Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Introduction

Welcome to BPL's January Online Book Discussion of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The author was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the book was an Oprah Book Club selection.

Cormac Mccarthy was born in Providence RI in 1933 and grew up in Tennessee where his father worked as a lawyer for the TVA. Never a great student, he dropped out of college and joined the Air Force. After his service he re-enrolled in college but dropped out to write full-time. He has written 10 novels.

McCarthy is known for his unique prose style often ignoring grammar and punctuation rules. His language can be plain and forthright yet also picturesque and descriptive. The narratives also sometimes can be extremely violent.

A private man, McCarthy shuns interviews and book tours. However, he agreed to appear on Oprah and The Road was selected for her book club. Why do you think he made this decision? Was it a way to get his book out to more people?

McCarthy currently lives with his third wife and young son in El Paso.

Some of McCarthy’s early novels are set in Tenn., where he grew up and later ones written following his arrival in Texas reflect traditions of American western life.

His current novel, The Road, is vague as to time and setting. It is evidently post catastrophe and takes place in a devastated world. “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” We find ourselves in a gray colorless atmosphere of ashes and death. Bleakness surrounds everything. We meet survivors and remnants of mankind and observe how they cope and “live.”

The two main nameless characters man and his son the boy are on the road. They are on a journey to safety and to the future. We see their daily lives and their search for food and other materials to live. Some quests are successful for food and temporary shelter and yet some discoveries are horrifying, revealing what the world and humanity have become. What is good and what is bad? Who is good and who is bad?

The man and boy are on the same road, but are they on the same journey? Are they learning from each other?

What do you think? Looking forward to hearing from readers of The Road.


caroline said...

GREAT book. Yes they are on the same quest..... for a while. The father is intent on teaching survival to his son because he wants out. Despite the situation love and goodness prevail and bring sunshine. As in this world today, the good are few.

ursula said...

i loved this book too. so powerful. it has this quiet intensity that kept me up reading it non-stop.
i see them as being on the same quest but with the harsh realities obviously being closer to the father. i think he also wanted to shelter the boy from having to make those terrible decisions (leaving the blind old man and the young boy they saw among other things).
it was heart wrenching to read the father's ever increasing instructions and preparations for the boy once he became closer and closer to death.
good and evil? i didn't see this book as a discussion of that. this was a world where they didn't apply.
i will definitely read more from cormac mccarthy.

Melissa said...

This was one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. I finished the bulk of it under the influence of a fever of over 100 degrees -- not recommended; it will mess with your head and hinder your recuperation! But The Road was seriously upsetting me even before I got sick. It reminded of two other disturbing books I read a while ago, Into the Forest by Jean Hegland (most of humanity sickens and dies, though the earth itself is not destroyed, and two sisters end up orphaned and trying to survive in their decaying home with dwindling provisions) and John Dollar by Marianne Wiggins (shipwrecked English students, their teacher, and their captain).

I agree with Ursula that good/evil is not a strong theme of the book. Just as it's irrelevant who or what caused the apocalypse (McCarthy's not trying to make any political statements, I don't think), the horrifying human behavior on display is just the logical extreme endpoint of the sort of selfish/victimizing/etc. qualities that many of us have. In a society without such want and deprivation as portrayed in the book, we manage not to form roving armies with slaves and catamites (had to look that up in the dictionary). But after armageddon, who knows?

I think Caroline's comment displays more optimism than I would use -- while something good does happen at the end, I can't imagine Cormac McCarthy doesn't want us to think about what will happen next -- it's not like the obliterated earth will support the growing of food, etc., so everyone still living will necessarily die once supplies really do run out. So what good was it that the man struggled so hard to keep himself and his son alive? (I have some ideas about that, of course...sort of a rhetorical question.) Or does anyone think I'm not supposed to be looking at the ending with such a pragmatic eye?

Michael said...

