By Cormac McCarthy
(Alfred A. Knopf, 241 pp., $24)
IN ADDITION to the 9/11 novel, and the 9/11 novel that is pretending not to be a 9/11 novel, an old genre has been re-awakened by new fears: the post-apocalyptic novel (which may well be, in fact, the 9/11 novel pretending not to be one). The possibility that familiar, habitual existence might be so disrupted within the next hundred years that crops will fail, warm places will turn into deserts, and species will become extinct—that areas of the earth may become uninhabitable—holds and horrifies the contemporary imagination. This fear may not be as present, acute, or knife-edged as the fear of nuclear annihilation that produced novels such as A Canticle for Leibowitz and On the Beach and movies such as Fail Safe and The Day After, but it is more fatalistic and in its way more horrible, precisely because the catastrophe that climate change imagines may be inevitable and incorrigible. And the temporal reprieve, the deferral of the worst to later generations, may not be any consolation at all. It may actually increase the fear: are you more agonizingly afraid of something that will happen to yourself or of something that will happen to your children?
This—the increasingly well-founded horror that precedes all the “greening" that is around us now—may in part explain the recent cluster of new movies and novels that are set in a future world catastrophically changed or almost post-human: Children of Men, and the global warming horror movie The Day After Tomorrow, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about cloning, Never Let Me Go, and Jim Crace’s new novel The Pesthouse, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In a recent book called The Revenge of Gaia, the scientist James Lovelock presents this hideous picture of the warmed world, sometime in the middle of this century:
Meanwhile in the hot arid world survivors gather for the journey to the new Arctic centers of civilization; I see them, in the desert as the dawn breaks and the sun throws its piercing gaze across the horizon at the camp. The cool fresh night air lingers for a while and then, like smoke, dissipates as the heat takes charge. Their camel wakes, blinks and slowly rises on her haunches. The few remaining members of the tribe mount. She belches, and sets off on the long unbearably hot journey to the next oasis.
Note the word “survivors": post-apocalyptic minimalism is assumed. Lovelock would be a better writer if he were a bit more minimalist in style. Minimalism can be very good, certainly, for the life of fiction: description, thrown back onto its essentials, flourishes as it justifies its own existence. Words are returned to their original function as names. The J. M. Coetzee who admires the way that Daniel Defoe has the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe notice “two shoes, not fellows" on the island shore, as proofs of other deaths, is the same novelist who, in The Life & Times of Michael K., thrillingly described, from the ground up as it were, Michael K.’s desperate, starving, solitary roaming through the dry wastes of rural South Africa. How will Michael K. find his next meal? Where will he sleep? Prison fiction works in the same way. One day of Ivan Denisovich’s life will suffice for the telling, not just because Ivan’s every day is the same, but because the fiction has slowed down to notice the smallest details, just as time has slowed down for Ivan. Inside prison, the scale of everything has changed: a decent piece of bread would be an unimaginable luxury for Ivan, and worth the lengthiest savoring.
In some ways, and despite Cormac McCarthy’s reputation as an ornate stylist, The Road represents both the logical terminus, and a kind of ultimate triumph, of the American minimalism that became well-known in the 1980s under the banner of “dirty realism.” This was a prose of short declarative sentences, in which verbs docked quickly at their objects, adjectives and adverbs were turned away, parentheses and sub-clauses were shunned. An anti-sentimentality, learned mainly from Hemingway, was so pronounced as to constitute a kind of male sentimentality of reticence. Basic, often domestic activities were honored in sentences of almost painfully repetitive simplicity. A generic parody might sound like this: “He took the glass from the cupboard and set it on the table. He poured the bourbon into it, but did not drink it. Instead, he went to the door and listened. Nothing except far away a squeal of tires, over on Route 9 probably. He walked back heavily to the table. Through the wall he could hear the couple arguing again.”
