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Spring 2011

Thinking about The Road

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Elizabeth Tallent

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy.
Knopf, 2006,
$24.95 cloth, $7.99 paper.

It might be easy to be a good father in the wake of an apocalypse. Comprehension of the shocking extent of one’s love for one’s child is a secret component of big moments like birth or, knock on wood, bad accidents, and an ongoing crisis requires sustained exercise of this love whose wildness and authority are usually obscured by the clutter of lesser emotion, the white noise of distraction. It is rarely seen; its magnitude is mostly irrelevant to ordinariness. It can lead a subdued life, this love, without once forgetting that its homeground is the old savannah of life-and-death. Freed, it frees prodigious energies whose object is the child’s survival.

The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an avatar of that ferocity and power, and the novel is frequently praised for the intensity of the father’s love as he and his son follow the road through the “black jackstraw land” of a cold, postapocalyptic landscape. The father has decided that they need to keep walking until they reach the ocean, which might somehow be exempt from the general desolation, but to travel the road is to see terrible things and to be in continual danger. The fact that vigilance is a matter of life and death means that the father’s love is ideally unrelenting, and this excites a kind of yearning in the reader to feel such love, or to be its object. When my son read the novel, he remarked that the father hardly ever left the son alone. “He only leaves him when he really has to.” There was wistfulness in his voice.

McCarthy is a happy despoiler of convention, but he keeps a canny eye on its utility, cherrypicking profitable bits of genre. Three-quarters of the way through the thriller No Country for Old Men’s tale of an affable, resourceful good-old-boy matching wits with a psychopath, it’s the good-old-boy who dies. Blood Meridian takes the fateful violence and cowboy nobility and male-bondedness that fascinate the classic Western and turns them bloody side out. McCarthy’s is an opportunistic verisimilitude: he’s a realist when there’s dismembering to be done. In describing maiming, torture, rape, scalping, or throat-cutting, his lexicon thrills open like a peacock’s tail, and this cold-eyed opulence wants the reader to partake of the pleasure-in-violence the style embodies. The trick here is that for a reader to feel this pleasure implies complicity, and seems to drive home the truth that we all secretly love violence. The “kid” who will be Blood Meridian’s protagonist has “a taste for mindless violence” by the novel’s third paragraph, “[a]ll history present in [his] visage.” We’re born that way.

Cormac McCarthy doesn’t make that an interesting thing to believe, but a stony incontestibility. For a writer as entranced as he is by permutations of violence to disdain explorations of cause means that his violent scenes have a powerfully defended psychological inscrutability, and I think that’s why I find them coercive: the reader is assigned a rigid relation to the violence—its language-gratified lover, but never its questioner. The imaginative force of these scenes belongs to flaring language or demented detail, and human involvement is automaton-like, the unexamined execution of inevitability. Rarely is motive illumined, and sometimes when it is the reader is astonished. The kid in Blood Meridian is accused by the evil Judge Glanton of having dissented from the bloodthirstiness binding together the Judge’s band of mercenary scalphunters, and it’s the kid’s resistance that inspires the Judge to hunt him down and accuse him: “You broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprises.” The Judge is describing a fascinating novel in which one person might sabotage the prevailing murderousness simply by holding back, but that novel is not Blood Meridian, since in Blood Meridian we never see this happen. We never witness any reserve in the boy’s participation in slaughter and mutilation, and we’re not privy to his thoughts.

The Road liberates itself from realism partly by appropriating the rumbling ominousness and grotesque alarms of the horror genre: “A mile on and they began to come upon the dead. Figures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling.” The wife informs the man, “We’re not survivors. We’re the walking dead in a horror film.” Another version of the walking dead is a cannibal caravan:

An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrapping… Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and last a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each. All passed on…
[the boy:] Were they the bad guys?
[the man:] Yes, they were the bad guys.

The Road’s cannibals are devoid of attributes that would mark them as human: “Eyes collared in grime and deeply sunk. Like an animal inside the skull looking out the eyeholes.” As Timothy Taylor suggests in The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death, cannibalism is tightly intertwined with the origin of our species. Like it or not, it is human. But so is resourcefulness, and if they were more than evil incarnate, The Road’s cannibals would be trying other things—somebody would think of saving seeds from haymows or withered apples and wrapping them in damp cloth to see if they’d sprout. Cleverness and community-building, technological innovativeness and collective foresight, the desire to keep one’s children alive, are not exclusive to good guys; the tramping depravity of The Road’s cannibals is no more realistic about human behavior than zombie bloodlust would be, but it means the cannibals serve as the gory Other for the man’s and boy’s self-identification as the good guys.

