Most of last week I was camping in the Lake District, and I managed to read a novel that I've been wanting to get around to for a long time.
I spend more time than might be healthy worrying about fuel and food shortages, resource conflict, and social collapse - thinking about all the things that need to keep happening to keep society going, and about how I'd cope if I found myself in the position of Robinson Crusoe, or the 'castaways' on Desert Island Discs. Should I be spending time learning how to grow my own food? Build drystone walls? Fashion spectacles for if my eyesight continues to deteriorate?! For this reason, and because I was so gripped by No Country for Old Men, I felt primed for The Road.
The novel follows a man (who remains unnamed throughout) and his son as they traverse an America in which society has collapsed, nothing grows, and the sun barely shines - effectively, a nuclear winter, although the specifics of whatever precipitated this ecological state are never gone into.
Language and imagery are the novel's main strengths. Alan Warner puts it well in his Guardian review when he suggests that
what propels The Road far beyond its progenitors are the diverted poetic heights of McCarthy's late-English prose; the simple declamation and plainsong of his rendered dialect, as perfect as early Hemingway; and the adamantine surety and utter aptness of every chiselled description.Around halfway through the novel, when we have become accustomed to the extreme precariousness of the lives of the man and boy, as they wheel a cart along asphalt, picking up what food they can and preciously guarding what they have, the man discovers a family's long-abandoned bunker, hidden under grass in their garden. It contains cans and cans of food: 'chile, corn, stew, soup, spaghetti sauce. The richness of a vanished world'. The moment of discovery is a truly affecting one by virtue of its context.
The 'vanished world' of the novel is precisely a world where there's enough to eat, and a world in which food can still be produced. The loss of art, architecture, science, knowledge... these things are not considered directly. This is a consequence of the restrictions the novel observes. It mainly limits itself to describing the two main characters and their actions, and does not create within these restrictions occasions for reflection upon the lost civilization in broader terms.
As well as no longer having any meaningful past, wiped out as it has been, the characters are also robbed of any future. The underground bunker full of food represents not just the richness of the past, but the ability within that past to have a future; to have the wherewithal to save, make plans and think beyond one's immediate needs, and the faith that it is worth one's while to do so.
This is stark and effective, but it does present structural challenges that I did not feel that the novel entirely overcame, or at least did not sufficiently compensate for. When your characters live in an eternal and precarious present, how does one develop a story? Can one create a narrative that feels other than episodic and arbitrary?
My other main reservation is partly to do with the book, and partly to do with its critical reception. I confess that I love the critical fawnings that are used as pull quotes on book covers and inside them. I always read them in order to whet my appetite for the main course that is the novel itself. I am promised various kinds of brilliance in various authoritative, taut phrases; by reading this book I will experience this promised brilliance; the time I spend reading will be fuller and better living than if I was doing the washing up or sitting on the sofa eating biscuits; and afterwards perhaps I will have some taut phrases of my own, or at least I'll be able to inhabit rather than just observe and assume the fittingness of the judgements of the quotes on the cover.
There are the usual cliches. Kirsty Wark is quoted describing The Road as 'shocking and harrowing but' - of course - 'ultimately redemptive'. Reading the quotes back after having read the novel, I found myself temporarily transformed into Bertolt Brecht, feeling contempt for 'the scum of the earth who want the cockles of their heart warming'. However, I was also slightly troubled by something more specific to this novel's reception. In describing it as 'a warning', I think there is a danger of a self-congratulatory display of concern and social consciousness which amounts to very little and serves no useful purpose.
The Road ends with a one-paragraph coda, after the business of the plot is concluded. (In its muscular simplicity and subject matter, it reminds me of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.) Here it is in its entirety:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.We should not reduce The Road to the message or warning that this paragraph contains. Nevertheless, this is a rhetorically privileged moment. It is the first time we break away completely from the man and boy, and the last thing in the novel. We are no longer being presented with narrative, but with poetic and pointed description standing alone.
It probably seems churlish and uncharitable to begrudge McCarthy a one-paragraph coda after a 300 page novel characterised above all by economy and restraint, especially a paragraph so beautifully written, the sentiment of which one surely could not disagree with. However, it seems to me to provide the invitation to the kinds of interpretations referred to above.
The Road is, throughout, all about effects and not causes. How did this nuclear winter come to pass? We do not know. McCarthy's tone throughout is elegiac, regretful and humane, and this tempers and makes more palatable but does not eliminate the fact that he is also fatalistic and despairing, perhaps even nihilistic? When faced with the terrifying spectacle of an unexplained and total destruction of society, ecology and food production and supply, I would not say I had been 'warned', because a warning suggests that if I fix my ways there's still time to make everything alright, and I do not think that is what the novel suggests - and it certainly does not suggest how one might go about doing the fixing. If McCarthy is a climate change thinker, he is a James Lovelock. Again, the lost world evoked by The Road is not a world of excess, despoilation or rapaciousness: it is primarily a world where people simply had enough to eat. The novel does not present us with any past figures or actions who contextualise its calamitous present and would therefore serve as objects of blame. And a bit of tinkering at the margins by the reading public will not save us.