Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Road; A Clumsy and Meandering Review.

This is sort of embarrassing to admit, but I have never had a library card as an adult. I had some late fees when I was a kid, and whatever amount I owed seemed huge at the time (probably like 9 dollars or something). It never stopped me from reading. I've read a lot over the years. It also made reading pretty expensive, because almost without fail I'd end up buying the books I had heard about, or saw laying around. Getting me near a book store was (and still is) dangerous.

Among the many, many other factors that make the Tofu Muchacha so awesome, she has been a good influence on me in regards to my aversion to the library. She usually has at least 3 or 4 books out at a time, and she seems to plow through them prodigiously.

So I finally opened up a big-boy library card. It's actually pretty awesome now. They have a drive-up window! I don't even have to leave my car to pick up the FREE books. I know!!

Anyway, the first two books I picked up were “World War Z”, which is about the Zombie Wars and whatnot, and the other is “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. I was inspired to pick up The Road by the trailers I saw for the movie. I thought it looked really interesting and kinda desolate and whatnot, and The T.M. Recommended that I read the book, as she'd really really liked it.

One of the best things about reading a library book is that it has a history itself. It's been read by dozens of other people, or even more in some cases, and there are old dog-ears and coffee stains and quotes underlined. I love that. It shows that someone else had traveled that exact path you're on. It's very appealing. And with The Road, I found this even more appealing than usual. There was one particular past reader who found more than a few noteworthy passages. Even going so far as to write in the margin on an occasion or two. I almost looked forward to the next selected passage to see what my predecessor found important. I didn't always agree, and that was even better... It was like a debate with a stranger without all of the annoying fighting. Why did this person underline the word “red”? Was it because colors aside from gray are so rarely mentioned? Was it because blood becomes such a prevalent symbol of pending death? Not sure, but even when an opinion wasn't obvious, it often raised questions, and that's not something you can get out of a book bought new.

I've heard from several people that they started, but couldn't get into the book. The Road is not written conventionally, with long and looping paragraphs of prose. Much like the wasteland setting offered up in the book, the voice of the author here is portrayed as bleak and halting. There's a feeling of anxiety and urgency conveyed by the haste of each sentence. Sometimes only a word or two. There's hardly any time wasted on punctuation. Not a quotation mark or question mark in the whole book that I recall. The dialogue mostly just simply separated from the text as a new paragraph. There's a lilt to the prose that starts to make a rhythmic sense, and the reader can build up quite the head of steam. It's an interesting momentum too, as so much of the important moments happen suddenly. Sometimes I'd be 3 or 4 sentences past before I realized something new had happened. Suddenly the tone would change and I'd have to go back and carefully re-read to make sure I caught what I'd missed.

There were certain motifs that I really loved for the emotions and imagery they evoked for me. The un-ending gray (as mentioned before). Whether it was the burned trees, or the never ceasing shower of ash. I especially loved it when the snow was tainted with the ash and came down gray. There have been hundreds of books and poems written about the purity of snow, and how the clean, perfect white of a fresh snow is symbolic of the world renewing. Not in The Road. Here, even the snow is already tainted by the burning world, even before it touches the ground. The relentlessness of the gray really punctuates those moments when color "bleeds" in. It emphasizes the importance of each of those moments.

I read a review (one of my favorite things to do is to read something or see something and then to see what other people have to say about it) where they mention how the book is "harrowing" but saved by the occasional glimmer of hope. I totally agree with this assessment. I really liked how despite the horrible trials these two people are going through, the father will still allow for moments of joy. Tiny breaks from the pain. A few of these come to mind especially... the swim in the waterfall. The drinking of the old can of Coke. The enjoyment of something so simple as morel mushrooms.

Another thing I really liked was the establishment of the Son as the secret hero in the story. Though almost the entire book is told from the point of view of the father, the son consistently is the voice of morality, and of conscience. The only points in the book where there is friction between the father and son come when the father's humanity is compromised in some way... When he leaves the lost child on the road.... when he strips the thief of all of his belongings. The times when the father becomes most cruel or cold... those are the times when the relations between the two travelers become most strained. I really like the feeling that the only thing keeping the man from giving up completely, or from going to the other side is his absolute, and unquestioning devotion to his son. It really makes the absence of the mother even more glaring...and we are shown fairly early on where she is... She gave up on them. It makes the relationship between the father and son to be even more endearing.

This blog is starting to have the same glowing tone that my Spring Awakening blog had, so let me break the admiration up a little by discussing my biggest issues with The Road...