Simplification begets simplification, and despite his child’s looking like “a deathcamp survivor,” the man never has to conduct a hellish argument with himself about what previously despised behavior he might embrace if it means keeping his son alive. In documented cases of survival cannibalism, when survivors’ only chance is to eat the flesh of companions who’ve already died, their tormented choice is often to live; certain adults in the Donner party seem to have resisted cannibalism while coaxing their children to eat.

The Road resists such difficult ethical choices, which inevitably entail some loss of nobility; instead, the narration dwells on whether the man will prove capable of killing the boy if they’re about to be captured by cannibals. “Can you do it? When the time comes?... Hold him in your arms. Just so. The soul is quick. Pull him toward you. Kiss him. Quickly.” Either imagined alternative—mercifully taking his son’s life or loving him too deeply to do so—makes the man look honorable and moral and loving.

“The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn’t answer… A dull rose glow in the windowglass.” Apocalypse as Rorschach blot: that’s what readers find when they try to figure out what happened to The Road’s world. The event’s sparse details are open to interpretation as a nuclear strike, if that’s the reader’s inclination, or as the rapture, if rapture is preferred. It’s an apocalypse that doesn’t alienate a single reader. According to his Rolling Stone interviewer, McCarthy holds definite views about catastrophe, since at a conference on climate change, “When I remark on how many people are interested in tonight’s topic, McCarthy replies, ‘Of course it’s relevant—we’re all going to die.’” In contrast to this sharp clarity, The Road’s noncommittal vagueness about the end of the world invites all kinds of believers, from evangelical to ecowarrior, along for the ride. The Road is featured in the sidebars of websites like Survivalblog.com, where one article begins: “Preparing for the end of the world as we know it is an understandably daunting task…”

What is wrong with not-knowing as the reader’s position? The answer has an orphan simplicity: in fiction there are honest enigmas and dishonest enigmas. In an honest enigma the truth’s complexity exceeds representation. In a dishonest enigma the truth is often a fact or reality that would be known to the characters in the novel but which is withheld from the reader, so withholding it imposes an arbitrary wall between the reader’s experience of the world within the novel and the characters’. None of this matters to readers who like an authoritarian narrator or who experience such arbitrary handling of truth as a game they’ve been invited to play.

At least once when it was a question of truth, McCarthy himself advanced the gameplaying interpretation. No Country for Old Men begins in the voice of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: “I sent one old boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony.” But Texas has never had a gas chamber (before the adoption of lethal injection, execution was by the electric chair, known in Texas as “Old Sparky”). To readers who protested—in a forum on McCarthy’s work one poster wrote, “That’s a hell of an error. I mean, the very first sentence of the book”— McCarthy replied through his publicist, “I put it in there to see if readers were on their toes.” If that’s so, then McCarthy’s test of his readers depends on inaccuracy about the taking of human life by a state notorious for the frequency of its executions.

In writing this essay, I talked to friends who advocate the writer’s absolute freedom to write about any reality he wants to, and to tweak that reality however she chooses. In theory I agree. I can’t justify what I actually feel in reading the beginning of No Country for Old Men: that behind these pages is a reality whose moral complicatedness is insulted by gameplaying. Sheriff Bell continues: “I watched them strap him into the seat and shut the door. He might of looked a bit nervous about it but that was about all.” That’s the last the reader learns about the boy’s death—“he might of looked a bit nervous.” In an execution by lethal injection there would have been no door to close the condemned man away from witnesses. The boy would die while Sheriff Bell watched. He would have been obliged to narrate a death he helped bring about, and narration of that death would complicate the reader’s involvement with the laconic sheriff. In a novel abounding in deaths narrated in great detail, that shut door shuts down ambiguity. In its place is the Sheriff’s folksy bewilderment: “I dont know what to make of that. I surely dont.” 

