Cormac McCarthy – The Road

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006

I usually say that competent authors writing outside their main genre are the ones most likely to write truly fascinating books. I’ve seen this happen a number of times with science fiction, i.e. mainstream or at least non-SF writers making a short foray into the future and hitting solid gold. As far as I know, The Road is the only science fiction novel Cormac McCarthy has written, although I only know him from one previous book, No Country for Old Men. Even though the post-apocalyptic setting of this novel is depressing, degenerate and dark, the workmanship is splendid and shining.

The Road tell the story of a little boy and his father (none of them named in the book), and how they struggle on their journey south, to the coast, away from the onset of winter. Most of humanity is gone, along with the majority of other life forms which formerly thrived in the world. Food is scarce and dangers abundant, not seldom from other humans, who desperately try to sustain themselves in this hell-bent future America.

McCarthy doesn’t spend much time on the greater picture, choosing instead to focus on the boy and his father, which means that the world is mostly glimpsed from what they experience as they walk along the road. This interaction is portrayed through concise dialogues (reminiscent of No Country for Old Men) and a narrative that never feels exaggerated or wasteful. They man is in a very difficult situation, how shall he encourage his son to fight on, even though he himself doubts that there really is any future for any of them? How shall he protect him from the horrors that follow in the wake of the catastrophe?  And, on top of all this, how shall he be able to go on himself, having the knowledge to despair that his son lacks?

The Road is touching in many ways, perhaps because it’s so down-to-earth and realistic, and at the same time, so horrifying. I really enjoy the author’s way of writing, especially since it’s concise and to the point, without feeling even remotely blunt. I wish more experienced writers could move into the realm of science fiction, using their expertise in language and portrayal of characters that some science fiction writers, although otherwise talented, lack, and thus create something as brilliant as Cormac McCarthy has done here. I can see no reason not to give five snails to this novel and recommend it to everybody, especially those who don’t think science fiction is for them.

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  1. Svante’s avatar

    I’m not even sure I would consider the book science fiction. It lacks too many of the genre tropes. That is a good thing, of course; I wouldn’t hesistate to recommend The Road even to people who despise SF. This is just fiction, and brilliantly woven fiction at that.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your five snails, and I’m reminded that I really should pick up some other book by McCarthy.

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    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Regarding other books by McCarthy, I enjoyed No Country for Old Men, but it’s still pretty far from being as good as this one. I’m currently halfway through All the Pretty Horses, but I can’t say I like it very much, so if you find something nice, please let me know. :)

      Regarding science fiction, it of course depends on how you define the term. Once upon a time, I used a definition that stated that science (although not necessarily natural science and thus technology), or the derivatives thereof, should be in focus, but since nobody else uses that definition, I’ve simply tried to go more mainstream, which usually means that if it’s the future or alternative history, it can be categorised as science fiction. It isn’t a very good definition, but that’s the one I think is the most common. In that case, The Road is definitely science fiction.

      I could probably argue in favour of classifying it at science fiction according to my old definition as well, since the focus of the novel is on exploring life in an hypothetical future with a constructed social system. The only thing that argues against that is that it’s obvious that McCarthy is more interested in the two main characters than in the setting, other characters and whatever society still survives in the ruins.

      Well, that became a little bit longer than I intended, but there you go.

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      1. Svante’s avatar

        There are several kinds of definitions of science fiction. Being both lazy and currently in a hurry, I quote from my master’s thesis (in Swedish):

        “tre definitionsförslag, som tar fasta på olika karaktäristiska drag hos genren och som till-sammans kan ge åtminstone någon sorts heltäckande bild.
        Det första är den novologiska definitionen, som karaktäriserar science fiction-genrens fik-tionsvärld genom att där finns en nova, den avgörande punkt baserad på någorlunda trovärdig teknisk eller naturvetenskaplig spekulation på vilken världen skiljer sig från vår. Detta berör alltså enbart innehållsliga drag. För att fånga in kontinuiteten och den fokusering vid mönster och klichéer som är vanligt förekommande, i alla fall i värderande sammanhang när genren kritiseras, finns den megatextuella definitionen: science fiction är en typ av litteratur där no-vorna (enligt ovan) tas ur ett förråd av teman, miljöer och situationer som kännetecknar gen-ren, till exempel robotar, rymdskepp, utomjordingar, tidsmaskiner och så vidare. Detta är vad många science fiction-fans tänker på när de diskuterar vad som tillhör genren. Det är dock inget användbart kriterium för att skilja genren från angränsande genrer. Båda dessa definitio-ner bygger enbart på tematiska drag, men genrebegreppet är så mycket vidare än så. Mycket hänger på paratextuella element som undertitlar, förlagstillhörighet, recensioner och så vidare. Den paratextuella definitionen försöker innefatta det här: den beskriver science fiction som en marknadskategori, identifierbar genom paratextuella genremarkörer av olika slag samt genom distribution i de populära kretsloppen och en i övrigt låg status inom det litterära fältet.”

        What can this say of The Road? I don’t really know. First, I thought the post-apocalyptic stuff wasn’t prominent enough, but I’m not sure now. It might as well be science fiction by most standards. :)

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      2. Xhakhal’s avatar

        I was wondering, are you planning on watching this?
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_(film)

        Reply

        1. Olle Linge’s avatar

          Yeah. The book is so good it’s impossible for a movie to destroy my impressions of it. It’s not super high priority, but I will watch it.

          Reply