[ Spoilers Ahead ]

1) The ending is a little too neatly tied. I realize that once the father died, the primary voice of the narrative died with him. The son is a true secondary character for the first 220 pages, only being viewed from the perspective of the father, and only speaking when voiced in conversation. When the father dies, the narration/ voice of the book immediately shifts to the son's perspective, which is interesting as a writing choice, but makes for less interesting content. The kid does have a depth that surpasses his age, but nothing of the perspective of the “pre whatever” that the father does. The author's solution to this is to essentially end the book almost right away. The father's body isn't even cold when the son is met by a “family”. It seems a little too fortuitous. Or you know... maybe it's not at all. The new people come across as being the “good guys” but that's certainly not fleshed out. There's definitely an ambiguity to it, which is the only thing that saves the ending for me. That possibility that the father and son were stalked by these new people, who waited for the father to die to swoop in for some nefarious purpose.

2) The father's mystery illness is inconsistently established. There's one or two early mentions of him coughing blood, and then there is probably a hundred pages or more when it doesn't come up at all. Then suddenly he's coughing blood and dying quickly, and then just as suddenly he's dead. To be honest, I'd forgotten the first bloody cough until the second one happened. Seems like, if that's the ultimate downfall of the man, it would be more consistently mentioned.

3) Some of the encounters with other people seemed rushed. The author spends pages describing what kind of foods and supplies the father and son come across on those rare occasions, but when the final encounter occurs where the father gets shot with an arrow, that whole sequence takes less time than the time it took for the author to describe the uncovering of the bunker.

4) There are a couple of points where the text goes a little more philosophical, and the thesis is a little muddy. The Old Man is a really interesting character, because he's the first that truly discusses God's place in the disaster. It's refreshing to read a character that sort of mirrors my own feelings about God's hand in the natural disasters that have shaped our world. People are quick to give God the credit when great things happen, but what about when the majority of humanity is killed off in some undetailed disaster? I appreciate that the Old Man will ask those questions, but I think that, while ambiguity is certainly understandable, it should be more evident that the author himself has a real solid grasp on his own stance. There were some points where it seemed that the McCarthy was using the book to sort of work it out for himself. It tended to wander in those places.

The thing is... these are quibbles mostly, and almost certainly each a very specific choice by the author. He has engendered enough good will throughout by being so specific and deliberate with every period. Every word used that I have to at least give him the credit that even if he's making choices I don't like, they are certainly intentional.

In the end there are a couple of things I take away from The Road that will stick with me...

First, it's incredibly stark and upsetting. The totality of the world the author creates is extremely impressive and the detail, while sparse, is specific enough that there's this feeling that McCarthy may have attacked this book like J.R.R. Tolkein did the Middle Earth books. You just know that he's got an entire history of this alternate universe of Earth, and I'd love to hear him fill in the gaps.

Second, it's an arresting read. It's very difficult to put the book down once you get into that rhythm, and despite the numerous mundane activities that take place, they all seem to be interesting in their own way. That's undoubtedly the result of a craftsman who truly knows exactly how to tell a story, and who most likely went through a ton of writes and rewrites to get it just right.

Third, I can't see myself reading it again soon. It was excellent, don't get me wrong. I loved the style. I loved the cadence. I loved the story. It's just a little unrelenting when it comes to the darkness of the vision. You know it's dark when a guy who spends time reading about serial killers and listening to Assassins and Spring Awakening is all “Wow... that's pretty effing dark.” I'd liken it to movies like Schindler's List or Children of Men... They're so artfully created and so unique that it's easy to admire them, and appreciate them, and even enjoy them (as much as you can enjoy those kinds of things), but you certainly don't want to pop them in on any Sunday afternoon.

Definitely worth a read, though. That's for sure.


Gregg Fraley said...

It is unrelenting. McCarthy is probably the best living American writer, now that Salinger has passed.

If you want a nice treat, read his The Orchard Keeper. It's tasty, and so is Sutree.

Nice review. Yes, a bit long but I was forewarned...


Unknown said...

I read it this weekend. A rhythm, yes. Without the pausation that chapters bring, it was difficult to stop. I'm honestly surprised that McCarthy even allowed the . . . separations every here and there. I found that without those pauses, that rhythm mimicked the story - the constant struggle, the never-ending journey, trudging on and on.

I don't think it's weird that a person who "enjoys" Assassins & Spring Awakening finds this dark. (I also "enjoy" those shows immensely, duh.) Murderous rage and teen angst are not the same as apocolyptic. And I think there are more bright spots in A & SA than in The Road. Pretty effing bleak.