This style, which quickly reaches the limits of its expressivity, produced one indisputably significant writer, Raymond Carver, and a thousand thin cousins. Two years ago, it was born again in Cormac McCarthy’s cynical, very bloody, very stripped-down thriller No Country for Old Men, which abounded in lucid, hard little paragraphs devoted to male activity—a man painstakingly dressing a wound or slowly cleaning his gun or chasing another man down a street. That book was slick and merely cinematic, but in The Road the same kind of minimalism comes alive. Dirty realism was sometimes unwittingly excruciating because one felt that the chosen fictional worlds—even impoverished ones, all those motels and trailers—deserved richer prose. But in The Road this dumbly questing, glacially heuristic approach matches its subject, a world in which nothing is left standing.
Roughly ten years before the opening of the action of the novel, some kind of climacteric occurred: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” A kind of nuclear winter now grips an America—and presumably a world—that is largely unpeopled. Animals have disappeared, there are no birds, no cities—just burned-out buildings—no cars, no power, nothing. Corpses are everywhere. Black ash covers everything, and the weather is always gray: “By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.” A father and a son, who remain unnamed, are making their way southward, in America, toward the sea, in the hope that they might find human community or just some activity on the coast. We learn that the son was born ten years ago, and that the boy’s mother committed suicide rather than wander the world as a survivor. So the boy has never known anything else. The father has his memories of ordinary life before the catastrophe, but these are horridly incommunicable, and McCarthy beautifully catches the alienation between the two generations: “He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.”
Short phrasal sentences, often just fragments, savagely paint the elements of this voided world. Food and survival are the only concerns. With no animals alive, the best chance is to come upon some old cache of canned food in an abandoned house or farm: “Mostly he worried about their shoes. That and food. Always food. In an old batboard smokehouse they found a ham gambreled up in a high corner. It looked like something fetched from a tomb, so dried and drawn. He cut into it with his knife.” McCarthy is not without a sense of the comic, and he knows how to keep his punch lines dry until the last moment. The pair rake through an old supermarket, for instance, and eventually come upon an unopened can of Coke. The boy does not know what this is; his father promises him it will be a treat:
On the outskirts of the city they came to a supermarket. A few old cars in the trash-strewn parking lot. They left the cart in the lot and walked the littered aisles. In the produce section in the bottom of the bins they found a few ancient runner beans and what looked to have once been apricots, long dried to wrinkled effigies of themselves. The boy followed behind. They pushed out through the rear door. In the alleyway behind the store a few shopping carts, all badly rusted. They went back through the store again looking for another cart but there were none. By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar. Coins everywhere in the ash. He sat and ran his hand around in the works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed over a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola.
What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat. For you.
What is it?
The Road is a much more compelling and demanding book than its predecessor, which had the marks of a book designed to be read quickly. The new novel will not let the reader go, and will horribly invade his dreams, too. The apocalyptic-fiction genre is not a very distinguished one. It relies on formulaic scenery (those piles of burning tires always seen in films, those gangs of feral children), and generally on a rather lazy or incoherent political futurism. (If Britain, in Children of Men, twenty years hence, is ruled by a totalitarian dictator who can round up immigrants and put them in cages, why can’t this same all-powerful ruler clean up the garbage?) It is an interesting question as to why McCarthy succeeds so well. The secret, I think, is that McCarthy takes nothing for granted.
It is the common weakness of novels such as Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor, P.D. James’s Children of Men, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or even Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Orwell’s 1984, that they are all to some extent science-fiction allegories in which the author extrapolates from the present, using hypothetical developments in the future to comment on crises that he or she sees as already imminent in his or her own time. Thus, in the post-nuclear age of A Canticle for Leibowitz, secularism will triumph and religions will die; in Lessing’s and Burgess’s worlds, juvenile violence and waywardness have spun out of control (these two novels were written in 1961 and 1974, in the two decades of “The Sixties"); in James’s Britain of twenty years hence, males have become infertile and immigrants are rounded up by a totalitarian government and put in cages. There is nothing wrong with any of this, except that some essential illusionistic pressure is taken off the novelist, who can then merely describe the life that we know but with a twist, the old world that most of us recognize but that is suddenly more horrid to live in.
