Book Review: The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

Book Review: The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road

I read this just a few years after high school, after the birth of my second child, and what now feels like forever ago (but was really just 15 years ago). I remember absolutely loving it. A bleak, dystopic novel of just… going forward. Always moving forward. Always going. One foot in front of the other.

And I do find myself like Cormac McCarthy. I loved No Country for Old Men, and All the Pretty Horses. But, on re-reading this just before going to Atlantic City for the AC Beer and Music Fest, I found myself…. having conflicting thoughts on it. At first, it felt like I was re-reading a favorite old book, but further I went through it (and its a super quick read), I found myself… not caring. Not loving it anymore. Some of it is the style, I know a lot of people are put off by the writing style of the book, the bleak isolated speech, the poor punctuation, grammar, the screenplay like dialogue but without directions, etc. And on my first read, it worked, I liked it, and at the start of re-reading it – I too liked it, but then it grew tiresome on me. And I think, all the more because it all just feels ‘pointless’.

When I looked up my GoodReads initial rating of it, I gave it ***** (5 out of 5). Crazy. But that was definitely in my phase of “Everything is either 5 stars or 1 star” mindset of looking at things. Not so much due to naïvety of thinking everything was either a classic or not, but just for simplicity sake when using the app. I tended to be the same with Untappd and other similar rating apps. Also in the fifteen years since, I think I got a bit more nuanced in my own thoughts, appreciation, and love for reading. I’ve been a voracious reader ever since middle school, and I typically for the last half dozen years have been reading about a hundred books per year. So I’ve certainly grown some since my initial reading of this.

I think some of my biggest take-aways is also a thing of growth in myself as a person, because the entirety of the book feels like a “why bother” now. With how absolutely bleak it is, it feels just pointless. Existentially pointless. For all intents and purposes humanity is done for. And thats ultimately the point of the novel, to drive home just how bleak it is, but that the Man keeps pushing onward, even when his wife couldn’t, even when his Son doesn’t think he can,  you ‘have to’. But I even question the point of thinking ‘you have to’ in a world like this. What do you live for? Its not really tackled in the book outside of the “because you have to’ omnipresence behind each page. Its not even directly stated. Characters don’t state things like that in the book. The Man just has the vague sense of ‘you must always keep moving no matter how bleak and horrible and terrible it is’, but its never explicitly said – not that it HAS to be explicitly said, I can draw inferences, but, a discussion, some character, some growth, some introspection, something would be interesting or nice or at least add substance to this. I can draw the inference of ‘you must always keep moving’ by page 10, so the remaining 276 pages are like a footnote to the initial thought.

I feel like my review will come off as extremely harsh, and probably far harsher than I even intend it to be. There is still a part of me that enjoys this work – but I think its for the overarch of it, not for the actual writing, prose, or the book itself. Its my interest and intrigue in the genre, its the way the story gets my mind to drift and think of how I would write a similar dystopic novel; so my interest and enjoyment of this (on the re-read) is more based on how I vaguely feel as a ‘whole’ to the entire process, to what I feel deep down, and not so much to the writing itself. I want to still really enjoy it, I want to dive deep into the book, but I’m afraid its not deep, its a shallow dive into a pond that looks deep from up high. Maybe thats where my frustration grows, and why I give a scathing review here. I genuinely think I’m being a bit too harsh on Cormac McCarthy here, and for his fans and lovers, I apologize for that. Maybe its just in re-reading this and what I remembered and feeling let down as an older man. Maybe its reading too many other book reviews and my critique level is so much higher than it was before. Maybe I’ve grown away from him. I still have No Country for Old Men on my “to re-read” list for the year. So who knows when we get to that, and if my opinions will change.

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy in 1973 (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).

