Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Reading Group: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

It's so long since this meeting and I've been so preoccupied with the promotion of Too Many Magpies that I'm not sure I can remember the discussion very well.

John (who is not exactly easy to please when it comes to novels) had been so impressed and moved by this novel that he had tried at least twice to suggest it, but it had been passed over by the rest of us, some of us put off I think by the macho impression we had of McCarthy's novels in general, which in fact we hadn't read. On this occasion Hans, whose turn it was to suggest the next book, was absent, and, quite unprepared, I found the choice falling to me, and so, remembering John's persistence, I plumped for this.

I couldn't have been happier that I had done so. As I told the group, I was just stunned by this novel in which a man and his young son trail south on the road through an ash-filled post-apocalyptic world, their sole worldly goods piled in a rickety shopping trolley. I was so emotionally moved that I was reluctant to start deconstructing it with discussion: I just wanted to let it, and its emotional impact on me, be. I had noted, though, that it was quite simply written in a spare prose which was however deeply poetic. And one of the things that moved me so much was that that whole cowboy-Western ethic of the good guys and the bad guys with which we had associated McCarthy (and which others said definitely informed the film they'd now seen of McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men) was here used in the most movingly moral of ways: the man and the boy are striving to be the Good Guys, the keepers of the flame of morality, in the remnants of a world we can guess was destroyed by the lack of it and peopled by marauding cannibalistic gangs (and the moral question of the novel is whether it is possible for the man and the boy to succeed in this). And that, searing as the novel is, I had found the ending (which I won't give away here) redemptive, hopeful about the human spirit.

Doug immediately agreed with me wholeheartedly, and others nodded. Everyone loved the book and had been deeply affected by it, but perhaps Ann was the least deeply affected, as she had some quibbles, and saw some inconsistencies in the story, such as the fact that in travelling south the boy and the man crossed a range of mountains, which was hard to picture since most of the mountains in America run from north to south. This was a matter which frankly I wasn't much interested in discussing, as for me the novel had a mythic feel which made such practicalities irrelevant. There was then some (to me inappropriately realist) discussion about a related practicality: why they were travelling south: was it because they were hoping to find warmth as the winter came on? Or were they simply moving on because they had run out of food? Trevor said no, you wouldn't wait until you'd run out of food before moving on, that would be really stupid (because I was so little interested in this argument I can't remember his reasoning), and Ann, a textile conservator, said this made her think about insects: moths always stay with their source of food until it runs out but carpet beetles don't, they move on to fresh pastures before that happens.

John said, well, nothing is really explained: we never know why the world was destroyed, whether it was terrorism or ecological or what, and I stopped eating crisps out of boredom and frustration and said, Quite, that's the point, and that's what's so great about the book: in the post-apocalyptic world, cause and reason and politics are all beside the point, lost to the world. Existence is reduced to the physical experience of the effort to survive - and of course, for some, the human hope to keep the moral 'fire'. I said I loved the language of the book which reflects this: pared down and studded with ancient- and Anglo-Saxon-sounding words which were yet, I think, newly-coined, creating a sense of the unprecedentedly primitive. Everyone agreed that they really appreciated this last.

Then Ann said that she wasn't so sure that the book was redemptive, and there was a discussion about this which focussed on the end and which I thus can't report without spoiling the ending for those who haven't yet read the book.

One thing I will say is that one of the things that stunned me was the use of viewpoint, which earlier on in reading the novel I had decided McCarthy had mishandled: the narrative relentlessly takes the viewpoint of the man, except for one brief though puzzling and indeed memorable moment when it moves to the boy's. And then at the end, when the narrative shifts once more to the boy's I understood why (and indeed why that moment had been made so memorable) and I understood too that far from being unable to handle viewpoint, McCarthy is a master of it.

And again everyone nodded, and we all agreed that this book, a searing warning, was one of our stunners, one which would stand out among all those we have read and discussed.

(And I did remember the discussion after all - I think!)

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Tania Hershman said...

It's so great to read this, I read The Road a month ago, in one sitting, utterly absorbed and moved and stunned by it. It was unlike anything I had ever read. Unbelievable. I agree about the point of view switch at the end, which puzzled me but seemed, of course, necessary. I also wanted to mention the structure, in that McCarthy uses not just small paragaphs but small sections, with a lot of which space in between each - almost a novel made of many, many flash stories. I wonder if that made it bearable for him to write it, in small sections. Reading it was so emotional, writing it must have been fairly soul-destroying!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Ah yes, I forgot, we did comment on the structure: we noted that the book wasn't divided into chapters, and saw this as reflect the loss of structure in the post apocalyptic world, and the loss of a sense of time which the man experiences. It's interesting, though, that you note that it IS divided into those small sections, which when I come to think of it, also replicates their stop-start experience of living from short darkened day to short darkened day.

Elizabeth Baines said...

reflecting, I meant. I wish I wouldn't comments in such a hurry!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Damn and blast! WRITE comments, I mean!