Summer readings: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Summer may seem an odd time to read McCarthy's devastating apocalypse novel, but it certainly brings holiday joys into focus
Saturday 13 August 2011 00.04 BST
Outside was awash with the ever-present sun, the blues and whites of the Greek islands, while I honeymooned with my pregnant wife. Inside my head, Cormac McCarthy was conjuring a father and son crossing a perpetually monochrome North American wasteland filled with ash, hunger and marauding cannibals.
Without knowing why, I've always been a sucker for apocalyptic art, most recently falling for the cheesy, tin-eared yet entertaining novel Robopocalypse by Daniel H Wilson and TV series The Walking Dead featuring Andrew "Egg" Lincoln. Whether doomsday is induced by zombies, triffids, or robots is unimportant. The fun is in the survivors' relationships, and the tension derived from whether people will discover new personal heights or become their own worst enemies. Here McCarthy's The Road shines, from moral dilemmas around helping others to the challenge of keeping hope alive in the face of despair. It also enticingly refuses to stoop to simple explanations, keeping the precise cause of the apocalypse – an extreme weather event? Nuclear war? Global warming? – a mystery.
|Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the 2009 film version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road|
Aside from a gripping, plot-driven story, the book is memorable for McCarthy's spare yet beautiful writing style, as if he'd taken a George Orwell essay on the economy of language as a guiding principle: "He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke."
Even the dialogue is practically monosyllabic, stripped down to remove punctuation.
Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?If you died I would want to die too.So you could be with me?Yes. So I could be with you.Okay.
Such economy also helps make it a short, sunlounger- or cafe-friendly read.
One of The Road's other big strengths – the emotional punch of the father-son relationship – didn't hit me until after I became a father eight months later. The protagonist's animal-like need to protect his son, and find meaning through him in the face of an acute awareness of his own mortality, took on a new colour.
Summer may seem an odd time to read The Road, but actually it's probably the best time of year. After you lift your head from the devastation and gloom, you can return to appreciate the sun and colour of life anew.