Cormac McCarthy (born Charles Joseph McCarthy Jr.; July 20, 1933 – June 13, 2023) was an American writer who authored twelve novels, two plays, five screenplays, and three short stories, spanning the Western and postapocalyptic genres. His works often include graphic depictions of violence, and his writing style is characterised by a sparse use of punctuation and attribution. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American novelists.[1][2][3]

McCarthy was born in Providence, Rhode Island, although he was raised primarily in Tennessee. In 1951, he enrolled in the University of Tennessee, but dropped out to join the U.S. Air Force. His debut novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Awarded literary grants, McCarthy was able to travel to southern Europe, where he wrote his second novel, Outer Dark (1968). Suttree (1979), like his other early novels, received generally positive reviews, but was not a commercial success. A MacArthur Fellowship enabled him to travel to the American Southwest, where he researched and wrote his fifth novel, Blood Meridian (1985). Although it initially garnered a lukewarm critical and commercial reception, it has since been regarded as his magnum opus, with some labeling it the Great American Novel.

McCarthy first experienced widespread success with All the Pretty Horses (1992), for which he received both the National Book Award[4] and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was followed by The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998), completing The Border Trilogy. His 2005 novel No Country for Old Men received mixed reviews. His 2006 novel The Road won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.

Many of McCarthy’s works have been adapted into film. The 2007 film adaptation of No Country for Old Men was a critical and commercial success, winning four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The films All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and Child of God were also adapted from his works of the same names, and Outer Dark was turned into a 15-minute short. McCarthy had a play adapted into a 2011 film, The Sunset Limited.

McCarthy worked with the Santa Fe Institute, a multidisciplinary research center, where he published the essay “The Kekulé Problem” (2017), which explores the human unconscious and the origin of language. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2012.[5] His final novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, were published on October 25, 2022, and December 6, 2022, respectively.[6]

Cormac McCarthy – Wikipedia Article

Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Back of cover blurb, as per GoodReads:

A searing, postapocalyptic novel destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece.

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.

The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

The Road – GoodReads Back of Cover Blurb

The Road is uneven and repetitive—sometimes mimicking Melville, at other times Hemingway—but rather than forming a cohesive fusion, it appears more like a patchwork creation: stitched from disparate parts into a clumsy, mismatched entity, then awkwardly animated by McCarthy’s lofty status among Hollywood filmmakers and insular award circles.

Recall the ’96 Sokal Affair, where NYU Professor Alan Sokal submitted a deliberately obtuse and jargon-laden paper to various scientific journals, which was published because it pandered to their biases despite being utter nonsense. This incident demonstrated the profound failure of these esteemed adjudicators to discern the quality of arguments, driven largely by politics rather than merit. This skepticism towards gatekeepers of knowledge extends to the literary domain, where works like The Road receive acclaim seemingly more for their alignment with prevailing tastes than for any substantive merit. McCarthy, unlike Sokal, may not have intended deception, but his style is marked by an emptiness dressed up in a manner that conveniently invites praise.

Many praise McCarthy for his straightforward prose, which I could appreciate if it mirrored the deliberate and measured style of Hemingway. However, what I encountered in The Road was different:

“He took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy came and took it and stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again. Then he handed the bottle back and the man drank and screwed the cap back on and rummaged through the pack. They ate a can of white beans, passing it between them, and he threw the empty tin into the woods.

Then they set out down the road again.”

Yes, the writing is simple. Yet, is it precise and purposeful? Hardly. The Road often reads more like a monotonous inventory of actions rather than a thoughtfully crafted narrative. In its verbosity and redundancy, it loses the very essence of what it attempts to convey. This isn’t simplicity; it’s needless complication masquerading as minimalism.

McCarthy’s stylistic choice in The Road aims to elevate the mundane through simplicity—a technique often seen in postmodern literature, which seeks to make the familiar seem novel again and underscore the significance of everyday occurrences. However, McCarthy does not transform the context but merely restates it, resulting in a narrative devoid of distinct personality, disconnected from the plot, and revealing little about the characters.

The intention may be to depict the characters’ profound exhaustion, so great that they seem disengaged from their own existence. But must the portrayal of tedium be so tedious itself? Skillful writers can imbue the ordinary with wonder, yet The Road’s starkness strips it of beauty and its aimlessness deprives it of poignancy.

When McCarthy abandons the terse style reminiscent of Hemingway, he unexpectedly veers into Melville’s territory of dense, florid prose:

“The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.”

