The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn’t answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass.

At the beginning of the novel we wake up with the main characters of the story, a man and his son. We are in America, post-apocalyptical time, and I get the feeling that this would be in a not too distant future. The father and son travel along the Road on their way to the coast, a desperate attempt to survive the oncoming winter. Society has collapsed, all animal and plant life has died off and a constant downfall of ash covers the world in a gray dust. The sun cares little and does not show it’s face to those few unfortunate remaining on the surface of the earth. Eternal fires, forest fires and fires un-defined, fill the atmosphere with smoke, blocking out the sunlight.

No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put in your head are there forever, he said.

The boy wants to know if you forget some things. No comfort is found in the father’s answer. You forget the things you want to remember, and remember the things you want to forget. The man guides his son through this landscape, with only a shopping cart filled with their belongings to ease their way. Their struggle for survival is desperate, painful and realistic, given that you are able imagine a scenario such as the one McCarthy draws up in his novel. The man and the boy gets by on canned food, but they are constantly starving. Other survivors have given in to more animalistic ways of survival, by resorting to cannibalism. Strangers are the biggest threat in the novel. Other survivors and starvation. Eat, or get eaten. Kill, or get killed. Most seem to live by those rules in the new world and the father and son encounter several man eaters along the way, commonly described as “the bad guys”. The description of the first bad guy we meet is haunting. “Eyes collared in cups of grime and deeply sunk. Like an animal inside a skull looking out the eyeholes.”

Man is an animal like others, a comparison that McCarthy comes back to at several points in the novel. The man and the boy hide like scared foxes in a forest clearing, beating hearts and racing pulses. McCarthy manages to do what great science fiction should do – he makes the reader feel like an insect. Reading The Road makes me understand how infinitely small we truly are. Solitary ants working our way through the grass, part of an eco system that is as fragile and unstable as it is changeable.

And then the poetry of the text. The poetic beauty amidst all the horror and despair. “Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.”

The outer journey tells how a man brings his son through the inland to the coast. The inner journey shows how a father comes to terms with the thought of leaving his child, the only thing anchoring him to earthly life, and how he fights to give the boy the best chance of survival possible. The man clings on to life with sheer force of will, in a body that is completely broken, with a soul sick with longing, wanting to loose itself in the forbidden memories of a world long gone. And while the novel tells how the father struggles to save his son, we also see how the boy tries to save his father. Especially one scene in the book stayed with me, when the man and the boy has argued over an incident on the road, and the father tells the boy that he is not the one who has to worry about everything. The boy is convinced that he is. In his view, he is the one who has to worry about everything.

The Road was a very powerful reading experience. Sometimes a book comes along where the story sticks with you, so even when you’re not reading it you’re thinking about it. I could not let go of this story. If I wasn’t reading actively I would think of the man and boy, wandering through that gray, ruined world. While on a walk through a forest nearby the impressions from The Road crawled up on me, transforming the fur trees and pine trees into burned out skeletons, and I could see the world through McCarthy’s filter, where ash falls like snow over a doomed world that is burning, burning, burning. The story was with me all the time. The horror of it all was always at the back of my mind, and it still is, if I let myself feel it. The novel touches upon a sensitive part in our hearts. What if the world ended, and you were left, and you were about to loose the one thing you valued most. What would you do? And if you stood there, in the ruins of the only world you’ve ever known, stripped bare, with your heart of hearts at your side,  could you do what was necessary to keep that heart intact? McCarthy forces us to ponder these questions.

On the road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world. Query: How does the never to be differ from the never was?

I saw the movie before I read the book. The movie did leave a strong impact on me, but it did not capture the same depth of horror and despair as the novel does. Every last word imprinted in one’s soul while reading, sending shudders through one’s body. The darkness. The ashes. The regression to predator mentality. The broken shards of civilization. The long rattle of mankinds’ last breath.

The boy asks his father again and again if they are still the good guys. And the father reassures him that they are. Because they’re carrying the fire.

The cities have all burned. The world is covered in soot. Gray snow falls from the sky. How can something so sad and depressing be so wonderful?

I’m reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and am astounded by the beauty of the story, an uncanny kind of beauty found amidst the darkness and the gloom. Ash, soot. Ghastly remnants of trees and buildings, of things burned in the early days of apocalypse. Dead nature. Grayness, grayness, grayness. The emptiness. The hollowness. The hopelessness.

And at the centre of the story – the raw love of a father, the precious son, the fragile yet indestructible relation between father and son. Their endless strife to survive, to get through yet another day. There is no yesterday. There is no tomorrow. There is onlynow.

I’m not even halfway yet, but I’ve been captivated since page one.