a coke can, classic symbol of modern US culture.

  4. The longer it is since I read it, the more it diminishes in my memory.

    The snow fell nor did it cease to fall. I’m sorry?

    Discalced and an explanation of what it means a sentence later.

    The wife and her whorish heart speech.

    Parts of it are just plain bad. Parts are great, but for me it’s a well written genre novel and not hugely more than that. I certainly have more regard for Lord of the Flies which in context is genuinely shocking.

  5. McCarthy writes some absolutely hilarious nonsense at times. James Wood wrote a piece about him in the New Yorker a few years ago that pretty much hits the nail on the head

    “To read Cormac McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration: a good day is so mysteriously followed by a bad one. McCarthy is a colossally gifted writer, certainly one of the greatest observers of landscape. He is also one of the great hams of American prose, who delights in producing a histrionic rhetoric that brilliantly ventriloquizes the King James Bible, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.”

  6. I’d say The Road is my least favorite novel. I don’t mind his writing too much, and I find his occupying a uniquely American genre refreshing. His lack of identified narrator gives him a lot of room to move around, and I really enjoyed in Blood Meridian when he played around with the vagueness a physical narrator could have depending on how confused they were. I have laugh after I say that, because it might be a bad narration, but what I can find in books I like to keep. Anyways I think to say that he writes halarious nonsense is nonsensical, and the quote from the review is an indicator. To say McCarthy’s a gifted writer in defense of his own opinion as a fulcrum for the appeal of a balanced arguement is cheap! McCarthy read over one hundred books in order to write Blood Meridian! “Gifted” is a hyperbolic understatement. Anyways, I’m glad you did the review.

  7. Hi, thanks for taking the time to comment, but I’m afraid I don’t really understand much of what you’ve written. “To say McCarthy’s a gifted writer in defense of his own opinion as a fulcrum for the appeal of a balanced arguement is cheap!” I have no idea what this means. Did I say that? I do think that McCarthy is a gifted writer. I also have several reservations about his work, particularly The Road, outlined above.

    Why is it nonsensical to say that McCarthy writes some hilarious nonsense at times? Do you just mean that you disagree? In which case check this out:

    “What discordant vespers do the tinker’s goods chime through the long twilight and over the brindled forest road, him stooped and hounded through the windy recrements of day like those old exiles who divorced of corporeality and enjoined ingress of heaven or hell wander forever the middle warrens spoorless increate and anathema. Hounded by grief, by guilt, or like this cheerless vendor clamoured at heel through wood ad fen by his own querulous wares in perennial tin malediction”

    • I was referring to Wood’s piece, sorry. Lol. Thank you for that quotation, agree to disagree I suppose. I enjoy writings like that, I’m reading a lot of existentialist philosophy right now, and I guess that with McCarthy’s structure has spawned a love for puzzling grammatica syntax.

  8. “What discordant vespers do the tinker’s goods chime through the long twilight and over the brindled forest road, him stooped and hounded through the windy recrements of day like those old exiles who divorced of corporeality and enjoined ingress of heaven or hell wander forever the middle warrens spoorless increate and anathema. Hounded by grief, by guilt, or like this cheerless vendor clamoured at heel through wood and fen by his own querulous wares in perennial tin malediction”

    Shockingly bad. Is that really him or someone satirising him? It reads like a poor Dunsany pastiche.

    As time’s gone on my view that McCarthy is heavily overrated and that The Road is ultimately a mediocre book has only grown stronger.

  9. No, amazingly it’s for real – from Outer Dark, his second novel. Which is terrible, probably his worst.

    There are bits of McCarthy that are great – most of Suttree and Blood Meridian, a decent amount of The Crossing (pants-wettingly shite cod philosophising aside). But he’s never written a book that didn’t also contain several things that are embarrassingly bad. Like you, The Road has diminished in my view as time has gone on, but then I don’t think it’s one of his better books. It’s overrated because it engenders a cheap and superficial impression of cleverness without being remotely clever or thoughtful beneath the Biblical bluster. It makes people like Oprah Winfrey think they’re reading great literature. I doubt Oprah would have much time for Suttree and Blood Meridian, which to my mind are the best things he’s written by a distance.

  10. By the way speaking of Mccarthy, this is a goldmine:

  11. I’ll look closer at those ones then. The Road is Oprah-fiction in some respects. Evident profundity, but not too difficult to follow.

    What I find odd is not that McCarthy has his fans, some fervent, but that he’s held up as a great writer. He’s not a Nabokov, a Joseph Roth.

    • opheliajasmin
    • February 16th, 2012

    Great review. I feel that McCarthy is well above the curve of most popular fiction, but sometimes while reading have the same feeling of unease that his publicity photos give me. Is he putting this on? Regardless, sometimes I come across a sentence of his that I just need to read aloud. And that’s a good thing.

  1. October 6th, 2010
    Trackback from : enligt O

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