I read Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road just as soon as it came out, which is now more than a month ago. But I’ve hesitated to write about it, because I felt that I didn’t have anything to say. It seems to me that the book actively repels commentary; it is so utterly self-contained, so hermetically sealed unto itself, that anything anybody does say about it is at once both superfluous and wrong.
I mean this both with regard to the novel’s content, and with regard to its form, or its prose. It’s a harsh and powerful book, depicting a post-apocalyptic landscape so severe, so totally ravaged, and so enclosed, that it offers no escape. It’s a world in which there are no resources left. The utter lucidity and precision with which McCarthy describes the characters’ careful scavenging of whatever pitiful remnants of food, clothing, shelter, tools, etc., that they can find leads to a sort of exhaustion. I love sentences like this one, referring to the main character, the father, who, together with his son is endlessly on the road: “Mostly, he worried about their shoes.” This, finite and limited material, material always in short supply, in deficit with regard to human needs, is all there is. Once it is gone, there will not be any more, since civilization of any sort, or economic production of any kind, has long ceased to function. The rest is just lifeless ruin, or else cruelty and cannibalistic horror.
The prose is polished to a point of minimalist perfection; blinding in its clarity and yet (or, I should say, and therefore) almost devoid of metaphorical or metaphysical resonance. There’s no splendor here; echoes are muffled, even as the sky is a perpetual gray. The few hints of metaphysics that manage to penetrate the murk entirely confirm my old friend Leo Daugherty’s assertion (in an article available here) that McCarthy’s vision is basically a gnostic one. The semi-miraculous ending to the book is itself only intelligible in such terms; salvation is not of this world, but is radically other, and is a matter of “carrying the fire” (the phrase that comes up again and again in The Road) in a world that is utterly hostile to it, and that continually threatens to blow it out.
I suppose that this extreme closure, this more-than-granite hardness and power, is one definition of the sublime. But for me, it is something that ultimately limits the novel. I read the book with avidity and intense attention; but once I finished, it almost entirely slipped from my mind. I do not brood over it, the way I have brooded for years over Blood Meridian. That was a book of almost infinite resonance and depth, one that will not leave me alone and that I am impelled to reread every couple of years. Blood Meridian is filled with horror, and that horror reveals something powerful and true about America, and the way that its claims to both exceptionalism and universality are drenched and rooted in blood. Blood Meridian offers no release from negativity, no sense of an ending no matter how total the destruction. In contrast, I do not think that I will every read The Road again. It doesn’t have the same affective power, the same ability to insinuate itself into my dreams. Instead, it feels like a dead end; even the horror is finally dampened down into entropy.