McCarthy’s vision is nothing like this. The Road is not a science fiction, not an allegory, and not a critique of the way we live now, or of the-way-we-might-live-if-we-keep-on-living-the-way-we-live-now. It poses a simpler question, more taxing for the imagination and far closer to the primary business of fiction-making: what would this world without people look like, feel like? From this, everything else flows. What would be the depth of one’s loneliness? What kind of tattered theology would remain? What would hour-to-hour, day-to-day experience be like? How would one eat, or find shoes? These questions McCarthy answers magnificently, with the exception of the theological issue (about which more in a moment).
McCarthy’s devotion to detail, his Conradian fondness for calmly described horrors, his tolling fatal sentences, make the reader shiver with fear and recognition. The Coke can is a good example: McCarthy is not afraid to stint the banal, and we are always aware of the contemporary American civilization that has been overthrown by events; it pokes up out of the landscape like fingerposts. There is a barn in a field “with an advertisement in faded ten-foot letters across the roofslope. See Rock City.” (So we are in Tennessee, the scene of many of McCarthy’s novels.) There are old supermarkets, and abandoned cars, and guns, and a truck the father and son sleep a night in, and even a dead locomotive in a forest. The narrative is about last-ditch practicality, and is itself intensely practical. In one of the houses they enter, the father goes upstairs, looking for anything useful. A mummified corpse is lying in a bed, a blanket pulled up to its chin. Without sensitivity, the man rips the blanket from the bed and thieves it. Blankets matter. There is even a light meter, and the way McCarthy deals with this gives an idea of his patience with things. The man is reflecting on how monotonous the diurnal thin gray light has become:
He’d once found a lightmeter in a camera store that he thought he might use to average out readings for a few months and he carried it around with him for a long time thinking he might find some batteries for it but he never did.
Again there is the slightly droll humor—the non-existent batteries kept for the punch line. This sort of ordinariness anchors the book. Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, by contrast, is finely written but afraid of proper banality. Mysteriously, in Crace’s vision of life after catastrophe—his book is also set in America and also involves a couple trying to get to the coast—we have returned to the middle ages, as if all plastic and technological proof of our former existence had been utterly extinguished. McCarthy’s single can of Coke, hallowed like a fossil, seems much more plausible than Crace’s “biblical" voiding of memory and evidence. Reviewers endlessly speak of McCarthy’s biblical style, but in fact this novel is sagely humdrum.
McCarthy’s prose combines three registers, two of which are powerful enough to carry his horrors. He has his painstaking minimalism, which works splendidly here. Again and again he alerts us, in this simpler mode, to elements of hypothetical existence we had not thought about: how angry we might be, for instance, at the world before our catastrophe. The man comes across some old newspapers and reads them: “The curious news. The quaint concerns.” He remembers standing in the charred ruins of a library, where books lay in pools of water: “Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row.” In this mode the novel succeeds very well at conjuring into life the essential paradox of post-apocalyptic struggle, which is that survival is the only thing that matters, but why bother surviving?
The second register is the one familiar to readers of Blood Meridian or Suttree, and again seems somewhat Conradian. Hard detail and a fine eye is combined with exquisite, gnarled, slightly antique (and even slightly clumsy or heavy) lyricism. It ought not to work, and sometimes it does not. But many of its effects are beautiful—and not only beautiful, but powerfully efficient as poetry. The shape of a city seen from far away, standing “in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste.” The father and son stand inside a once-grand house, “the peeling paint hanging in long dry sleavings down the columns and from the bucked soffits.” The little boy has “candle-colored skin,” which perfectly evokes his gray, undernourished whiteness, in a gray light that is itself undernourished and entirely reliant on candle power. The black ash that blows everywhere resembles a “soft black talc,” which “blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor.”
When McCarthy is writing at his best, he does indeed belong in the company of the American masters. In his best pages one can hear Melville and Lawrence, Conrad and Hardy. His novels are full of marvelous depictions of birds in flight, and The Road has a gorgeous paragraph like something out of Hopkins:
In that long ago somewhere very near this place he’d watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose and blowsy plumage in the still autumn air.
