Having heard the buzz about this book and having seen the plethora of positive reviews, I felt compelled to write my own if only to be that voice of reason in a wilderness of pretentious insanity Cormac s McCarthy s The Road, I can honestly say, is the worst book I have ever read I am stunned to find such a critical following for a novel that is so clearly bad that I have yet to meet a flesh and blood person who does not hate it, or cannot, even after the most mild inquires, explain its appeal beyond the latent thought that they ought to like it To do otherwise would mark them as uncultured and ignorant Modern art had Duchamp s toilet, and now literature has its own case of the emperor s new clothes in, The Road.
What sets this novel apart from all others in its genre of ill conception, is the totality of its failure There is nothing good that can be said of it Some virtue can be found in every book, as in the old adage but she has a nice personality The Road breaks this rule, and soundly From the plot and characters to the writing style and even the cover design, the book is abysmally uninspired and a black hole of skill Much has been made of the writing quality Alan Cheuse, of the Chicago Tribune, and book commentator for NPR calls it his huge gift for language Let s look at that for a moment It is universally accepted that the first few sentences of any novel are the most crucial the words which a writer labors over the most to get them just right Here are the first two sentences of The Road When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him Nights dark beyond darkness and the days gray each one than what had gone before I once presented these two sentences to an amateur writer s forum and asked their opinion Several members politely replied that the sentences were badly in need of work Not only were they not grammatically correct, but they were awkward, confusing, used several unnecessary words and had all the rhythm and pacing of a dog with four broken legs Nights dark beyond darkness, has got to rank up there with, it was a dark and stormy night This is not at all an isolated example It is merely the beginning literally Other laudable narrative sentences include The Hour Of a sudden he seemed to wilt even further A lake down there Lest you think I am selectively picking the worst, here is the passage Mr Cheuse used in his own review as an example of genius tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings An old chronicle To seek out the upright No fall but preceded by a declination He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return What McCormac is describing here is that it is dark and the man can t see where he is going The author is clearly a master of communication Let s also pause to consider his brilliance of dialog, and his mastery of the monosyllable conversation that make the screenplay dialog of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger on par with Shakespeare Nearly every conversation has the word Okay, which appears so often I began to think it was a pun, like a ventriloquist routine One might conclude McCarthy is attempting to reflect a realistic vernacular into his work, except that the conversations are so stilted and robotic, as to lack even the faintest aroma of realism There is no slang, no halted speech, no rambling It is Dragnet First dialog in the book I ask you something Yes Of course Are we going to die Sometime Not now And we re still going south Yes So we ll be warm Yes Okay Okay what Nothing Just okay Go to sleep Okay.
You ll note that I did not use quotes in the above excerpt That is because neither does McCarthy There are no quotes anywhere in the book, nor are there any tags designating the speaker, which manages to successfully make determining who is speaking quite a dilemma at times Moreover, McCarthy never provides names to his characters this forces him to use the pronoun he frequently which very often leaves the reader bewildered as to whether he is referring to the father or the boy McCarthy doesn t stop with quotes He rarely uses commas or apostrophes It doesn t appear as if he is against contractions as he uses the non word, dont quite frequently Nor is he making the statement that he can write a whole book without punctuation as he does, on rare occasions, use a comma or an apostrophe, as you can see from the dialog segment I listed above, as if he is going senile and merely forgot As the lack of most of the necessary punctuation s only result is to make it harder to read, I can only conclude that McCarthy, or his editor are the most lazy people I ve ever heard of although I am certain no credible editor ever saw this book If they had I am certain we would have heard about the suicide in the papers One might overlook the shortcomings of writing skill if the novel s foundation was an excellent story Sadly, this is not the case Not that it lacks an excellent plot it lacks a plot Often times writers anguish over distilling the plot of a novel into a few sentences that might fit on the back of a book cover It is often impossible to clearly convey all that a book is in such a short span The Road does not suffer this Instead I would imagine that if it were possible to put this book in a microwave and evaporate all the extraneous words all you would have left is one sentence A boy and his father travel south in a post apocalyptic United States, then the father dies I wonder if the blurb writer for the, The Road, realized he was also providing a spoiler for the novel so comprehensive, no one need read the book What the book lacks in plot it clearly makes up for in even less characterization The father and the boy that is about as much characterization as you will get McCarthy doesn t even provide names from which readers might glean some associative characteristics We know the boy is afraid, because he says so approximately every four pages, always with the same robotic level of emotional intensity, backing it up with his many reasons, regrets and concerns as in the passage I am scared Likewise, the father is equally a pot bubbling over with emotional angst and frustration so vividly expressed in his response I know I m sorry.
