On “The Road”

by Henry Farrell on January 22, 2007

I was going to do a review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road last year, but then got stuck into an email dialogue with China Mieville about it. I then started to write a revised review, but abandoned it; my views on the book had changed as a result of what China said, and it didn’t feel honest to write without some reference to the conversation. So here, in lieu of a review, is a lightly edited version of the conversation (I’ve lost the first email in which I said, as best as I remember, that I thought The Road was great, but since that was the only critical judgement that the email had on the book, I don’t think that posterity is missing out on much). CM denotes China’s bits, and HF mine. NB that this is a personal email conversation (albeit one that’s posted with China’s permission) so the tone is more conversational than it would be in a book review. NB also that spoilers abound. The rest below the fold.

CM – did just read ‘The Road’, actually, and have to tentatively differ with you. I thought it less impressive than the other McCarthy I’ve read. Of course, being McCarthy it’s fantastically written, and a hugely impressive book, and head and shoulders above most of the stuff out there, etc etc, and all the other perfectly true caveats one would rush to add, so this isn’t to say it’s bad, just that I’ve been left feeling unhappy with it somehow. I’ve been pondering why for some time, and I think there are two overlapping reasons, one fundamentally unfair and borderline tongue-in-cheek (though not entirely), the other much more serious.

Unfairly, I think part of the problem is that any writer who is so known for such a distinct prose style becomes prone to self-parody very easily. That is not the writer’s fault, but does mediate ones relationship to their work. So in this case, for example, the prose read so very McCarthy-ly, and the whole book was so precisely McCarthy-does-post-apocalypse that I found myself rolling my eyes at times. This, I repeat, is not fair. Nonetheless I can’t help it. The book didn’t at all, at any points, surprise me, and that was a disappointment.

More fundamentally (and not, I think, unrelatedly),there was something uncomfortably aimless about the book – I could never quite explain to myself quite what the point of the book was, or even if it actually had one. The reason, I think, is this – the Apocalypse (moral, personal, sympathetic-geographical, et al), is the absolute horizon of all McCarthy’s fiction. Whatever book, what glowers at you from the edge of the fiction-event is Apocalypse. Which is what gives all his work that sense of foreboding, of inexorability, of existential fear and bad-revelation. The problem with The RoadBlood Meridian, in Suttree, in All the Pretty Horses, The Orchard Keeper, et al, so if what is there at the BAD BAD END OF THE WORLD is in that sense familiar then there’s a faint sense of disappointment.

This overlaps back to the question of prose, because if that’s the case at the level of existential thematic, then in the absence of that horizon, in a new time of post-inexorability, what the book falls back on is its – startlingly good, as ever – prose. But startlingly good ‘McCarthy-esque’ prose without the pull of that awe-ful tips over easily into a kind of stylistic kitsch.

It’ll be interesting to see where he goes next. It’ll be quite hard to step back from this, back to another pre-Apocalypse moment, however conceived. Perhaps a drawing-room comedy…

CM – I mean, didn’t you think the roasted baby was just, y’know, a little bit camp?

HF– My take – it does go over the top in some ways, but is still brilliant (albeit not up there with Blood Meridian, which imo is the best thing he’s done). But the flaws that I see are a little different from the flaws that you see. I agree on the campness of the broiled baby, and even more so of the amputees in the cellar. The latter annoyed me, in part because my sfnal instincts made me ask practical questions- how is this kind of cannibalism sustainable – presumably you’ve got to feed your victims something if you want to keep them alive, which sort of defeats the purpose of the thing (far smarter, if you adopt the logic of the cannibals to just butcher em and smoke em). But some of the other stuff you said, I disagree with. First, the prose – it seemed to me that for large swathes of the book at least, this wasn’t McCarthy-doing-post-apocalypse, but an interesting progression. He managed to subordinate the baroqueness of his earlier work within the clear, simple sentences of his later stuff – it’s still there, but it’s tighter because it’s under control. More generally, I think he managed to do something in the book that he hasn’t before – that is, to combine the more intimate style of All The Pretty Horses etc with the larger canvas of Blood Meridian. As I say, Blood Meridian is utterly staggering in a way that this isn’t – but it doesn’t have anyone who even approaches being a well developed character (the kid is pretty passive; the Judge is magnificent, but he’s a personification, not a person). This does rather better, I think. I’ll admit that it hit me hard in part because of the father-son relationship – I was reading it in spurts in between looking after our ten month old, and doubtless prone to a certain sentimentality because of that.

But onto the more serious point – I didn’t find the book aimless at all. In fact, the parts that I thought didn’t work were bad not because they were aimless, but because they were too unsubtle in their aim. Here, I think Kennedy’s review in the NYT had it at least half right – this is a weirdly religious book. It’s a sort of messiah-story. Where Kennedy gets it wrong, I think, is that he expects that there’s some sort of redemption that’s going to happen after the book is over. What I think McCarthy is trying to do is to figure out what kind of religion is possible when there isn’t any redemption, there isn’t any future. I think he’s been a religious writer for a long time, in the sense that say Kafka or Beckett are religious writers; not because they believe in God, but because for them it’s an important, fundamental thing that there is no God. The key passage for me in the book is on p.158 of the US edition where the father finds and abandons a horde of books in a ruined library when he realizes that they’re meaningless.

He’d not thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation. He let the book fall and took a last look around and made his way out into the cold gray light.

