2014-08-18

Monochrome Morality or, a review of Cormack McCarthy's "The Road"
—an editor's note by Ada Fetters

I recently finished reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

The short version: The writing is excellent in itself, though all the facts are wrong, in an odd enough way that at first I wondered if the uneven tone meant it was a brilliant parody.
The long version:

The writing itself is enthralling and I had a difficult time breaking off even though it is generally not advisable to read hopeless post-apocalyptic novels after midnight. Our two main characters, a nameless man and his son, travel the eponymous Road through a dangerous, barren landscape.

In this book the earth has suffered a massive cataclysm, the nature of which is unknown. The closest we get to an explanation is that there was a blinding flash of light, then the power went out, and the world caught fire. The man was raised and lives in the backwoods, so he and his family escaped the rioting and have some survival skills. Later we see that entire populations were caught in this conflagration. We see lines of burned-out cars on highways, buildings askew because their foundations began to melt. Such buildings have a glaze of melted glass on them like glaze on a donut. This is a lovely image, but would glass quietly melt and drizzle down the outsides of buildings? Or would it blow outward/inward violently and melt where it landed?

The descriptions in this book are astonishing and would be even more so if the author cared more about how things work.

Ash and smoke blow across the earth, the planet gets colder, nothing will grow. The man and his son live off of whatever canned food they can scavenge. They nourish themselves from the remnants of a departed goodness.

Oddly, fire destroyed the world and yet the main character and his son refer to themselves as "the good guys" and "carrying the fire." While "good guys" is reasonably clear (they do not kill other people, they do not rape, they do not steal from others), they do not specify what their fire is. They also do not explain why they refer to it this way when the planet-killing blaze is enough fire and to spare.

It may or may not be faith in a god. McCarthy is deliberately vague. It might be hope for the future. It might be the fact that although the few people left after the end of the world as we know it have resorted to cannibalism to stay alive, even eating the few infants born, the man and his son will not do this. They do not consume their own future even though it is essentially hopeless. However, a band of people would not profit from feeding and making allowances for a pregnant woman just to eat the infant. There would be no caloric benefit from keeping a bunch of pregnant women the way readers are shown that "they" do.

According to the story the world has been this way for years... a horrifying monochrome world and gray sky. However (says the Editor, not McCarthy) there must be plant life somewhere because the characters are breathing oxygen, which would be in short supply after worldwide fires hot enough to burn cities and the decay of all the fish, since we are told repeatedly the oceans and lakes are dead, which would produce lethal amounts of carbon dioxide.

I am not a biologist or climatologist, however, I know enough not to burn a candle in a closed-off cave after a landslide. It seems reasonable that somewhere there are trees, or possibly just algae or plankton or stromatolites - the humble creatures that originally evolved in a tumultuous volcanic earth and eventually put out so much oxygen that it filled the atmosphere.


Stromatolites look like rocks, but they're our most distant living relatives. Remember, the boy born just after this disaster is somewhere between ten and fifteen, at the age when (the writer tells us) in a normal society, he'd begin to put up boundaries between himself and his father. If this scenario has been going on that long, then plant life would have to be quietly converting all that carbon dioxide into breathable air or the characters would be suffocated.

However, that isn't the point of the story. This is not science-fiction, it is horror. As Mike Nelson, Crow and Tom Servo say, "If you're wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts / Then repeat to yourself, 'it's just a show, I should really just relax.'" 

Readers are treated - and I do mean treated, if you are a horror fan - to terrible ashen landscapes and dull red horizons. Never has monochrome been used so vividly. We are treated to an image of dead oceans with, perhaps, a giant squid in the inky blackness of the far deep. The squid is a despairing horror-thought of the man and so it is a haunting image and not something that bounces a person out of the story. You see the difference here.  

Yet if you can get past the odd physics ("it's just a show") you can enjoy McCarthy's euphonic prose washing over you.

McCarthy also tells readers that whatever happened, no one escaped earth. The man and his son have a conversation brought on by the saying "as the crow flies." The son wants to know if a crow could fly away to another planet, which of course it could not. It is heavily implied that man could not, either. No hope from other planets, then.

The point of this book is hope in the face of hopelessness, of love in the face of losing virtually everything else. The lifeless landscape is described such that it becomes a character in itself. The man and boy are very concerned with the quality of the road and readers soon are, too: is it clear? broken? covered in snow? in ash? does the boy need to walk in front, sweeping away charred twigs with a broom so their little cart of supplies can roll? did a fire come through recently, melting the tar so it is soft and sticky and impassable? worse, are there tracks in the soft tar, indicating that "bad guys" might be near?

And that's just the road. There is weather to be contended with, and creepy abandoned places, and burned forests, and nomadic cannibal humans. The descriptions of the people are hideous and mesmerizing.

Unfortunately there is a rather simplistic binary morality of "good guys" or "bad guys." Either you are "good" and carry the fire, or you are or you are a "bad" cannibalistic rapist. This isn't true now and isn't true when things get tough either. This affects the story more than anything else because although a horror story can get a pass on unrealistic physics or biology, a "story about goodness" (as McCarthy describes it) should be able to look at human complexity.

It is implied that the main characters are religious. They do not directly mention Jesus or Christianity, but the Christian god and heaven are talked about. The boy asks what the father would do if he died, and the father answers that he would die too, so they could be together. This is sweet in a way, a father reassuring his son in a scary world where all they have is each other. The boy's mother slashed her wrists many years ago with a shard of obsidian, after decrying the hopelessness of the situation. The man misses her, but it is implied that her choice to die with dignity is morally wrong because she had no faith.
She of little faith was physically blind, as is an old man they meet who says point-blank "there is no god."