One of the most moving passages in the book concerns the eventual arrival of father and son at the sea. It is a great disappointment: their discovery reverses the ancient classical cry of “Thalassa, Thalassa!" There is no one and nothing there, except a huge gray watery waste, and of course the loneliness of the couple is vilely exaggerated by the endless gray water—what McCarthy calls “the endless seacrawl.” The sea is covered in ash.
Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy.
Yet McCarthy’s third register is more problematic. He is also an American ham. When critics laud him for being biblical, they are hearing sounds that are more often than not merely antiquarian, a kind of vatic histrionic groping, in which the prose plumes itself up and flourishes an ostentatiously obsolete lexicon. (Blood fustian, this style might be called.) The father and son are here described as “slumped and cowled and shivering in their rags like mendicant friars,” that word “mendicant" being one of McCarthy’s regular favorites. He is almost always prompted to write like this by metaphor or simile, which he often renders as hypothesis or analogy, using the formulation “like some": so the man, his face streaked with black from the rain, looks “like some old world thespian.” (An especially flagrant example here, since the son is looking at his father at this moment, and the fancy language stubbornly violates a child’s point of view.) In the following sentence, the word “autistic,” while comprehensible, seems simply incorrect and somehow a little adolescent, and shakes one’s confidence in the writer: “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.” It begins to snow at one point, and “he caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of christendom.”
Still, as in Hardy and Conrad, who were both sometimes terrible writers, there is a kind of sincerity, an earnestness, in McCarthy’s vaudevillian mode that softens the clumsiness, and turns the prose into a kind of awkward secret message from the writer. Conrad, after all, was capable of this description of money, in The Secret Agent: it “symbolized the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil"; and in the same novel, a cheap Italian restaurant in London is said to have “the atmosphere of fraudulent cookery mocking an abject mankind in the most pressing of its miserable necessities.” Moreover, McCarthy’s writing tightens up as the novel progresses; it is notable that the theatrical antiquarianism belongs largely to the first fifty or so pages, as the writer pushes his barque out into new waters.
All McCarthy’s remarkable effects notwithstanding, there remains the matter of his meaning. There is another vaudevillian strain in The Road, a troubling one, in the way the novelist manipulates his theological material. McCarthy’s work has always been interested in theodicy, and somewhat shallowly. Here the comparisons to Melville and Hardy are rather inexact. McCarthy likes to stage bloody fights between good and evil, and his commentary tends toward the easily fatalistic. There is nothing easy about the machinery of this book—the mise-en-scene, the often breathtaking writing, the terrifying concentration of the evocation—but there is something perhaps a little showy, a little glib, about the way that questions of belief are raised and dropped.
Such questions could not have been avoided. A post-apocalyptic vision cannot but provoke the dilemmas of theodicy, of the justice of fate; and a lament for the deus absconditus is both implicit in McCarthy’s imagery—the fine simile of the sun that circles the earth “like a grieving mother with a lamp”—and explicit in his dialogue. Early in the book, the father looks at his son and thinks: “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” There are thieves and murderers and even cannibals on the loose, and the father and son encounter these fearsome envoys of evil every so often. The son needs to think of himself as “one of the good guys,” and his father assures him that this is the side they are indeed on.
About halfway through The Road, the couple run into a pitiful old man in rags named Ely. The father asks Ely, in another of McCarthy’s examples of drollery, how one would know if one were the last man on earth. “I don’t guess you would know it. You’d just be it,” replies Ely. “I guess God would know it,” says the father, which suggests that some measure of faith has survived the end. Ely flatly asserts that “there is no God,” and continues: “There is no God and we are his prophets.” A little later in the conversation, the father again suggests that he sees his son as divine: “What if I said that he’s a god?” Ely replies: “I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true.” Ely suggests that it will be better when everybody has died. “Better for who?” asks the father. For everybody, says Ely, closing the scene with a rather lovely peroration, of the kind that gives this book its clear, deep sound: “When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He’ll say: where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?”