We might as well burn all our copies of Grapes of Wrath now that we have this tour de force As amazing as it is, with only an eggshell of plot, McCarthy manages to run afoul of logic The boy and his father come across shelters packed with food and water, and yet the father insists they move on Why Because they must keep moving so as to avoid encountering others Clearly staying in one place is the best plan to avoid meeting others, hermit do it all the time Yes, other people might wander into you, but you double that equation if you too are roaming The only argument for pressing on with the journey is to find others I am certain I am being too kind here, but given that this is a Pulitzer Prize winning, Oprah Pick, National Bestseller, I don t want to ruffle too many feathers Of course, Duchamp s toilet Fountain was once voted the most influential modern artwork of all time.
The Road is unsteady and repetitive now aping Melville, now Hemingway but it is less a seamless blend than a reanimated corpse sewn together from dead parts into a lumbering, incongruous whole, then jolted to ignoble half life by McCarthy s grand reputation with Hollywood Filmmakers and incestuous award committees.
In 96, NYU Professor Alan Sokal submitted a paper for publication to several scientific journals He made it so complex and full of jargon the average person wouldn t be able to make heads or tails of it He wrote a conclusion that would deliberately flatter the preconceptions of the journals he submitted it to As he predicted, it was accepted and published, despite the fact that it was all complete nonsense.
The Sokal Affair showed the utter incompetence of these trusted judges They were unable to recognize good or bad arguments and were mostly motivated by politics The accolades showered upon works like The Road have convinced me that the judges of literature are just as incompetent and I m not the only one who thinks so Unlike Sokol, McCarthy didn t do it purposefully, he just writes in an ostentatiously empty style which is safe and convenient to praise.
Many have lauded his straightforward prose, and though I am not the most devoted fan of Hemingway, I can admire the precision and economy of a deliberate, economical use of words Yet that was not what I got from The RoadHe took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy came and took it and stood drinking He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in The Road and crossed his legs and drank again Then he handed the bottle back and the man drank and screwed the cap back on and rummaged through the pack The ate a can of white beans, passing it between them, and he threw the empty tin into the woods.
Then they set out down The Road againSimple Yes Precise and purposeful Hrdlt The Road is as elegant as a laundry list if not as well punctuated Compiling a long and redundant series of unnecessary descriptions is not straightforward, but needlessly complicated.
We re supposed to find this simplicity profound that old postmodern game of defamiliarization, making the old seem new, showing the importance of everyday events but McCarthy isn t actually changing the context, he s just restating There is no personality in it, no relationship to the plot, no revealing of the characters Perhaps it is meant to show their weariness they cannot even muster enough energy to participate in their own lives, but is the best way to demonstrate boredom to write paragraphs that bore the reader A good writer can make the mundane seem remarkable, but The Road is too bare to be beautiful, and too pointless to be poignant.
Once we have been lulled by long redundancy, McCarthy abruptly switches gears, moving from the plainness of Hemingway to the florid, overwrought figurative language of MelvilleThe man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolvesThere is no attempt to bridge the two styles, they are forced to cohabitate, without rhyme or reason to unite them In another sentence he describesdead ivy , dead grassanddead treeswith unerring monotony, and then as if adding a punchline, declares themshrouded in a carbon fogwhich sounds like the world s blandest cyberpunk anthology.
Another exampleIt s snowing, the boy said A single gray flake sifting down He caught it in his hand and watched it expire like the last host of christendomMcCarthy seems to be trying to reproduce the morbid religious symbolism of Melville when he plays the tattered prophet in Moby Dick But while Melville s theology is terribly sublime and pervasive, McCarthy s is ostentatious and diminutive, like a carved molding in an otherwise unadorned room Nowhere does he produce the staggeringly surreal otherworldliness Melville achieves in a line likeThere stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within .
Often, McCarthy s gilded metaphors are piled, one atop the other, in what must be an attempt to develop an original voice, but which usually sounds like the contents of a Team Edward notebook, left behind after poetry classQuery How does the never to be differ from what never was Dark of the invisible moon The nights now only slightly less black By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.
People sitting on the sidewalk in the dawn half immolate and smoking in their clothes Like failed sectarian suicidesI love how he prefaces that like an Asimov robot Sardonic Observation I d almost believe he was one, since he has no understanding of beauty or human emotion Biting Quip However, he violates Asimov s first law, since his awkward prose harms human ears.
