I woke up around 2 am. My hands unconsciously sought my iPhone beside my bed. Curled up in a foetal position under the covers, I continued reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It was around 4.00 am or so when I turned the last page.
In my adolescence, when I read mostly pulp fiction, I have finished many a book in a single sitting. As I got older and the books became less page turners and more page ponderers, it took me several days to finish a book. The distractions of the early 21st century and the hazy state of a new parent only worsened the problem. The last book that I read with a single-minded devotion was last December when I was by myself on a plane to the East Coast to attend my sister’s graduation ceremony. I finished Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in two sittings, on the plane ride to New York and the ride back. That book is now in my pantheon of the most profoundly affecting works of fiction that I have read.
I first heard of Cormac McCarthy when the Coen Brothers’ movie of his novel, No Country For Old Men, came out a couple of years back. But the author’s name stuck less in my mind than Javier Bardem’s chilling persona and the intensity of the movie. I hadn’t read the book, but having seen earlier works of the Coen brothers, I assumed that the movie was the way it was because of them, not because of the book. Then a couple of weeks back, a close friend, who hadn’t seen the movie, told me how he had just finished reading the book and considered it one of the most masterful works he had encountered. Having watched the movie already, I decided to check out Cormac’s other famous book, The Road.
Post-apocalyptic novels aren’t my cup of tea. I usually run from them as fast as I run from romance novels (I don’t mean serious romance, but the kind that Mills & Boon, Barbara Cartland and so many others are associated with). Images of Kevin Costner’s disastrous Waterworld or the ultra-violent (in those days) Mad Max series are what come to my mind when I think of post-apocalyptic works. I was confident that this book would be no different. But right from the start, the book sucked me in. Here is the opening passage:
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.
The story is set in the future. The world has been destroyed, the cause never mentioned, only vaguely alluded to. A father and son are on the road, heading south, to escape the onset of the harsh winter. They have to walk as there is no vehicle. They push a shopping cart with their possessions, most of which is food. On the road are cannibals, survivors of the apocalypse who eat anything alive, including humans. They seem mindless in the sense of being someone you cannot reason with, but possessed of a kind of animal cunning that makes them lethal. The father has a gun with two bullets in it.
The gun had three bullets in it, but the mother used one on herself, declaring life to be hopeless. The father refuses to give up hope. He infuses his son with hope that they’ll reach the ocean and find other survivors, humane ones, with whom they can start a new life.
The poet W.S.Merwin once wrote:
I want to tell what the forests
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language
In similar fashion, Cormac McCarthy reaches back into medieval times to find words like gryke, lardcan, gambrel, bindle and rachitic. In so doing, he makes the experience surreal and unimaginable at the same time (how can you imagine it if you don’t even know the words that describe it). He creates a world that is slowly dying, even if the man refuses to admit it. Cormac writes of this world:
The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.
It’s a world in which the father can seek no respite by describing to his son what once was. Cormac writes:
He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.
In yet another brilliant passage, he writes:
Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
His imagery and descriptions are masterly and poetic. He writes of “A blackness to hurt your ears with listening” and “a cold autistic dark”, he writes of days where “the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp”, and of a world so ravaged that “Where men cant live gods fare no better”.
And tense passages are many. I had to put the book down and pause while my heart slowly calmed down enough to continue reading. I can’t remember the last time my blood pressure was so affected by a reading. Cormac says in one early passage:
Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever,
And he puts in so many images in your head that you curse him for putting it there, while you continue reading, letting him weave his magic on you. And of course, some of the images are so beautiful, you thank him for it. Passages like the one described above or this favorite of mine: “All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain.”
His writing is also superbly sylistic without ever getting in the way of the narrative. There are no chapters, just paragraphs separated by a couple of blank lines. As my friend said, he makes it impossible to stop. Where would you stop, there are no places where you can cry “Intermission”. The dialogues are not written the usual style. There are no quotation (“) punctuation marks at all. Cormac, who’s in his seventies, has a son who was 11 at the time of writing, and Cormac said that some of the passages are verbatim reproductions of their conversations. Passages such as this one where the son asks the father about death:
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me? Yes. So I could be with you.
The ending is no what you might expect either. It is not totally unexpected, but when it comes, it seems real, not some sudden, contrived ending that the author had to put on because he was running out of ideas or knowledge of when to bring things to an end. He writes:
When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?
But the book is a hopeful book, of a hope that even a world like this cannot destroy. In the tenderness between father and son, there is a beauty and hope that all the wretchedness cannot destroy. In part of Africa, people say that when you name something, you must care for them. In this book, without even giving them names, Cormac McCarthy makes us care for the father and son, hope for them, pray for their safety.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. I can scarce imagine another prize winning book that is so gripping a read.