The transition between styles is jarring, with no coherent effort to meld them. Elsewhere, McCarthy’s repetition of “dead ivy,” “dead grass,” and “dead trees” drones on monotonously until he abruptly shifts to describe them as “shrouded in a carbon fog,” a phrase that could belong in a lackluster cyberpunk collection.

Consider another instance:

“It’s snowing, the boy said. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire like the last host of christendom.”

Here, McCarthy attempts to channel Melville’s grandiose, religious symbolism, presenting himself as a decrepit seer akin to the prophetic figures in Moby Dick. Yet, while Melville’s integration of theology feels profoundly omnipresent and awe-inspiring, McCarthy’s feels forced and minimal, akin to superficial decor in an otherwise sparse room. McCarthy never reaches the profound otherworldliness of Melville’s lines such as, “There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within.”

McCarthy often layers his elaborate metaphors thickly, seemingly striving for a unique literary voice. However, the result more often resembles the melodramatic scribblings in a ‘Team Edward’ notebook abandoned after a high school poetry class:

“. . . Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was?

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.

People sitting on the sidewalk in the dawn half immolate and smoking in their clothes. Like failed sectarian suicides. . . .”

His introduction of these lines feels robotic, almost as though penned by a sardonic Asimovian robot. Wry Observation: It’s almost believable that he is one, given his apparent detachment from beauty and human emotion. Sharp Comment: Yet, he seems to disregard Asimov’s first law, as his clumsy prose inflicts suffering upon the reader’s ears.

Occasionally, amidst mundane descriptions, such as scraping paint with a screwdriver, McCarthy inserts an obscure technical term that baffles more than it enlightens. These terms don’t seem to fit the world he’s created or emerge from any specialized knowledge possessed by his characters, rendering them meaningless within the narrative.

A fundamental piece of advice for any novice writer is to avoid using complex vocabulary unnecessarily—it comes off as self-indulgent and does little to enhance the story. It would be different if these terms were part of a deliberate stylistic choice, but here, they feel like jarring bits of jargon that disrupt the flow of the text—just more debris for the reader to navigate.

As I progressed through the book, its unrelenting grimness became more tiring than compelling, and its credibility waned. The structure of isolated sentences posing as entire chapters, brief two-word fragments punctuated as though profound, and the undifferentiated, monosyllabic mutterings akin to a vagrant talking to himself—all contribute to a sense that the novel is overdone and absurd.

The book confronted me like a towering, inebriated man in a bar, challenging me to mock his typo-laden tattoo—and I couldn’t help but laugh. I’m not sure if my coworkers or fellow bus riders knew what ‘The Road’ was about (this was long before any film adaptation), but they might have guessed it to be a wildly comic adventure involving a bus full of nuns concealing a disguised convict, chased by a klutzy southern sheriff and his sidekick, complete with a donkey for extra laughs.

Without diving into specifics, the book’s infamous ending feels arbitrarily attached, failing to resonate with or conclude any of the emotional journey built up prior. It wraps up neatly, almost too neatly, which seems to validate McCarthy’s own admission on Oprah that he “had no idea where it was going” as he wrote it. And indeed, it shows, Cormac.

From the excerpts, you might have picked up on another glaring issue—the book’s punctuation, or rather, the lack thereof. The most sophisticated punctuation mark McCarthy employs is the occasional comma. It’s not as if the text is composed of simple, clear-cut sentences either. McCarthy indulges in compound clauses and fragmented sentences, yet he refrains from using any conventional marks to structure them.

Moreover, McCarthy avoids using quotation marks in the dialogue and seldom attributes lines to characters, leaving readers to puzzle out whether a line is spoken or merely a part of his ‘poetic license’. This requires us to first determine if someone is speaking at all, and then to decipher who might be speaking. While Melville eschewed quotation marks in a chapter of Moby Dick in a nod to Shakespeare, he recognized that this was a playful affectation suited to a comically absurd scene—a subtlety McCarthy’s approach sorely lacks.

Not only are the structure, grammar, figurative language, and basic descriptions sorely lacking, the characters themselves are equally flat and monotonous. The interactions between the father and son are painfully repetitive:

Father: Do it now.

Son: I‘m scared.

Father: Just do it.