But the idea that the boy may be the last god—an eschatological plot that is a kind of more philosophical version of The Terminator—lingers in the book, and is caught up again at its conclusion. It is surely this ending that has prompted newspaper critics to draw attention to “something vital and enduring about the boy’s spirit,” and to talk of McCarthy’s “tale of survival and the miracle of goodness.” I wonder what redemptive gloss, what uplifting lesson Oprah Winfrey, who has selected the novel for her remorselessly edifying book club, sees in the novel’s final pages. The father, who has been ailing, dies, and the son realizes this in the morning. McCarthy’s prose is movingly chaste; the reticent power of his minimalism is exactly what is needed:
He slept close to his father that night and held him but when he woke in the morning his father was cold and stiff. He sat there a long time weeping and then he got up and walked out through the woods to the road. When he came back he knelt beside his father and held his cold hand and said his name over and over again.
So the boy is alone, but not for long. He meets a man on the road. “Are you one of the good guys?” he warily asks him. Yes, says the man. “You don’t eat people,” says the boy. “No. We don’t eat people.” So he joins the man’s group, and in the novel’s penultimate paragraph, a woman is seen embracing the boy and saying, “Oh … I am so glad to see you.” It is the only moment in the book in which anyone other than the boy’s father has embraced him.
She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.
There are several ways to read this passage. The woman seems to affirm that God, or some kind of God, still exists, and is not annihilated by the end of His creation. In this reading, the boy is indeed a kind of last God, who is “carrying the fire” of belief. (The father and son used to speak of themselves, in a kind of familial shorthand, as people who were carrying the fire: it seems to be a version of being “the good guys.”) Since the breath of God passes from man to man, and God cannot die, this boy represents what will survive of humanity, and also points to how life will be rebuilt. The more pessimistic account is that the woman is just saying something to soothe the bereaved boy, and that he is both the last boy and the last God, and neither can survive in this charred world. The novel’s penultimate sentence—"Not to be made right again”—is suggestive of such a reading.
There is no obligation for The Road to answer an unanswerable dilemma like theodicy. It is a novel, not a treatise. But the placement of what looks like a paragraph of religious consolation at the end of such a novel is striking, and it throws the novel off balance, precisely because theology has not seemed exactly central to the book’s inquiry. One has a persistent, uneasy sense that theodicy and the absent God have been merely exploited by the book, engaged with too lightly, without enough pressure of interrogation. When Ely says that “there is no God and we are his prophets,” the phrase seems a little trite in its neat paradox of negation.
In this respect, to compare McCarthy to Beckett, as some reviewers have done, is to flatter McCarthy. His reticence and his minimalism work superbly at evocation, but they exhaust themselves when philosophy presses down. The style that is so good at the glancing, the lyrical, the half-expressed struggles to deal adequately with the metaphysical questions that apocalypse raises. Beyond tiny hints, we have no idea what the father and son believe about God’s survival, so there is no dramatized rendition, no aesthetically responsible account, of such a question.
The theological question stirred by apocalypse is, how will all this end? What will result? “Please don’t tell me how the story ends,” the father silently implores early in the book. It is plain from the passage that it is not the truth about the world that he fears—he wishes to be denied only the knowledge that it may end with him killing his son. He is haunted by this apprehension, and he cannot do it: that is why he dies and tells his son to go on without him. That the question of endings is transferred onto this personal dilemma is precisely what makes the novel, and especially its conclusion, so painfully affecting. Yet the end of the world is more than a personal matter; and what this magnificent novel gains in human interest it loses by being personal at the moment when it should be theological. In this way it evades the demands, the obligations, of its subject. The question of endings in an apocalypse must be philosophical as well as merely emotional, even in a novel. Will it be heaven or hell? Will it last forever, or be over in a flash?
James Wood is the literary critic for The New Yorker and author of How Fiction Works. This article appeared in the May 21, 2007 issue of the magazine.