Characteristic of McCarthy is the preference for enigma or icon over psychological depth; his misogyny plays handmaiden to this simplifying impulse. The most problematic case in The Road is “the wife,” the boy’s mother—though she’s never called that and is never shown holding the boy or talking with him. She vanishes even from the birth scene: “[The man] held aloft the scrawny body so raw and naked and cut the cord with kitchen shears and wrapped his son in a towel.” Instead of granting her reality as a mother, the novel dabbles in iconic femininity: “In dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed and her rib bones painted white… Her smile, her downturned eyes.”

Virginal beauty’s flip side is whore, and in the conversation on the night of her suicide when the man begs her not to kill herself, his ardent blamelessness is no match for her coldness:

You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot… I am done with my own whorish heart and I have been for a long time… Maybe you’ll be good at this [taking care of the boy once she’s dead]. I doubt it, but who knows. The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body. As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope for it with all my heart.

Like Shakespeare’s Cressida, she must confess, “My mind is now turned whore.” Her reflections about the value of a “passable ghost” are hard to understand, given that she has been looking after a real live boy she has to have coaxed along and shielded with her body. After a space break we read:

She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He’d taught her himself. Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick.

Good thing he taught her that; too bad that after the lesson he didn’t hold onto a flake of obsidian for himself, since a major plot point is the fact that there are only two bullets left in the man’s gun, and then only one bullet, and that if the man and boy are caught by cannibals, the man won’t be able to kill himself after killing the boy. The man will need to kill the boy before the boy can be raped and murdered or carried off. Because there’s only one remaining bullet, the father’s self-sacrifice is a lurking truth, but it’s dependent on a hole in the plot, on his not keeping an obsidian blade. For the father’s love to shine as the novel’s most powerful force, a number of plot holes and improbabilities are necessary. The great trick of the wife’s coldness is that it frees the novel from the realistic treatment of grief and enables McCarthy’s preferred mode of impersonal eloquence: “the coldness of it was her final gift.”

The novel evinces a covert fury at the wife that could have been interesting if it was recognized or made the object of introspection. Instead she’s treated, after her death, to an inarticulate symbolic defilement: “…one day [the man] sat by the roadside and took [his wallet] out and went through the contents. Some money, credit cards. His driver’s license. A picture of his wife. He pitched the sweatblackened piece of leather into the woods and sat holding the photograph. Then he laid it down in the road also and then he stood and they went on.” The road is public, a thoroughfare welcoming any traveler: exposure to the tramping feet of cannibals is the proper burial for a whore.

The Road is unabashed in its celebration of the boy as its moral center: he begs for the life of a dog to be spared, he urges his father to share their food with the fellow travelers they encounter. Yet he appears to watch this abandonment of a photograph of his dead mother without a word of protest. What child wouldn’t ask, If you don’t want it can I have it? He’s equally unreal after his mother’s suicide: “In the morning the boy said nothing at all and when they were packed and ready to set out upon the road he turned and looked back at their campsite and he said: She’s gone isn’t she? And [the man] said: Yes, she is.” Wouldn’t the boy say, We need to go look for her? The novel grants the boy emotional reality exclusively in relation to his father, and it does this so that the father-and-son bond can remain the novel’s uncontested center.

This dynamic really goes to the heart of what’s wrong with The Road, and bears closer examination. A metaphorical road, the journey to a worthwhile identity, runs invisibly alongside the real, danger-haunted road winding through woods and mountains. Held up against the backdrop of darkness and terror is the child’s ineradicable wish to believe in himself as definitively good—“carrying the fire,” in the father and son’s private language. The boy wants not merely to endure but to live, and to live he must figure out the nature of his humanity so that he can be sure not to betray it. The novel didn’t need to repress everything that would have complicated the boy’s wish: it would have survived questioning, and been more affecting for it. But this is a novel whose most powerful moments involve skillful repressions. As the father lies dying he says:

You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.

The frankness and urgency are moving, but this instruction that the boy ought to talk to the dead parent ignores the fact that he already knows something about dead parents: he’s lost his mother. The novel’s implication is that as a suicide and cold abandoner she can’t be, after death, worth talking to. But her child might try.