Son: Are we going to die?

Father: No.

Son: Are you sure?

Father: Yes.

In the absence of dialogue tags, this conversation unfurls in a continuous line, indistinguishable one from the next. After meandering or fleeing from threats, the conversation typically concludes with:

Son: Why did (terrible thing) just happen?

Father: (Stares off in silence)

Son: Why did (terrible thing) just happen?

Father: (More silence)

This encapsulates their entire relationship: stagnant, unevolving, and nonsensical. Despite their constant companionship, there’s an inexplicable distance between them, reminiscent of a suburban parent and child who seldom interact and share little in common. McCarthy fails to explore or explain this disconnect, despite the characters’ continuous and close interactions.

Moreover, McCarthy revealed to Oprah that the book reflects his relationship with his own son, which perhaps explains why the emotional tone feels so disconnected from the dire setting. It’s as if he equated his own distant paternal relationship with the extreme survival struggles faced by those in catastrophic situations, resulting in a narrative that could be seen as an act of privileged self-pity.

The characters are underdeveloped, and their reactions often feel forced, like those in a poorly scripted horror movie. The boy, perpetually terrified, serves mainly to amplify every crisis, resembling a cliché fright scene more than a genuine human response. In horror, subtlety often trumps overt dramatization; a quiet, unsettling reaction can be far more powerful than overt hysteria. For example, a child who doesn’t scream upon finding a dead infant, suggesting a chilling adaptation to a horrific norm, could have been profoundly impactful.

Instead, we get a child who reacts as though each horror is a new shock, despite having experienced similar horrors repeatedly. The characters don’t seem to develop emotional resilience or suffer from PTSD; their responses feel more like teenage angst than authentic distress. A truly compelling narrative might have explored a father’s struggle to prevent his son from becoming desensitized to their brutal world, rather than portraying a child inexplicably untouched by his harsh reality.

Every time a challenge arises in this book, the characters collapse internally and resign themselves to despair. In reality, people typically respond to immediate dangers with action—either fighting, fleeing, or freezing—not by succumbing to self-pity, which is a luxury reserved for moments of safety and reflection.

There’s an utter lack of joy or hope in this narrative. Yet, in even the most dire situations, humans find ways to persevere, often through small victories, rationalizations, or even delusions. The concept of ‘The Fire’ in the book, which the father uses to justify their survival, feels less like an authentic motivational force and more like a convenient plot device. It seems McCarthy couldn’t conceive a believable reason why his characters would strive to survive, reducing their journey to a mechanical following of ‘The Plot’.

This book presents a world devoid of possibilities, which is less a portrayal of reality and more a grim literary exercise. Despite aiming to evoke deep emotional responses, the continuous bleakness prevents any real connection. There’s no contrast in this monochrome narrative; it’s like a canvas painted black where additional strokes only blend into the darkness, lacking tension or depth.

Labeling this as tragedy porn might be harsh, but not unfounded. It equates the banality of suburban life with extreme human suffering, allowing readers to superficially align their mild discomforts with profound tragedies. Thus, a bored housewife or a man estranged from his father might see their own mundane grievances mirrored in these extreme circumstances, feeling validated in their emotional responses.

This indulgence allows the privileged to equate their insulated pain with the acute suffering of others, often seen briefly in adverts between their favorite TV shows. It’s a modern form of invisible colonialism where the affluent can feel connected to global suffering without ever experiencing real deprivation or danger. They perform conscientious acts—recycling, using organic products, conserving water—as superficial penance, comforting themselves with their supposed solidarity with humanity.

And here I am, feeling disheartened by all this, which makes me as hypocritical as any other comfortably distant observer of global tragedies. Reading this book didn’t make me empathize with its contrived angst; it only highlighted how disconnected it is from real despair, much like my own detached existential musings are from those truly struggling.

This detachment is emblematic of a broader trend among American authors, and their navel-gazing works rarely attempt to engage with the world at large. In the infamous Oprah interview, McCarthy’s inability to discuss his craft or explore deeper ideas was evident; he responded to questions with dismissive laughter and vague shrugs, perhaps betraying a lack of deeper insight into his own work.