What does "catamite" mean? My lame dictionary did not have the word. I loved the book, in fact I just re-read it. But I wouldn't show it to teenagers. The authors' refusal to acknowledge the rules of writing a contraction could cause riots in middle and high schools across the country. He did an amazing job though. To the casual reader the book may seem uneventful, but I just thought the suspense was undeniable. Within just a few pages he has you to the point where anytime a person appears you have a fear response for the man and the boy. Maybe the book is not about "good and evil" so much as the weak and the strong. In my opinion, the strong are the man and some of the others along the way who appear to be living what we would consider to be a civilized existence despite the lack of civilization. The man is teaching the boy how to be strong, but I also think the boy was born with a special gift for empathy, a kindness that even the man did not teach him.

Melissa said...

A catamite is a boy kept "for pederastic purposes," I think is how my dictionary put it. Can you imagine...!

I wondered about the early part of the boy's life. How is it they did survive as long as they did?

Facilitator BPL said...

ROAD – Part 2 from the facilitator
Thank you readers for your responses and participation in the BPL online book discussion.

I think we established that the man is on a journey mainly for his son’s survival.
He knows that he himself is dying and is trying to teach his son as much about life as possible, but because there is very little contact with other people –except to stay away from them and distrust of them—he does not impart proper social behavior and interaction with other human beings. He is on a quest to find “the right people” for his son to survive with. Therefore they are making their way to the coast where he will perhaps find people on the same quest. He is searching for good people.

The son also needs to grow up and behave responsibly. He still makes the mistakes of a child—when he lets the gas out of the portable stove and when he drops the gun on the beach. He still needs adult supervision and care. Does he find these?

I also found the details of the underground shelter very fascinating. The food and supplies and arrangements were quite thorough. It reminded me of the era of the Cuban missile crisis. People were encouraged to build shelters and put together survival materials – just in case negotiations fell through. The threat of nuclear destruction was real or so we were led to believe. Drills were held in schools and warning signals were tested on television and on the radio. I wonder what if negotiations had failed how would the world look now?

I was also reminded of the stories of the people who “survived” the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The experience of vast devastation and destruction were real and the memories continue to this day. We need to listen to them so that The Road remains fiction.

Scott said...

There are some great comments here. I can only add that this is definitely the best post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read. I think it's really a strength that the father and his son are basically the only characters in the book; although the narrative is "about" the quest to get to the ocean, the real story is the father’s attempt to keep his son alive and give him a reason to have hope for the future, even though the world around them has literally gone to hell. The father’s dogged, almost ruthless desire to protect his son is totally believable, and the boy’s combination of fear and empathy for others is heartbreaking. I personally see the book as an allegory for parenthood in general, but you don’t have to read it that way to enjoy it. I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction over the years, and almost all of it is too science-fictiony for my taste, either poorly-disguised wish fulfillment (“hey, wouldn’t it be great if there weren’t so many people around?”), or else ham-handed allegory about politics and/or society. “The Road” is definitely none of the above. Few books have affected me as strongly as this one. When I finished it, I had two conflicting impulses: one was to read it again right away, and the other was to return it to the library as soon as possible so someone else could read it. I chose the latter - when you find something this good, you want other people to experience it too.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, "pederastic". Thanks. Gross. All I know is, when I walk around, on my way to work or whatever, I look at people and think, "would that guy try to eat me?" What type of person would I be? Lawless? Good? I'm sorry to say that I don't know.

Melissa said...

Yes, and would you be the sort of person like the man -- following through to the ends of the earth, literally -- or like his wife, who kills herself? These were two good people, only one of whom had the strength to continue to carry on in the face of torturous obliteration. Michael suggests that the boy had a special gift of empathy, but didn't the man as well?

I agree with Scott that McCarthy avoids heavy-handed allegory despite the spareness of the plot. (Plus, Scott gets bonus points for throwing in a library reference.)

Anonymous said...

Michael again. My brain cannot figure out how to consistently get my name to appear above what I write ("anonymous" here is me). I don't know about the man having the gift of empathy. For example, he gives the old man food, but he makes it clear, repeatedly, that he doesn't like the idea, and he would not have done it but for the boy wanting him to do so. He's never really nice to the old man, accuses him of being a "shill for a pack of road agents", even after they've made camp and are sitting somewhere off the road. Who knows? My Dad gave me the book. Maybe he was trying to tell me something.

