I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in two days. Tears were shed.
I started reading The Road because I have a new policy where I shift regularly between high fantasy / sci-fi / comedy type books and more serious fare, literary fiction, non-fiction, etc. I just finished reading all five books of A Song of Ice and Fire, which was about 5 kilopages of complete plot driven fluff. The Road weighs in at not even 300 pages, and yet packs such a hard punch that I feel like every scene has imprinted itself on my memory.
I read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian a year or so ago and I’ll admit that even though his prose was impressive, the story didn’t really capture my imagination. It was a violent, brutal, beautiful journey but in the end I put it down and didn’t think too hard about it. I’ve read analysis of that book that dealt with symbolism, but I’m a firm believer that symbolism only serves literature if it’s woven into the fabric of the story such that the reader gains knowledge of it by reading rather than dissecting. Good fiction is entertainment wrapped around enlightenment, not the other way around.
After reading The Road, I feel indefinably changed. The novel was an easy read. Simple, but brilliant. McCarthy’s prose is, again, taut with meaning. Not one word is wasted. He breathes an ashen, hostile, and frightening life into the world of the post-apocalypse and still makes you feel the loving connection of the main characters, a father and his son. Their story grips you from page one. McCarthy takes you from desperation to delight, from famine to feast, and all the while there is the undertow of ever present danger. There is something here that resonates for every father, son, mother, or daughter.
The internet warns that The Road is a sad, depressing novel. Despite the dark past and the hellish setting, I don’t think I can agree. The boy’s mother commits suicide years into their ordeal because her will has been crushed. The world is a wasteland, where the only animals are cannibal scavengers, and it rains down ash as often as water or snow onto fields of dead grass and forests of dead trees. Any novel of the post-apocalypse forces you to question its end game but McCarthy’s vision is particularly bleak. There are no heroes to save the day, there are no glimmers of hope or restoration. The father himself, upon finding food, questions whether it is a blessing or whether it would be better to just die and be done with it. Yet he persists. He will not be crushed. They will not submit. The world has turned into cold, dark place but they carry the fire as old as civilization itself.
In the final encounter, the boy and the shotgun wielding man that takes him under his protection, the man claims to carry the fire as well. If we take him at his word, and we have no reason not to thanks to the fulfilled promise of covering the boy’s dead father, there is a family that still remains. The good in the world has not burned out, and the father has achieved his ancient goal of ensuring that his son did not perish. Where once there were three, and then two, and then one, now there are five bearers of the torch of civilization.
The final paragraph of the novel is a disconnected scene and, in a fine tradition of literary fiction, is open to wide interpretation.
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
One might interpret this as saying that the world is over and cannot be set right again, the fish being some forgotten treasure of earth that we squandered in our destruction. Others might interpret just the very existence of this passage being a hopeful indication that these fish live on someplace. I find that unlikely considering even brook trout need the sun to live.
Perhaps being contrary, I believe that the final line is the most important. These fish are from a time before man, they hummed of mystery, yet they are being discovered by a man. They are seen, they are grasped in the hand, touched, they are smelled and – soon, I imagine – tasted. The mystery of the fish, and the greater world, has started to unravel. I believe this negates the message of the fish’s appearance since it was generated in a time before we had understanding of the the mystery it represents. Now, with that understanding – or perhaps with greater understanding – we can indeed make the world right again.
My wife, Juliette, had an interesting – and positive – take on it as well, even if it was a little far afield from my usual thought pattern. She hasn’t read the book, but the last paragraph was just too good for me not to share and, again, it’s disconnected from the rest of the story. She interpreted the fish as the world itself. In terms of literary symbolism I think that’s a valid first step (that map of a thing representing the thing itself), and it has some interesting implications. First, the world is in the hand of a man but it is dying (indicated the fact that it feels torsional, as if it’s trying to escape the hand holding it out of water). Second, the implied existence of multiple fish which in this interpretation would be multiple worlds. So, perhaps we have broken the world and perhaps it can’t be set right, but there are other worlds. The glen where the fish all live, then, is the universe humming with mystery. A neat thought, if it gets a little science fiction-y on expansion.
I greatly enjoyed The Road. It’s hard to distill such a great and potent brew of imagery. McCarthy is a master, and The Road is a masterpiece.