From this perspective, it’s understandable why he secured the Pulitzer. Awards often reflect underlying political currents, and selecting McCarthy seems like an affirmation of a certain self-centered American viewpoint that some believe remains pertinent. However, the global community continues to evolve, often sidelining American literary contributions, casting doubt on the likelihood of a Nobel prize for McCarthy or any other American writer in the near future.

This book seems to be an ode to American self-importance, a trait increasingly out of step with a globally interconnected, homogenous world. It serves as a marker for one of two outcomes: it could either signify the demise of a dwindling philosophy, succumbing to internal discord and narrow-mindedness, or herald a necessary transformation into something more globally competitive and relevant. After all, resting on past laurels can only get you so far.

But then, the Pulitzer committee is renowned for picking unadventurous winners–usually an unremarkable late entry by an author past their prime. As William Gass put it: “the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill”.

Genre aficionados will recognize a disheartening pattern in this book, much lamented by the likes of LeGuin: the phenomenon of a well-known literary author dabbling in genres like fantasy or sci-fi. These authors enter with their mainstream literary credentials to supposedly show the regulars ‘how it’s done’, yet they often lack a deep understanding of the genre’s nuances and history. As a result, they churn out content that might have seemed stale decades ago. Fortunately for these authors, their usual literary critics, unfamiliar with genre specifics, might find these retreads novel, simply due to the author’s fame.

For this effort, McCarthy might earn two stars for delivering a passable, albeit clichéd, sci-fi adventure narrative, but this is offset by a star for his troubling portrayal of human suffering. While I haven’t explored McCarthy’s other works and may do so to see if his acclaim is warranted, this particular book doesn’t support his lauded reputation. It presents a case of an author outgrowing editorial control and, with the freedom to write as he pleases, demonstrating that he may have nothing left of significance to say.

I will begin to wrap-up with a quote by David Foster Wallace:

Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are merely lists … Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing–flat characters, a narrative world that’s … not recognizably human, etc.–is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world … most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?

David Foster Wallace

Cormac plays to the strengths of the genre with The Road. He plays to the collective knowledge we all have of dystopia, dystopic nature, apocalypse, and post apocalypse, but thats basically where this ends. Its bare bones, both for a reason, and because theres nothing more he could do with it. The problem is we cry out for more, and we cannot be given it. We’re not even given backstory, nothing more than the “you must keep moving forward”, always “move forward”. In a post-9/11 world, in a post-COVID world, in a world that has seen what we all have seen, with a history of all that we have seen – the words “you must keep moving forward” ring very true – but also ring very hollow. These are platitudes in the dark that don’t put any meat on the bones. And we crave meat and potatoes and something to stick it all together, not just the bones, and all Cormac McCarthy has to offer us here is the bones.

My GoodReads Rating: **
(My initial GoodReads Rating: *****)
My LibraryThing Rating: **1/2
Global Average GoodReads Rating: 3.99 (as of 4.18.24).

Wrapping This All Up

Yes, I think I went down a long tangent of a road, critiquing this still very heavily. Do I think I “missed the point” of the novel? I don’t think so, I think I understand it. Its existential, its barebones, its bleak, its dark, its macabre, its somber. But it never really rises above that. For 286 pages its poetic, like a poetic nightmare. The prose is written for awards, I think thats a chief concern and annoyance with the actual writing. More than the “avant-garde” writing of grammar and punctuation and no “he said” “she said” dialogue notes. For how bleak and miserable it is, and how we are to take this man as a grizzled man who is surviving and can’t be bothered to give his thoughts on anything, to see big “10 dollar” and “50 dollar” words, feels… like the writing is never really “aimed for us”. But over us. Right now, how many of you know what ‘crozzled’ means? (Its in the book.) (Quick spoiler, here’s what it means as per Adjective. crozzled (comparative more crozzled, superlative most crozzled) Shrunken or shrivelled from exposure to heat.)

I still want to enjoy it, and I think I can, perhaps its a “right frame of mind” kind of reading, or maybe just have to turn off my critique mind, and just go in and read it. Who knows. Will I give it a re-read? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe I will in 2035 when we are facing a real apocalypse, who knows.

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