Currently Reading:

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Road

The Road

Cormac McCarthy

I have a soft spot for apocalypse fiction. Since the first time I saw Mad Max as a kid, with all of it bizarre fetish-wear and inarticulate thugs motoring across the desert in search of gasoline, something about the genre has grabbed me. I’d be hard-pressed to say why. At least some of it must have been the appeal of a world without rules. Preteen boys all long to see social institutions torn down, turned to sand. But there was something more in it for me. What stuck with me from the Mad Max films wasn’t the fights, the car chases across the desert, the wanton destruction (although there was plenty of that). What stuck with me were the quiet moments after the apocalypse – the children huddled in a cave around the wreckage of a bomber plane, telling stories of making it fly again to take them away to Tomorrow-morrow Land. I remember the image of a small boy, covered in dust, pulling at the string of a talking Bugs Bunny doll, as if Bugs knew the answers. I faintly remember a movie called Slipstream, a campy 80s sci-fi about people who travel the remains of the Earth by way of gliders, held aloft by those nuclear winds. I liked the apocalypse fiction that was stitched together of adaptability, ingenuity, and quiet.

So I should have loved The Road. It is all of those things: a man and his son, stitched together with adaptability, ingenuity, and quiet. McCarthy collected a Pulitzer for it, and I won’t be the one to detract from that. But the story has an incredible flatness to it. It starts at a low point, ends at a low point, and is all low points in between. The apocalypse is a tough place to live, in part because it’s desperate, but also because nothing happens. And nothing will happen, ever again. The Road is the story of what things look like after there are no more stories, and after there won’t be any more. It’s pretty clear that fifty years after the events of the novel, humans will be extinct, and The Road is about a pair of humans trying to put off that extinction for a few more days; trying to maintain a meaningful relationship while knowing that they’ll be wiped from the Earth and there won’t even be anyone left to remember.

As a vignette, it’s powerful. But I feel that the flatness of it makes a novel-length work unnecessary. There’s little narrative arc, little character development. There can’t be, because the world won’t change, only dwindle and end. In some ways, it’s an anti-story. A literary accomplishment? Probably. But not a story that really goes anywhere. The end of the the road looks just the same as the beginning. And that’s kind of the point.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m curious. Hollywood hates a story this flat, so I’m assuming they’ve added action, drama, romance. Probably a story of coming-of-age and redemption. Maybe I’d like it. I just can’t say no to a good apocalypse.