Cormac McCarthy, 'The Road'

Wednesday 6 November 2013

"All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you"
One of the modules I'm studying this year is the Contemporary American Novel. Having studied mainly pre-Victorian literature for the last two years, bar a few texts, I was really excited to get on this module! Unfortunately having been ill for the first half of the semester has made me miss quite a bit of it - but one of the novels I've loved getting a chance to properly read was Cormac McCarthy's The Road, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize amongst others. It's now one of contemporary literature's most well known post-apocalyptic novels and is the recipient of much praise. I'd seen the film a couple of times before reading the novel (something I'm not massively keen on doing) so I felt I'd know the plot quite well already - and to give credit to the filmmakers, I'm glad that the film mostly sticks to the original narrative. I read the book from start to finish in one sitting, despite my usual hatred for 'revisiting' storylines that I already know. There is one event that's (quite understandably) left out of the film - and if you read the book you'll know immediately when you get there. Trust me.
"By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp."
The novel isn't one that takes a while to read; its language is not complicated, the dialogue is simple and description not overly flowery. It doesn't need to be. It's gripping as it is. McCarthy has a way of painting the bleak world his protagonists inhabit vividly yet without the sensationalism that often characterises the post-apocalyptic genre. In fact, very little reference is even made to the event that caused the world to be falling apart so spectacularly: only the 'long shear of light and then a series of low concussions'. The world around them suggests nuclear winter, yet the effects of radiation sickness do not appear. However, I found myself barely thinking about the event that caused this world and instead on the remains of the humanity left within it. For all its focus on death and destruction, and sadness, the novel is beautiful. The film felt much the same way. I'd heartily recommend both to anyone - but be prepared for a cry!
"He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it."
Something in the novel and the film also called to my environmentalist side. I dreamed for days afterwards about falling trees. In the seminar our discussion turned very quickly to environmental issues, the real damage that humans are doing to this planet, and whether we believed action would come in time. 
"Perhaps in the world's destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence."
I found out today that Africa's Western Black rhino is officially extinct, none of the last remaining in the wild having been seen since 2006. The Northern White rhino is following quickly, extinct in the wild and only four remaining in conservation areas. Humans are having a devastating effect on the climate, and are destroying the oceans that we have the gall to call 'ours', filling the stomachs of sea animals with plastic and covering them in oil. Watching scenes such as the ones in The Road from a detached standpoint, I could appreciate their bleak beauty, but the reality is I'm scared that I could see this kind of destruction in my own lifetime - and as much as we romanticise the apocalypse, it isn't romantic. It is naive and egotistical to think that once the world is destroyed, we can save it. McCarthy's last paragraph in The Road stuck in my brain:
"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."

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