Melissa said...

Hmm, interesting gift! I guess if we go with Scott's observation, that the whole book is an allegory of parenthood, your father could have been telling you that he loves you very much (or possibly that raising you was very difficult).

Everyone's comments here have been so positive that I went over to Amazon to read some of the 1 star reviews (in the minority of the total number of reviews, to be sure, but there are still 108 single stars). Some people said that they liked other books by McCarthy but hated this particular one. Not having read anything else by him (though I did see the film "No Country for Old Men"), I can't comment, but I'm curious how this book contrasts to his other works. Mainly in subject matter?

One criticism I do agree with is his use of language -- I like obscure words as much as the next ex-English major, but I found his unusual vocabulary purely distracting.

Some people also complained about the unmitigated bleakness, but I thought there was enough to the characters of the man and son that there was a purpose to describing all the horrors, too.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read any of his other works, but I think I'm going to now. And I liked the vocabulary. Who knew that a "bench" isn't just something you sit on? You're right though, Melissa, some of it was just like "whoa, time out, where's my dictionary?" My biggest fear right now though is that they are going to make a movie out of it, starring Nicolas Cage or someone awful like that.

Ayun Halliday said...

For the first couple of pages, I'll admit I was thinking, "Cormac, Cormac, not another book about an unending road trip through a monochromatic landscape with manly characters who berely talk, and also, just who do you think you are that you're not subject to the laws of punctuation?!???" I got over that by page 5 or so when it gor really good and stayed that way to the bitter end.

Anyone who's ever lugged a stroller up the subway stairs or maneuvered it around a curbside slush puddle three feet in diameter will share my visceral response to those moments when the dad has to unpack the cart, muscle it through a particularly hostile stretch of terrain, pack it back up, and then get them the hell out of there before someone steals their food, eats them, or worse. (This author is quite good at insinutating what could be worse.)

I really did find this book to be the great American mediation on what it's really like to be a parent, the exhaustion, sacrifices, and fears, what you can control and what you can't.

There was something very touching about how the mostly stoic and brave little boy kept checking in to see if what they were doing was "okay". The repetition of that word really got me, his inability to hide his need for reassurance that everything would be "okay". And that the father, cold, hungry, exhausted, wishing he could just give up already, was obliged to tell him, "Yes. We're okay."

Melissa said...

Not being a parent, I can't speak to what it's like to be responsible for the physical and mental well-being of another (or even just having to schlep their things). My own real-life jarring connections to the story have mostly centered around doing the dishes and suddenly really thinking about the hot, potable water flowing ceaselessly from the faucet, or, say, throwing out a bunch of short but still usable lengths of wire thread. (Oh, yes, and reading the newspaper and considering the possibility of global nuclear destruction.)

On a side note, I'm almost done with No Country for Old Men, which I must admit I've barely enjoyed. The movie sure was stylish, though.

Ayun Halliday said...

Good point, Melissa. Necessity is the mother of conservation, as well as ingenuity.

Facilitator BPL said...

The Road -- Facilitator #3
Thank you for your comments.
This time I wanted to talk about the phrase "carrying the fire." The characters used fire to cook food and keep warm. The use of fire by people contrasts to animals who are unable to make or use fire.

Also in the novel,the good guys used fire for good purpose in contrast to the bad guys who abused its use.
There can also be the interpretation of an internal fire. The father made sure his child developed a fire inside for survival and to do right and good things. At his death, the torch is passed hopefully for progress into the future.

Melissa said...

Yes, I thought it was a beautiful metaphor -- fire as goodness, and as strength, as well as all that fire means (warmth, light, cooking).

ForEsmeWLAS said...

Also found it to be one the most disturbingly powerful books I have ever read. But in the process of reading it twice, I put together a spread sheet with definitions of most of the archaic words he used (honestly, some of them I just cannot find a meaning for anywhere!) and found that other people have found the list very useful in reading the book for the first time. Knowing what the author is talking about, as opposed to simply "reading over a word" makes a huge difference in your ability to grasp what the author is really saying. If anyone is interested, I'd be happy to share it!