Monday, January 31, 2011

The Road finished; for the love of God please let me read something funny

The Road --2007 publication
I checked The Road out of the library on last Wednesday. I finished it today (Monday) - which has got to be a record for me. One thing I can say about The Road - the story definitely pulls you forward. There are no chapters, no clean endings to the trials and perils that the characters face, just breaks between moments. It kept me reading.

But that same quality meant I could not put it down last night, until it got very late into the evening, which meant I had to sit up and watch a few minutes of Ocean's Eleven on TV to clear my mind for a while before sleeping. Because this story is an absolute nightmare.

If it were not on my reading list, I don't know if I would ever willingly read it. I believe it is the bleakest story I've ever read. And that's considering that I really enjoyed watching No Country for Old Men (adapted from another one of Cormac McCarthy's books).

The story is about two nameless characters, a man and his son, in a post-apocalyptic world. The event that caused the apocalypse is never fully described, but the boy was born soon after it occurred. Now he is older and he and his father - alone, because the mother committed suicide - are travelling south through America to try and find someplace warmer. On the road they have to scavenge for food in abandoned stores and houses because all wildlife and virtually all plant life has been killed off by the unnamed event. They also have to avoid roaming bands of marauders who have turned to cannibalism in order to survive. Meanwhile, the man tries to preserve his son's innocence and goodness.

The story is quite moving, and it's easy to see that it has earned its rave reviews. McCarthy demonstrates the tremendous emotion the man has for his son, and also reveals the boy's growing doubts about whether or not they really are "the good guys," as his father tells him. It also has a mythological quality - they are on a quest facing terrible hardships and monsters. They succeed because of luck, grace, and good guesses.

However, I also felt that the boy suffered the misfortune of being born to parents who were inadequate in many ways. Obviously the mother's failure is clear in her inability to stay alive for her child. The father has a survivalist's mindset (on the night that the unnamed event occurs, he immediately fills up the tub with water, knowing that it will be needed). This same mindset causes him to be distrustful of any other survivors, and to worry after the survival of his son so myopically that he endangers his son's essential goodness even as he tries to preserve it.

Of course, to say that one's parents are inadequately prepared to handle the apocalypse might be judging them a bit too harshly.

So overall, it was a well-written story. According to a little research after finishing it, the book has also been acclaimed by environmentalists as a strong argument for their cause - which is clearly an appropriate interpretation. It has obvious value. But it was also haunting to read. After reading several pages while stopping for lunch at Whole Foods, I then finished my shopping giving my fellow patrons suspicious looks - would you eat people if you were in this situation? How about you? There are some easy jokes I could make here, but it didn't feel like "ha ha, people who buy high-quality groceries are hilarious" - it felt like my world view had been seriously tainted. I would have cast the same suspicious looks at the salt of the earth types at the Wal Mart ("ha ha, people who shop at Wal Mart are funny" yeah, shut up. Seriously, this book is a waking nightmare).

Which leads me to the next selection, because it is time for my brain to be cleansed. Next up is Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett, from the Discworld series. It will be a while before I get started because I still have a few non-list books from the library to finish up. Honestly, if I'd known The Road would be this bleak and also this fast, I would have just checked out Wyrd Sisters during the same visit.


  1. I loved this book- as you know I am a true horror fan, and the only things that really scare me are tales of realistic end of humanity. oh, how quickly the world would end if we lost the internet for a few days...
    my one comment about the Road is that when I first tried to read it, I got about 20 pages in and had to start over. it had been so long since I read anything with any actual prose in it, that the book confused me. I had to reset my brain...

  2. It's interesting to me, the emotional reaction people have to this book. After reading it, I talked to people who were full of hatred for it because it is so depressing. One comment I got was "great book if you want to kill yourself." For some very obvious reasons, this isn't one of those books that you just sort of like or not.
    While I can't see ever reading it again, you have to admit that there is something to a story when people have that kind of reaction to it.