Sometimes, smack in the middle of a detailed description of scraping paint with a screwdriver, we suddenly get a complex jargon term which few readers would understand These terms are neither part of the world, nor are they aspects of specialized character knowledge, so I cannot assign them any meaning in the text.
One of the basic lessons for any beginning writer is don t just add big words because you can , it s self indulgent and doesn t really help the story It would be one thing if it were a part of some stylistic structure instead of bits of out of place jargon that conflict with the overall style of the book textual flotsam for us to wade through.
The longer I read, the mirthlessly dire it became, and the less I found I could take it seriously Every little cluster of sentences left on its own as a standalone chapter, every little two word incomplete sentence trying to demand importance because it actually had punctuation a rare commodity , every undifferentiated monosyllabic piece of non dialogue like a hobo talking to himself it all made the book overblown and nonsensical.
It just stared me down, like a huge drunk guy in a bar daring me to laugh at his misspelled tattoo And I did I don t know if my coworkers or the people on the bus knew what The Road was about it was years before the movie , but they had to assume it was one hilarious road, with a busfull of nuns hiding a convict in disguise on the run from a bumbling southern sheriff and his deputy a donkey is involved.
Without mentioning specifics, I will say the notorious ending of the book is completely tacked on, in no way fits with or concludes any of the emotional build of the book, but instead wraps up, neat and tight It certainly bears out McCarthy s admission on Oprah that he had no idea where it was going when he wrote it We can tell, Cormac.
As you may have noticed from the quotes, another notorious issue is the way the book is punctuated, which is to say, it isn t The most complex mark is the a rare comma It s not like McCarthy is only using simple, straightforward sentences, either he fills up on conjoined clauses and partial sentence fragments, he just doesn t bother to mark any of them.
He also doesn t use any quotes in the books, and rarely attributes statements to characters, so we must first try to figure out if someone is talking, or if it s just another snatch of poetic license , and then determine who is talking Sure, Melville did away with quotes in one chapter in Moby Dick, but he did it in stylistic reference to Shakespeare, and he also seemed to be aware that it was a silly affectation best suited to a ridiculous scene.
It s not only the structure, grammar, figurative language, and basic descriptions which are so absurdly lacking the characters are likewise flat, dull, and repetitive Almost every conversation between the father and son is the same Father Do it now.
Son I m scared.
Father Just do it.
Son Are we going to die Father No.
Son Are you sure Father Yes.
Remember, you won t get little tags so you know who s speaking, it ll all just be strung out in a line without differentiation Then they wander around for a bit or run from crazy people, and we finally get the cap to the conversation Son Why did terrible thing just happen Father Stares off in silence Son Why did terrible thing just happen Father More silenceAnd that s it, the whole relationship it never changes or grows Nor does it seem to make much sense The characters are always together, each the other s sole companion father and son, and yet they are constantly distant and at odds, like a suburban parent and child who rarely see each other and have little in common McCarthy never demonstrates how such a disconnect arose between two people who are constantly intimate and reliant on one another.
But then, McCarthy confided to Oprah that the is book about his relationship with his own son, so it makes sense why the emotional content is completely at odds with the setting Perhaps he just sat down one say and thoughtI m an award winning author and screenwriter who has a somewhat distant relationship with my son You know what that s like That s like the unendurable physical suffering of people in the third world who are trying to find food and escape crazed, murderous mobsSo then he wrote a book equating the two, which is about the most callous, egotistical act of privileged self pity a writer can indulge in.
At least now I know why the characters and their reactions don t make much sense The boy is constantly terrified, and his chief role involves pointing at things and screaming, punctuating every conflict in the book, like a bad horror film Cannibals and dead infants are an okay if cliche place to start when it comes to unsettling the reader, but just having the characters react histrionically does not build tension, especially when the characters are too flat to be sympathetic in the first place Another Creative Writing 101 lesson if you have to resort to over the top character reactions to let the audience know how they are supposed to feel, then your emotional moment isn t working It s the literary equivalent of a laugh track.
You know what s unsettling than a child screaming when he finds a dead infant A child not screaming when he finds a dead infant And really, that s the likely outcome The young boy has never known another world his world is death and horror Anyone who has seen a picture of a Rwandan boy with an AK can see how children adapt to what s around them And you know what would make a great book A father who remembers the old world trying to prevent his son from becoming a callous monster because of the new one.
But no, we get a child who inexplicably reacts as if he s used to the good life in suburbia and all this death and killing is completely new to him, even though we ve watched him go through it half a dozen times already The characters never grow numb to it, they never seem to suffer PTSD, their reactions are akin to angst.
