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Thursday, 4 December 2008

Book Of The Month: The Road

When I was young, and Tonbridge had a proper cinema, my parents took me to see a double bill of Sinbad And The Eye of The Tiger and Lost In The Desert, an Australian film also known as Dirkie.

I remember very little about Lost In The Desert, the story of a boy and his dog left to wander the Kalahari desert after a plane crash, except that whenever you thought things couldn't get any worse for the kid, they did.

It pushed the boundaries of tragedy so far that they flipped over into comedy and the film became a family shorthand for anything that kept piling misery upon misery.

"Oh, it's all getting a bit Lost In The Desert!"

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is pretty much like that, but without the laughs. It's the story of a man and his son - with just the clothes on their back, a pistol and a cart of scavenged food - hiking through America many years after some great cataclysm (presumably a nuclear war) has wiped most life off the face of the Earth.

Everything is ash-covered and potentially dangerous, nothing has a name (including our two protagonists) because names are meaningless in such an environment, and the couple just trudge relentlessly on as the man becomes becomes weaker and weaker.

There are brief moments of colour in the unending bleak, greyness of it all, but they never last because the man is worried that if they stay too long in any one place the "bad guys" will catch up with them and probably eat them.

He is driven by an urge to keep heading south, towards the coast, in the belief that they will eventually encounter the "good guys". Does he really believe this, or is he just saying it to give his son a reason to wake up in the morning? This is left up to the reader to decide.

There is no animal life left, no food, the weather alternates between snow and rain, everything is falling apart and the world is slowly dying.

The boy and his father have occasional, fleeting - sometimes violent - encounters with other survivors, but usually they hide from them and try to limit contact as much as possible.

This is not a happy book. There are whiff's of Stephen King in some of his descriptions and no escaping the fact that this is an old school science-fiction genre book that has garnered its author the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction.

It must be quite galling for other genre writers who have slaved away in the snobbishly ignored and overlooked fields of sci-fi, fantasy and horror for years without any serious recognition - beyond massive book sales and a healthy standard of living - that McCarthy can then come along and dip his toe in their pool and walk off with the golden prize at his first attempt.

I'll freely admit that I didn't expect to enjoy (if that's the right word) this book as much as I did. I'd tried to get into an earlier Cormac McCarthy book when I was at university, but it failed to grab me.

However, The Road is simultaneously an easy and a difficult read.

Because McCarthy is a "proper, serious" writer, and has won awards, punctuation is optional (speech marks are non-existent and apostrophes rarely appear) which takes some getting used to during the to-and-fro between man and boy. Sentences are short and pithy. Often without a verb.

He scrapes every obscure word from the darkest recesses of his Thesaurus, which means you can either "assume" what he means and carry on reading or stop to look up every single strange word he throws in.

But there is an undeniable beauty in the prose, whether McCarthy is describing the minutiae of their actions or a wisp of smoke or the vast expanses of blasted wasteland and ruined cities they walk through. No detail is left unexamined and you find yourself drawn into this terrifying, empty, post-Apocalyptic world.

Does it mean anything? Don't ask me! Are the boy and his father meant to be Jesus and God walking the world one last time? Who knows!

Perhaps things will become more clear - or more depressing - when the movie version comes out next year with Viggo Mortensen as 'The Man' and Kodi Smit-McPhee as 'The Boy'.

4 comments:

  1. As this book is from a "literary author" (???), I would probably have ignored it completely.
    High literature generally ignores my favourite genres, so I return the favour!
    Tim, thanks for highlighting this book, I will probably pick it up and may eventually get around to reading it (once I have worked my way through some of my reading list).

    ReplyDelete
  2. It only popped up on my radar a couple of months ago, but seems to have been generating a lot of online chat now I've looked into it - many sci-fi sites seem slightly annoyed by the mainstream praise and adulation the book is receiving, while other authors are overlooked.

    I would say it's worth reading, regardless, and judging on its own merits.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for this review -- it made me want to give this one a go.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Excellent; Rachel's possibly about to start it - I look forward to hearing both your opinions of it.

    ReplyDelete

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