Monday, November 09, 2009

Cormac McCarthy – ‘The Road’

Nick Cave-related, in that he and Warren Ellis have done the score for the forthcoming film, but there is also a similarity in the way this and And the Ass Saw the Angel treat readers with suspicion – and treat them to words they’ll never find elsewhere. The silent, sinister protagonist in Cave’s book addresses ‘you silent and most sinister sitters’, and The Road’s prose slips on occasion from bare bones description to something more enigmatic:
What time of year? What age the child? He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt. (pp. 279-80)
There are a few of these passages. You’re tramping along at the end of the world through the fallout dust with dead trees and suspected cannibals around every bend, inhabiting every derelict building. But at least the pages are falling away quickly. And then, like a thick trunk blocking the way of the shopping cart stacked with everything you own, comes a paragraph that brings you to an abrupt halt, which needs chopping up before you can continue. There is some help to be found here with the word ‘salitter’: ‘It is the essence of God which is “drying from the earth”’. ‘Spoken bones’ is tricky, because objects can’t be spoken (as opposed to spoken about). Only words can be spoken. So the bones must be words: they communicate mortality to future generations, and part of the reason they are mouldering is that future generations are fast running out. ‘The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion’ (p. 93). The passage moves on to consider its own readers, and the likelihood of their hostility to a narrative which comes ‘to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt’, and which, being what-if fiction, has no good reason to do so. It is scarcely possible that this account could be written, and wholly impossible that it could be read afterwards, with mankind all but wiped out. We are not reading it afterwards, though, but beforehand.

The two man characters are a father and son, travelling from somewhere north to escape the harsh winter there. It is America, the road of the book’s title is an interstate road, and they follow it to the sea. Maybe there are several roads. The father and son are not named, they are mostly ‘he’ (the father) and ‘the boy’. Sometimes the father is ‘the man’, and this serves to distance him, to push him further into this world of unimaginable bleakness. This is appropriate to his character because he is over-cautious, seeing himself as a survival machine. He trusts no one, and has a strong sense of purpose in the protection of his son. The boy does not share this, he sees far more clearly that there is no point in merely surviving: ‘I don’t know what we’re doing’ he protests, and the father concedes: ‘There are people. There are people and we’ll find them. You’ll see’ (p. 261). But this is just to placate the boy: he doesn’t really believe it.

Is The Road a cautionary tale? If so its message is a little on the obvious side: Mankind, do not destroy yourself in a nuclear holocaust. You will not like it. The plants and the animals will die, the sun will become pale through the debris in the atmosphere. Most of you will die too, and those who live will have to survive on whatever canned food they can scavenge, because new crops will not grow. Others will turn to cannibalism. Eventually there will be no cans or people left, and that will be the end of everything. But the end of everything is not what The Road is interested in. Who cares if the human race is wiped out? It wouldn’t be such a catastrophe, because there would be no one left for it to be a catastrophe to. Everything – everybody – depends. This is the real point of the book. It is pretty obvious too, really.

More words from The Road: transom, gambrel, blacktop, windrow, piedmont, obsidian, meconium, sapper, catamite, phalanx, kerf, chert, isocline, stanchion, clerestory, bindle, pampootie, travois

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