Every time there is a problem, the characters just fold in on themselves and give up People really only do that when they have the luxury of sitting about and ruminating on what troubles them When there is a sudden danger before us, we might run, or freeze, but there s hardly time to feel sorry for ourselves.
There is no joy or hope in this book not even the fleeting, false kind Everything is constantly bleak Yet human beings in stressful, dangerous situations always find ways to carry on small victories, justifications, or even lies and delusions The closest this book gets is The Fire , which is the father s term for why they must carry on through all these difficulties But replace The Fire with The Plot and you ll see what effect is achieved it s not character psychology, but authorial convenience Apparently, McCarthy cannot even think of a plausible reason why human beings would want to survive.
There is nothing engaging about a world sterilized of all possibility People always create a way out, even when there is none What is tragic is not a lack of hope, but misplaced hope I could perhaps appreciate a completely empty world as a writing exercise, but as McCarthy is constantly trying to provoke emotional reactions, he cannot have been going for utter bleakness The Road is a canvas painted black, so it doesn t mater how many black strokes he layers on top they will not stand out because there is no contrast, there is no depth, no breaking or building of tension, just a constant addition of featureless details to a featureless whole Some people seem to think that an emotionally manipulative book that makes people cry is better than one that makes people horny but at least people don t get self righteous about what turns them on.
This is tragedy porn Suburban malaise is equated with the most remote and terrible examples of human pain So, dull housewives can read it and thinkyes, my ennui is just like a child who stumbles across a corpse , and perhaps she will cry, and feel justified in doing so Or a man might read it and thinkyes, my father was distant, and it makes me feel like I live alone in a hostile world I don t care to understandhe will not cry, but he will say that he did.
And so the privileged can read about how their pain is the same as the pain of those starving children they mute during commercial breaks In the perversity of modern, invisible colonialism where a slave does not wash your clothes, but builds the machine that washes them these self absorbed people who have never starved or had their lives imperiled can think of themselves as worldly, as one with humanity , as good, caring people.
They recycle They turn the water off when they brush their teeth They buy organic They even thought about joining the Peace Corps Their guilt is assuaged They are free to bask in their own radiant anguish.
And it all depresses me which makes me a shit, because I m no entitled to it than any other well fed, educated winner of the genetic lottery So when I read this book, I couldn t sympathize with that angst and think it justified, just like I couldn t with Holden s I know my little existential crisis isn t comparable to someone who has really lost control of their life, who might actually lose life.
But this kind of egotistical detachment has become typical of American thought, and of American authors, whose little, personal, insular explorations don t even pretend to look at the larger world Indeed, there is a self satisfied notion that trying to look at the world sullies the pure artist.
And that emotionally pure, isolated author is what we get from the Oprah interview Sure, she s asking asinine questions, but McCarthy shows no capacity to discuss either craft or ideas, refusing to take open ended questions and discuss writing, he instead laughs condescendingly and shrugs Then again, he may honestly not have much insight on the topic.
Looked at in this way, it s not surprising he won the Pulitzer Awards committees run on politics, and choosing McCarthy is a political decision an attempt to declare that insular, American arrogance is somehow still relevant But the world seems content to move ahead without America and its literature, which is why no one expects McCarthy or any American author to win a Nobel any time soon.
This book is a paean to the obliviousness of American self importance in our increasingly global, undifferentiated world One way or the other, it will stand as a testament to the last gasp of a dying philosophy either we will collapse under our own in fighting and short sightedness, or we will be forced to evolve into something new and competitive a bloated reputation will carry you only so far.
But then, the Pulitzer committee is renowned for picking unadventurous winners usually an unremarkable late entry by an author past their prime As William Gass put itthe prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hillTo any genre reader, this book will have a familiar and unpleasant taste, the same one LeGuin has often lamented that of the big name author slumming They pop into fantasy or sci fi with their lit fic credentials to show us little folk how it s really done but know nothing about the genre or its history, and just end up reinventing the wheel, producing a book that would have been tired and dated thirty years ago Luckily for such writers, none of their lit fic critics know anything about other genres any sort of bland rehash will feel fresh to them, as long as you have the name recognition to get them to look in the first place.