In the movie adaptation of The Road, the great actor Robert Duvall plays a traveler named Ely who sits down to supper with the man and the boy after the boy insists he be invited. Before the filming of their campfire conversation, Duvall warned Viggo Mortenson, who plays the man, that he was going to do something not in the script. In his disconcertingly uninflected bare-as-bone drawl Duvall tells the man, “I had a boy one time. A boy of my own.” Duvall’s hand then lifts (this seems almost to amaze him, it seems like something his hand does on its own); he reaches out and up and his hand opens; his exhalation sounds like a soft cross between whoosh and shush as his hand comes to a bewildered halt; that boy is gone; so weird and sorrowing is this gesture Duvall might as well be releasing the last of his boy’s ashes. The gesture looks unpremeditated. It is beautiful but not only that. Duvall is never narcissistic, and this gesture in the blink of an eye widens and reifies the postapocalyptic world by permitting the reality of other parents’ devotion and appalled grief. Duvall was smarter than the script he was given, and more generous.

In the novel, Ely appears almost exactly halfway through. Color is rare in the text, but we get the “grayblue” of Ely’s eyes “half buried in the thin and sooty creases of his skin.” He sits “like a starved and threadbare buddha,” and when asked how he lives, answers, “I just keep going. I knew this was coming… This or something like it. I always believed in it.” With his grayblue eyes and gnomic candor and despairing foresight, isn’t this McCarthy? When the man wants to know if Ely tried to get ready for the end of the world, he says, “No… Even if you knew what to do you wouldn’t know what to do. You wouldn’t know if you wanted to do it or not. Suppose you were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?”

“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy not long ago told an interviewer. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.” Susan Sontag had a different take on what kind of idea was dangerous, writing in AIDS and Its Metaphors: “That even an apocalypse can be made to seem part of the ordinary horizon of expectation constitutes an unparalleled violence that is being done to our sense of reality, to our humanity.”

Before filming of the movie adaptation began, according to director John Hillcoat, “We referenced all these man-made and natural disasters, then went all around looking for that stuff—it’s all out there.” I want to think it would be hard finding scenes conforming to the novel’s ashen palette, a dead rainbow ranging from bone-white to soot-black, but it turns out to be no problem. Suitably monochromatic chaos was discovered at fifty-one locations ranging from abandoned factories in wintry Pittsburg to burnt-over woods to maritime wreckage strewn in Katrina’s wake. Sontag observed in another essay that science-fiction film is “concerned with the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in making a mess,” but this mess was already made. From its first pages, The Road regards destruction as antithetical to explanation, the devastated context for the man’s and boy’s love of each other: “[The man]…looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty… Are you okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each other’s world entire.”

On a McCarthy-obsessed website, in a thread titled “Recovering from The Road,” one poster writes: “I have just finished reading TR last night, and like you all am still haunted and traumatized. I lay beside my five year old son and wept uncontrollably as he lay peacefully sleeping.” Heartfelt as the sorrow is, this isn’t a unique reaction. When an interviewer asked, “What kind of reactions have you gotten to The Road from fathers?” McCarthy replied:

I have the same letter from about six different people. One from Australia, one from Germany, one from England, but they all said the same thing. They said, “I started reading your book after dinner and I finished it at 3:45 the next morning, and I got up and went upstairs and I got my kids up and I just sat there in the bed and held them.”

These accounts share an unreflective urgency, and the consolation is right there: it’s the peacefully sleeping child you can lie down beside, or the kids you wake up so you can hold them. The parent’s love of the child is theatrically isolated.

Despite the last-minute appearance of a rescuer for the boy, virtually all other human behavior in the novel is inexplicable or terrible or both. Theatrical isolation of the father-son relationship is The Road’s basic narrative and psychological strategy. Even as it exalts this love, its hatred of complexity makes it a deeply conservative and fearful work, anti-trust, anti-community, anti-commitment. Not long before the last presidential election, McCarthy was asked for his thoughts, and his answer was, “Poets don’t vote.” What definition of poets can make that statement make sense? It’s a private shrug. In its invitation to fervor and grief, The Road is not truly interested in the future except as an occasion for experiencing one’s fantastic love of one’s child. Even if you knew what to do you wouldn’t know what to do. Not unless, out there on the ordinary horizon of expectation, you can imagine more than yourself and your child. Not unless you can imagine others.

Elizabeth Tallent teaches in the writing program at Stanford University.

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