by Cormac McCarthy
Reviewed by Bob Sojka
Cormac McCarthy is a giant of contemporary literature. His 1979 novel Suttree has been compared to Ulysses and Huckleberry Finn. So why am I reviewing The Road for NewMyths? Easy. For me, The Road represents the Holy Grail of speculative fiction– the crossover novel. It exists simultaneously in the literary or mainstream world and the speculative fiction world. As such it means huge artistic success, huge readership, and huge dollars. As a devotee of sci-fi, I think The Road also points writer wannabe’s like myself at what almost certainly must be a necessary evolution to avoid genre extinction--namely sci-fi where the writing itself and the literary value, apart from the sci-fi ‘gimmick,’ are the most durable genes in a novel’s DNA.
I’m a sucker for post apocalyptic stories. Dystopia? Planetary disaster? Collapse? Yeah, all that; count me in. The Road was subtly evocative of another iconic story, On the Beach, by Nevil Shute. Few apocalyptic novels have balanced utter hopelessness against desperate hope as masterfully as Shute’s novel. Shute used the big picture: Geo-political theater, romance, fallout from an atomic war, a nuclear submarine’s voyage. McCarthy boiled it all down to a father, his son, a shopping cart and a world composed of ash, cinders, and a few cannibals.
Whereas the title and setting of On the Beach evoked submission and stranding, being washed ashore by irresistible forces and events, The Roadevokes the journey itself, which is a quest against all odds-- persistence against unbearable and unrelenting fatigue. The father and son of this story fight their despair rather than succumb to it. In a denouement that defies unraveling, hope is salvaged from the meager promise that the uncertainty of struggle is at least more comfort than the uncertainty of death.
As an sci-fi reader I initially looked for clues about how the world had become so charred. I wanted to know whose fault this was. Where was the grand cosmic lesson about how we as a species could adjust our machinery or our politics or our religions to avoid this grim scenario? But I was soon more enthralled by the writing. Many passages of The Road come close to prose poetry--the way Emily Dickinson might have written an apocalyptic story. The internal monologues are painted with a palette of rich introspection that challenges the monochromatic world that has been thrust upon the survivors.
How many times have we been told that sci-fi strives to make the unfamiliar familiar and to make the familiar unfamiliar? McCarthy succeeds famously at this in The Road. What makes it such a successful mainstream/sci-fi crossover is that in blasting away everything familiar on a planetary scale, he puts an unflinching microscope to our humanity. What makes it essential sci-fi is that it is hard to conceive of a work-a-day scenario that would allow the raw examination of love, compassion, devotion, ethics, determination, instinct, fear, courage, trust and redemption that is possible only in the cinder world of The Road. Unlike Orson Scott Card’s Folk of the Fringe, or Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road, or any of the other dystopic works I treasure, there are no cultural side hypotheses or exercises in technical or social extrapolation in The Road. Instead we look to a few of those hypothetical questions we often throw around without sincerity. If you knew the world would end tomorrow, what would you realize is really important to you? What would love mean to you if an entire planet conspired against your commitment to it? What exactly are the limits of hope? What should they be? If you read The Road, you will have a better idea of some of the answers.
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