Summer Reading – The Road

To kick the blog off, and since summer is drawing to a close, I think it’s a good time to look back a bit on the last few months.

At the start of summer, I gave myself a reading list.

Once you get past the Sonic Screwdriver (an 18th birthday present from a friend of mine) and the coffee-stained Mr. Lazy mug, you may notice a number of books piled upon one-another. These are books that I’d either missed out on, or simply hadn’t found the time to read – as the subjects I’d taken for my A-levels were all quite literature-focused, I spent most of the year scrutinising texts that ranged from the comedic works of Aristophanes to the frankly unbearable prose of Jane Austen (I specifically refer to Northanger Abbey).

But the book I want to talk about is one that I purchased on a bit of an impulse, and ended up having quite a profound effect on me. I refer to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Not to be confused with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, of course. As a matter of fact these two stories couldn’t be more different in terms of character, theme and atmosphere. McCarthy’s The Road lacks the spontaneous, frantic pace, and hedonistic overtones of Kerouac’s masterpiece but is instead a much darker, more contemplative and disturbing exposé on the various aspects of human nature, the bonds of family and providing a peek into a future that seemed all too real not so many decades ago during the Cold War. As a matter of fact, this book is highly regarded by some environmentalists that it has been deemed by The Guardian as “the most important environmental book ever written”.

Now I know what those of you who haven’t read this book might be thinking now. “Great, it’s probably going to be really heavy on shoving some political statement down our throats with facts & figures, tables and graphs…”

You couldn’t be more wrong.

This is the story of a father and son who are travelling across the decaying landscape of post-apocalyptia. Who they are, we don’t know – McCarthy never tells us, they’re simply two people walking from place to place struggling to survive. It’s an interesting contrast with the world of today since everything we, in the West, have such easy access to today – internet, clean water, food, warmth, comfort – are pretty much ready for us on-demand, but in a post-apocalyptic setting they are luxuries that people are prepared to fight to the death for as the basic instinct to survive kicks in.

So then, what do these two travelers have? A revolver with two rounds, the clothes on their back and a trolley with some rudimentary supplies to keep them going for a short while and a broken mirror attached to it so the father can look behind them for any sign of trouble. Winter is coming (yes, the danger it poses is just as dangerous as it is in Game of Thrones) and the father and the boy need to find a place to stay so they can survive.

What’s different about this book then? There are lots of stories that are based around the concept of the human race in a post-apocalyptic setting. There’s even one on your reading list, Alex – World War Z. Why does this stand out?

While there’s what I already mentioned about how the book has been received as a largely realistic portrayal of our planet without a biosphere, what’s more apparent in the book is McCarthy’s use of language. There are no speech marks to indicate who is talking, despite taking the form of a third-person narrative. I’ve never read something quite like this where the author is able to transition from an omnipresent narration of action to a description of thoughts and observations through the eyes of a character. I’ve picked out an example to show you:

He woke in the morning and turned over in the blanket and looked down the road through the trees the way they’d come in time to see the marchers four abreast. Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to red as they could find. He put his hand on the boy’s head. Shh, he said.

Let’s see if we can dive into this without it seeming too much like an analysis I’d write for an English essay.

The first sentence describes the man awakening, but then shifts to a description of what he’s seeing and thinking. When the wanderers on the road show up, it doesn’t read “the man saw the marchers dressed in clothing of every description”, but rather gives a more immediate description that makes us forget that we’re seeing these events through the man’s eyes and, in that sense, the ‘omnipresent’ third-person narration is limited to the perspective of what the characters see.

It seems like something quite small and relatively insignificant, but to me it makes a world of difference to how the story is told – especially towards the end of the book where the tension is ramped up to eleven.

The heart of the story though is the relationship between the father and his son, the latter of whom hasn’t reached 10 years of age yet and is being exposed to some of the most repulsive and vile acts you can imagine – cannibalism, the butchering of infants, starvation and so on. Be under no illusions, this is not a cheery book. This is a story that will tear at your heartstrings and leave you devastated by the end’s rather ambiguous ending. There are fleeting moments of happiness and joy, many of them revolving around the acquisition of food and materials that will prolong their lives with just a tiny bit of luxury.

I cannot recommend this book enough for those who are looking for something with a bit of depth, something that’s going to delve into the atrocities humanity is capable of committing and importance of love in a world without rules which is reflected beautifully by the way McCarthy writes. Everything down to the grammar itself changes into something you don’t see in conventional storytelling, by the end you’re sure to appreciate those around you a little bit more and perhaps see the things you have so readily available to you in a bit of a different light.

One thought on “Summer Reading – The Road

  1. This was a good book. This and Fahrenheit were the only books we had to read this year that I really enjoyed. I could not put this book down. Mainly because you get used to McCarthy’s writing style, and if you put it down and come back to it later, you can’t tell what the heck the book is trying to say XD I liked how personal this book was, and the ending was really good. Also, reading this book while watching Walking Dead at midnight… not a good idea.

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