So, McCarthy gets two stars for a passable if cliche script for a sci fi adventure movie, minus one star for unconscionable denigration of human suffering I couldn t say if McCarthy s other books are any good I will probably try another, just to see if any part of his reputation is deserved, but this one certainly didn t help All I see is another author who got too big for his editors and, finding himself free to write whatever he wanted only proved that he no longer has anything worth sayingLook, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I or any writer can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development With descriptions that are merely lists Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other If what s always distinguished bad writing flat characters, a narrative world that s not recognizably human, etc is also a description of today s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is David Foster Wallace
This wasn t nearly as funny as everybody says it is.
I really feel compelled to write up a review of McCarthy s The Road as this book really worked for me for those of you who haven t read it, there are no real spoilers below, only random quotes and thematic commentary I read it last night in one sitting Hours of almost nonstop reading I found it to be an excellent book on so many levels that I am at a loss as to where to begin It was at once gripping, terrifying, utterly heart wrenching, and completely beautiful I have read most of McCarthy s other books and am already a big fan, but this one is different, perhaps his best in terms of lean, masterful prose, plot presentation, and flat out brilliant storytelling.
Take this passage for example The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable A blackness to hurt your ears with listening Often he had to get up No sound but the wind in the bare blackened trees He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings An old chronicle Happy times The word choice and imagery is classic McCarthy yet is leaner and honed, tighter and in turn intense The whole book follows this pattern No word, not a single one, is extraneous This is perhaps my favorite single sentence in the book By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp I just love that.
Clearly this book struck a chord with me due to the two protagonists and their predicament, a father and his young son struggling in a post apocalyptic world To say I could identify with their interactions would be a huge understatement McCarthy absolutely nails their dialog, making me marvel at how well he has mastered presenting on a page the way we communicate it isn t exactly how we talk, of course, it just seems that way Through some sort of magic, he writes dialog that comes across realistically than actual dialog Witchcraft for sure The young son was especially well done and was most certainly the most complicated character in the book McCarthy presents him as a sort of supernatural being Christ figure , of only the best sort, full of goodness, a thing not of the world in which he finds himself He is effortlessly drawn down the path of the righteous throughout the book, as if he is God s right hand man The reward appears, at least superficially, to be key moments of luck.
It almost wouldn t work from a literary standpoint if it didn t serve so well as a vehicle to reinforce the central theme of the book the undeniable power of love over all else The theme of love, mostly presented through the bond of the father and son, is so well done as to evoke strong emotions, even now, as I consider how to present its keen development throughout the novel To be so desperate, in every way and at all times, and yet to survive and at times thrive, to persevere through terrible events of unbelievable horror think Steven King s The Stand on steroids would strike feelings of great, sad compassion in even the most tempered soul But it is much than that of course Consider this passage, a speaking passage from father to son, spoken during one of the most tense and horrifying scenes in the book You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like Now you know It may happen again My job is to take care of you I was appointed to do that by God I will kill anyone who touches you Do you understand In this one passage, McCarthy shows the great contradiction in this theme of love, the idea that violence and beauty can spring fourth from the same well, can come from the same fountainhead Interestingly, the father often resorts to violence in his role as a servant of love he sees it as his duty, in a religious sense, as stated in the quote Yet the boy never does and appears better for it, in so many ways, even in that terrible place He is the embodiment of pure goodness, and sets up the other, better side of love, the side that is unsullied by the world, that never resorts to baseness and violence, that finds beauty in even to most unlikely of places Like seeing a picture better when you hold it up to the light, the contrasts between these two sides is masterfully provided, page after page, in only the most well written and considered prose.
The often repeated promethean phrase carrying the fire, agreed upon by the two protagonists as pretty much the whole point of their continuing, embodies this central theme The boy is carrying the fire for us all, and is perhaps the most important survivor in that shattered world, bearing the torch of love for humanity to share when it is again ready Not to belabor the point, but the way McCarthy handles this, all the way until the end, is nothing short of genius Can you tell I liked the book yet I am amazed that I missed this book for so long, me being a huge McCarthy fan and placing him squarely at the top of the big four with DeLillo, Roth, and Pynchon The book is so it s own that as soon as I felt myself feeling an influence for example, I swore I smelled Hemmingway s Old Man and the Sea in terms of prose theme, and the terrifyingly cruel parts at times rang so much like Kosinski s The Painted Bird , McCarthy would insert the perfect McCarthyism, solidly planting the flag so to speak of a phrase or sentence into the passage to claim it forever for himself, like a prosaic explorer figuratively pushing out into the unknown through deft assemblages of words and phases impossible to all but him ok, that metaphor was way too much.
time to wrap it up Of course I have to say but am beginning to risk actually have already thoroughly risked repeating myself and sounding like some deranged, McCarthy stalker type Check this one out It is superior literature.