This may be a call-back to the atheist dwarves in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle. This is a pet peeve of mine - people of any viewpoint saying that if you don't see it their way, you must not be able to see at all.

Further: the bleak world is described as "utterly secular." Since secular means "worldly" and this word is used to describe the world, I'd say yes, that is an accurate description. Except in this case he means lifeless, hopeless, soulless.

Which it would not actually be, certainly not if the disaster left people alive. There would also be rats and cats and wolves and roaches and bacteria and minuscule plant life. Unless this deity personally killed everything except people, in which case why are we putting our hope in this monster? Eh, "It's just a show, I should really just relax." 

Things like this and the odd use of "secular" and the binary morality and the fact that McCarthy himself has some survival skills and so has got to know why you don't burn a candle in a sealed space and the "fire" paradox etc etc made me wonder if this was a brilliant parody of a fundamentalist apocalypse, rather like Cold Comfort Farm was a parody of an earthy gothic novel and Lolita was a condemnation of tyranny and the Aeneid may or may not have been a satire of Roman ideals.

Even the main character who "carries the fire: is not a good person. He protects his son but behaves appallingly otherwise. He leaves the blind old man to fend for himself and wouldn't even have shared his food or fire for one night if his boy hadn't begged him to. They see a guy with fatal burns who is still alive, staggering around in the wilderness, and the main character doesn't stop. "There is nothing we can do for him," he tells the boy (who wants to help). 

Of course a survivor needs to be practical, and as a fan of The Walking Dead I get that. However, most "good guys" would at least be torn by a tough decision.  In one of the most horrifying scenes in the book they come upon a big house obviously used as a campsite, with a locked pantry. Upon prising the door open (so he was going to steal from whoever is camping here?) he finds live captives who are being eaten bit by bit. They cry "help us" and our protagonist runs away before he can be caught by the cannibals. 

I am not criticizing the pragmatism in itself, since if a person is much of a bleeding-heart in a situation like this they will find themselves captured, killed, or with no resources left. Realistically, you can't help everybody. However, it's one thing to be pragmatic and another to insist in earnest that you are "the good guys" who are "carrying the fire" in a dark world. 

After doing some more looking-into, I discovered that McCarthy is indeed in earnest. He comes from the way back beyond of the Appalachians and did not think much of school, which explains the lack of understanding about how glass doesn't quietly melt and growing infants to eat isn't practical. He is also a recluse, which explains the uneven feel of the interactions between people.

He once said that a lot of the conversations are based on talks he's had with his son. He really cares about his kid, that is evident. Maybe his worst fear is that he is not a good enough man to live up to his son's expectations and that is why the protagonist behaves badly. You know, that day comes (early for some, later for others) when a kid finds out that his father isn't Superman. Every child goes through this, it is perfectly normal, but what if this is the only relationship you have in all the wide world? What if a father were afraid it was his fault? In the story, the boy sees these flaws in his father and begins to put distance between them. All they have is each other so this is very sad.

I think that is what this book is really about: a man who has few relationships and when they change it feels like an apocalypse, one that he might blame himself for. After all, if your boy once trusted you implicitly and now doesn't anymore, that means you had to have done something very bad, right?

McCarthy's real wife left him years ago too. She didn't suicide, but when he was still struggling to establish himself as a writer, she decided she did not want to live in abject poverty in the backwoods, decried the hopelessness of the situation, and left. This story may be his way of coming to terms with that. In that way, it is not "just a show." I respect the man's emotions and experience. A recluse is deeply wounded when his few people leave. Still, I have issues with the mechanics of the book's situation in itself. If this woman was blind, in a world in which bands of people want to rape and kill and eat her (not necessarily in that order), then in "a story about goodness" room should be allowed for the opinion that she chose the lesser of two evils.

But "how would it really be if" and "how does this feel for the author" are two different things.  

The Road is powerful because it contains so much raw emotion from its author. It is McCarthy's intimate experience of his own worst-case scenario. It is a man baring his soul.

Except... it is hard for me to get past the big things that are not right, especially when some things are realistic in minute detail. The cart cannot travel if there are sticks on the road; opening decade-sealed jars of preserved vegetables is a lot of work and requires inventiveness; it is possible to quickly and simply repair the mechanism of a cart-wheel if you have the know-how; how it is to cut your own hair; and many other little things that feel genuinely real. It is the unevenness that gets to me. For example, although I did not like The Alchemist I do not criticize Coelho for  "unrealistic" descriptions of his physical world because that is a faerie tale or parable, written in an abstracted and dreamy way. The tone was correct for the story he was trying to tell. George MacDonald was fond of the idea that faeries inhabit flowers, which not a problem because again, he was writing stories about faeries. However, if an author is going for gritty, apocalyptic realism, then the world should be... well... realistic. I don't expect a physics dissertation, of course. That would be utterly unreasonable since that is obviously not the point of the story but in addition to the little things feeling very real, the big, simple things should be right enough for them to not be distracting.

Further, if an author is exploring "a story about goodness," as McCarthy himself describes it, then the way people behave toward one another ought to strike a chord of realism all across the board in order to resonate properly with readers. I do not have to agree with the writer's idea of ultimate objective morality in order for them to say something important about human nature.

Yet while McCarthy's relationship between the boy and his father is heartfelt, the simple binary morality for "everybody else" is not, and detracts from the main point. The ability to handle complex emotions is uneven and finally affects the sine qua non of the story.

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