The Road

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 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.

14 thoughts on “The Road”

  1. Whereas I have been haunted by it, incessantly. Maybe because it’s the future, not the past. And it is the future, one way or another.

    It’s also droll. “You cant ask for luxuries in times like these.” The luxury the speaker means is that of never having been born.

  2. I read the book as soon as it was released as well, and it’s remained in the back of my mind ever since, twisting and turning. I think it might be a masterpiece, but like you say, it’s so self-contained that it’s difficult to lay a finger on just what it amounts to beyond the surface of the page. As I suggested in my review, I think that it’s both appropriate and helpful to view it as a continuation of the themes that were rising to the surface of No Country For Old Men. Regardless, it deserves another reading, and soon.

  3. I only stummbled on your review after looking at coming back to finish my architecture degree but was sidetracked by what was an interesting read. Thanks for putting it up there.
    Its funny, having not read anything of his since all the pretty horses I read No country for old men and could not put it down for two days. For me the Road had the same lonely addictive atmosphere and although it has stayed with me I think it might have been a bit of a disapointment. When im reading his books though i really feel like im reading from the master and am always very hesitant at any critisism and am more likely to think it is a short coming of mine more than his books.

  4. You are right that the book has a kind of self sealing reaction to criticism.
    I made some brief comments about the novel here.

    On top of that it seems that all of McCarthy’s books invoke guilt when anyone tries to analyze them, I think, because of his resistance to interviews, comments and the like.

  5. Oh I do hope you come back to this book again and reconsider — maybe just on an intellectual, as opposed to affective, level. In particular, I hope you reconsider — with all do respect the friend you cite — your understanding of McCarthy’s supposed “gnosticism” — of course, not a term anyone ever claims for themselves! The book, in fact, has one of my favorite anti-gnostic lines, at least inasmuch as one can be anti-gnostic to a child and a general readership: “When your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you cant give up. I wont let you.”

  6. Ken-

    “When your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you cant give up. I wont let you.”

    Coming from a character that could be read as a gnostic dove, or Bodhisattva, having seen a better world and deciding to push on through this one, if only to keep hope alive- I don’t see that as anti-gnostic. You might be the affected reader here: Gnostics don’t advocate suicide. In fact, most if not all of the gnostic writers believed you freed your soul by pushing through this world, and “keeping the flame alive”- another line passed between father and son again and again.

    “The Road” may be Mccarthy’s most overtly gnostic work.

  7. Thanks Bill. I was not clear at all. My point was this: “gnostic” is almost always used pejoratively in critical theory speak to critique some writer/thinker for engaging in an overly ambitious systematic project, usually one that resists — however so gently — a strict materialist ontology (this seems to me somewhat at work in Steve’s critique — one I actually get pretty clearly on the affective side of things — I feel the same way about the book) and thus suggests a hint of “non-Being” or, worse, the “religious.” Strangely, even Marx was often charged with gnosticism at the same time he was charged with offering a secular religion to give some sense of how perversely the word can be used. In short, once you can label someone a “gnostic” you can summarily dismiss them (“Oh, that is just gnosticism), at least on certain intellectual matters. Of course, these days there are a myriad of people and organizations that put forth “gnosticism” as a good thing in a modern form –? My sense is that in calling The Road McCarthy’s “most overtly gnostic work” you aren’t offering a compliment. Please excuse me if I am wrong about this. But it is tough to tell as defining gnosticism even historically is terribly tricky, even with (especially since?) Nag Hammadi. Note: The defining feature of “gnosticism” you offer here about pushing through, etc. defines, well, just about everyone — with of course the exception of the suicidal. Indeed, my guess is McCarthy has some sense of this critical charge hanging over his work and had no doubt about his “surprise” ending would be received: “Aha! he copped out! Kept hope alive! How trite, etc., he should have been ‘real'” and on and on. There it is –gnosticism!” Given the actual circumstances of the character(s) at the end of the book — which are really no different from the circumstances of the characters throughout the book — and that the baseline for “salvation”, gnostic variety or not is pretty low (“you don’t eat children? okay”) this kind of criticism could provide a good darkly belligerent belly laugh for the author (if McCarthy has belly laughs).

  8. Actually, Ken, I wasn’t intending “gnostic” to be in the least bit a criticism, but only a description of position. For which I’d refer you to Daugherty’s article, where the question of McCarthy’s gnosticism was originally raised.

  9. I”m surprised the book has not had a lasting effect on you, Steven. I read it and was almost unable to think of it in any sort of intellectual terms at all. It truly evaded criticism, and reminded me of reading novels as a kid, before I had formed any critical skills. The simplicity and brutality of the story affected me in ways that are beyond criticism and reflection, and now the book represents a sort of black space in my consciousness and subconscious. It’s even stayed out on the coffee table, months after having been read. Even the book’s physical presence has taken on a totemic quality; having it in sight allows me to process it and think about it without simply shoving it into an intellectual category. On the shelf, it would become something else.

    I think a book about apocalypse would be a failure if it didn’t disappoint in some ways. A book that describes emptiness and void with endless images and intricate narrative would serve to undermine its (unfathomable) theme. Contrasting the plethora of imagery in Blood Meridian with the dearth of explanation and shadowy imagery of The Road is almost a needless excersize. I, too, have read Blood Meridian countless times, but the power of The Road is that it resists re-reading. It is almost too much to handle again. I’m sure I will return to it later in life, and it will doubtlessly cause another reshuffling of priorities and ideas. The Road is a singular event, much like an apocalypse. It’s emotional resonance is such that it could only be experienced, and to explain, analyze or critique it is pointless in so many ways.

    It’s strange that I read The Road, and then a month or so later see Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE right before I’m set to re-enter into the university in order to study theory. Both artists are studied intensively in academia, and yet they both release works that seem to defy intellectual analysis. Both works seem to me to rip open huge holes in the subconscious, and thoughts about their techniques and intentions fade away in the presence of the widening of consciousness they create. All the reviews and essays I’ve read about the two works seem to detract from their resonances as opposed to clarifying or intensifying them. This is the very reason I have always felt hesitant to enter fully into an academic career. The fact that academic analysis seems to fall short for me lately either means that I should focus on creating works of art, or focus on making analyses that stimulate me. A tough choice, and not a rare one, I feel. A few lucky ones have done both.

    Steven, I must say that I have enjoyed your blog tremendously. I have yet to read your books (I’m knee deep in things right now), but your blog is one of the few that continues to stimulate me, with or without heavy usage of theoretical language. It gives me courage for myself and admiration for academics when someone like yourself admits his critical limits so readily. Thanks for continuing to blow my mind.

    And when will you write about INLAND EMPIRE? I’m excited to hear your opinions….

  10. From my reading in Gnosticism and McCarthy I think the connections are loose at best. As Ken pointed about “pushing through” as a Gnostic trope, most of the connections between Gnosticism and McCarthy’s work are not unique to Gnosticism. And the major Gnostic symbols, a good list of them can be found in Hans Jonas’s “Gnostic Religion,” are not in McCarthy’s work, at least not in a way that is unique to Gnosticism. On the other hand, McCarthy’s works are filled with overtly Christian themes, images, and dialogs. I found a reading of his latest play, Sunset Limited, helped me understand all of his works a lot better. It’s not a great play, but it is very interesting and frank.

  11. I just finished this book and have been thinking about it a lot. So far it has been tough for me to define or critique it, and because of your post, I think I understand why. It is a masterpiece that is so true and real and haunting that it objectively repels critique. I am by no means a smart person. Still being in high school, but hopefully this work will keep me pondering for my whole life.

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