He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.
Shades of grey suffuse Cormac McCarthy's stark fable The Road (2006). They lie not in the characters - who are for the most part uncomplicatedly light or dark, this being a fable - but in the blasted landscape of its world, in the ash and dust and dirty frost of the "cauterized terrain" through which the characters struggle.
We're never told exactly what caused the devastation. There are a couple of suggestions that there was a nuclear blast, several years before the story begins, but the why and the how are not the important issues, here. McCarthy is much more interested in effects than causes - beyond certain characters' vague apprehension that the whole thing is a form of divine retribution for some abstract, unknowable crime - and his characters have, in any case, little energy or inclination to dwell on the past. Indeed, it is implied that those who, in the aftermath, thought too much about causes and blame ended up in a frenzy of scapegoating as pointless as it was brutal. The man remembers:
Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. What had they done? He thought that in the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime but he took small comfort from it.
Even for those who retain (some of) their sanity, it is increasingly difficult to remember what the world used to be like:
He'd had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already?
The story is an episodic - though entirely gripping - one. As the title suggests, it is about a journey rather than a destination; the unnamed man and his son whom we follow across country, through skeletal forest and freezing plain and brushes with gangs of cannibals, have an interim goal in mind (the coast), but in truth there is nowhere for them to go. There is no refuge to be found where the dangers of this blasted land (cold, illness, fellow human beings gone feral) will not catch up to them eventually; there is no plenty that can be guaranteed to fend off future famine. The people they see are like nightmares, "shrouded" in their own clothes, "Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last."
Nor is anything going to get better; all that remains to them is an existential crisis of cosmic proportions, and frequently expressed in semi-biblical language:
He walked out into the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of an 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.
The man and the boy travel because they can do nothing else, because they are continually scavenging for food in a land where nothing grows, and because the man believes it is the only way to keep his son alive. His son - who was born shortly after the world-ending event, and thus has known no other life - is, in turn, the only thing that keeps the man alive. The book's opening line lays out for us the importance of the relationship:
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.
His son is the first thing the man thinks of whenever he wakes, his safety such an omnipresent concern - and the loneliness of the darkness so acute - that he must reassure himself that the boy is breathing, and that he is not alone in the world. Here is all the tenderness and claustrophobic need that their brief, gruff conversations tend to conceal. The man may be the boy's protector, but the boy is the man's purpose: they are "each the other's world entire."
Starving, ill, permanently exhausted and sunk in quite understandable fear and despair ("There were few nights lying in the dark that he did not envy the dead"), the man nonetheless forces himself to go on, for his son's sake. The mentality that has developed in him is, not surprisingly, an embattled one: a desperate, consoling and motivating belief in a black-and-white world, in which the man and his son can only trust each other, and everything and everyone can be sacrificed to his son's well-being:
You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We're still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.
To the man, the two of them are the only ones whose actions and motives are not suspect; by extension, they are the only ones who deserve survival. On several occasions this leads to clashes between the two, since the boy is less jealous of their meagre food supplies than the man is, and more inclined to show mercy and kindness to those they meet on the road. While the man sees only potential threats, the boy (generally) sees only the threatened. It's often hard to be sure who is right, since only the man's fears can ever be proven; it is impossible to be certain that a given stranger will never become a threat, but any outburst of violence makes the man's case pretty definitively.
While it never comes to dominate the narrative, this debate runs through the book, most notably in a deeply discomforting scene in which the pair have the opportunity to free the squalid prisoners of a cannibal gang, but run away to protect themselves from the returning captors. In particular, the issue colours the story's conclusion, when the man finally succumbs to his illness, and the boy almost immediately takes up with some passing (apparently friendly) strangers. Is the boy's ability to trust and be trusted a sign of something messianic in him? Or does he just have lower expectations of life and of people, having never known any different? The former reading certainly seems to be the implication of the ending, but I find it dissatisfying, since it contains a level of sentimentality and escape that is otherwise not in abundance in the book.
(I also found it tough to imagine how the world, as presented, promised much of a future for humanity beyond the present generation. The land shows no signs of becoming any less irradiated by the end of the book, limiting its capacity to sustain human life to a) what crumbs of pre-disaster food remain and b) the aforementioned cannibalism. Neither of which exactly scream long-term prospect.)
I wonder, rather, if our last glimpse of the boy isn't more an expression of the man's dying hope, and regret. Earlier in the narrative, the man recalled something his wife said to him, the last time he saw her:
The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body. As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.
He has made the boy into something to live for; but in the extremities of shielding him from harm, he has lost sight of everything else. Does life at the end of the world not need to be as desperate and lonely as the man has made it? Has the obsession with staying alive sucked life of its meaning?
The whole thing is mesmerisingly grim. I've always had a weakness for novels of post-apocalyptic despair, as I've mentioned before, but what really drew me in, here, is what McCarthy does with language: the terse dialogue exchanges, the soaring (if occasionally slightly purple) descriptive passages with their stripped-down prose - very little "there was" or "there were", just sentences like "Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on either side" - and incongruous imagery.
I loved the look and sound of this dying earth: its relentless under-punctuated rhythms ("Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease"), its "gunmetal light" and "cold autistic dark", its striking descent into ruin - as here, with snow-laden dead trees unable to bear the weight any longer:
He was half asleep when he heard a crashing in the woods.
Then another. He sat up. The fire was down to scattered flames among the embers. He listened. The long dry crack of shearing limbs. Then another crash. He reached and shook the boy. Wake up, he said. We have to go.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the backs of his hands. What is it? he said. What is it, Papa?
Come on. We have to move.
What is it?
It's the trees. They're falling down.
(My fellow Alexandrian, Victoria, also wrote about the book here, along with Paul Kincaid.)