These sentences, for me, are classic McCarthy. The religious and the profane are both contained in the phrase “world to come,” but the latter undermines the former – the promise of religion is really, when you look at it hard, premised on the idea that there is going to be a secular future in this world. And there isn’t going to be that kind of future, not for anyone. The book seemed to me to be a working out of this theme – what kind of faith is possible in a world where there isn’t any future to believe in? McCarthy’s answer is a version of “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” elevated to a religious creed. Preserving the small things in life, the simple kindnesses, for as long as you can, is all that you can hope for. There isn’t going to be any redemption at the end of days where the world is transcended. The transcendent world was the physical world that has been completely and irrevocably lost, the world of trout streams and boat journeys made in silence with older men.

Thus, I think that the book has a structure, for all its apparent aimlessness. It’s a parody without laughs of the 40 days in the desert, but one where the messiah isn’t going to come back from the wilderness and gloriously redeem everything. The wilderness is all that is left. It’s pretty clear that the son is some kind of messiah-figure, but his miracles consist of staving off the inevitable, and preserving a space for the small human decencies. And here too, is where I think the book’s flaws lie. Not in its aimlessness, but in the seriousness with which the father and son repeatedly talk about “how they are carrying the fire.” Religious camp, as opposed to horror-camp.

CM– Your countercrits are well taken, and I certainly agree with your view of it as a religous book. I still stand by it being post-Telos, however.

As to your thing about fatherhood, I think I probably have the opposite reaction. Not being a father, and having grown up without a father, i have a kind of knee-jerk loathing for anything which smells of father-son sentimentality. This as you can imagine gives me a problem with many Hollywood films… In this case, for example, I found the use of the term ‘Papa’ absolutely sick-making. This, I freely acknowledge, is probably my problem. However, I still maintain that the sentimentality of that relationship tipped over too far.

(And also with the religiosity it tips over sometimes – ‘we carry the fire’ – ew.)

There was also a cheat – the kid, who grew up under this post-apocalypse deadness, is emotionally a child from now. His horror at, for eg, the cannibalism, his empathy with the old man, etc, were not the reactions of a child who had grown up in that place. He was looking with our eyes. Now I know that makes sense in structural terms – the messianism. However, it doesn’t, I think, make sense in emotional terms.

HF-The bit about the kid’s falseness is interesting. I hadn’t really thought about it, but if it’s right (and I think it is), it defeats McCarthy’s purpose of arguing that something carries on, even without the hope of a future. If the only way that you can have that something carrying on as you would like to is to slip in a ringer, then it really suggests that he is, in the end, consoling himself, even as he thinks that he’s being admirably tough and brutal.

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The Last Linkfinder « Torque Control
01.23.07 at 1:22 pm
Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » China Miéville on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
01.24.07 at 1:33 pm



brayden 01.22.07 at 1:07 pm

Wonderful conversation…thanks for posting it for all to see.

I disagree with China’s point about the falseness of the child. Why should we not expect the child of the post-Apocalypse to be emotionally similar to the child of today’s world? Assuming otherwise is embracing a sort of naive, blank-slate sociology of the 1970’s. I think McCarthy’s point is that the child is a child, despite all of the forces of deadness pushing and pulling against him. And for that reason, the child (or children in general) is the only source of hope left in the world. He is the fire of which the duo talk about. Sure, it’s sentimental, but I don’t think it’s completely inaccurate to argue that children carry with them certain inherent qualities of societal regeneration.

BTW, this is basically the same point made in the excellent film, Children of Men.


Barry 01.22.07 at 2:58 pm

“Why should we not expect the child of the post-Apocalypse to be emotionally similar to the child of today’s world? Assuming otherwise is embracing a sort of naive, blank-slate sociology of the 1970’s.”

We should expect such a child to be emotionally different, because that child has experienced a life far, far differently from our lives. For example, to us cannibalism is something that we read about; he sees the cannibals and the victims, as again and again. He’s seen butchered bodies of people, chopped up for meat. He knows the smell of rotting human flesh. He’s seen lots and lots of death, and has grown up with the knowledge that some of the people he sees would kill him and eat him, unless his father protects him. He walks every day through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.


Brad 01.22.07 at 4:41 pm

A little self-promotion here, but I wrote The Road this past weekend — many of which harmonize well with some of the positions taken in your conversation. I approach things from a “theological” perspective, as well — albeit, not an especially confessional one, and pursue a sense I’ve long had of McCarthy as America’s greatest death-of-god novelist. Take from the post what you will.


Brad 01.22.07 at 4:45 pm

I should’ve paid attention to the Preview below. Didn’t scroll far enough down, and thus didn’t notice that the link tag was all messed up. Anyway, if you’re interested, it is here.


Hasan Jafri 01.22.07 at 11:54 pm

The broiled baby is too well done. It’s overdone. This confirms my long held view that Cormac McCarthy has no future whatsoever as a chef, but as a writer he’s superb. Bon Appetit.


Anderson 01.23.07 at 9:31 am

Having a 2-year-old has gravely affected my ability to read about babies roasting on spits.

I was wincing at some of the atrocities recounted in Niall Ferguson’s last book; the need to imagine atrocities after the 20th century just seems a bit suspect to me, somehow.


JR 01.23.07 at 10:53 am

The Road is genre science fiction being read by readers who don’t read that stuff so they don’t realize what they’re reading. It’s shocking, but it’s not very good. The prose is to good Cormac McCarthy as Across the River and Into the Trees is to good Hemingway. It’s the kind of book that makes you wonder whether you’ve overestimated the author’s earlier stuff.

PS- I thought No Country for Old Men was truly horrible.
PPS- As a political work it’s perhaps got some importance. “This is what a war would mean.”


Jill Hummelstein 01.23.07 at 11:12 am

I’m going to ask you a question: why, with a writer like McCarthy, would he choose to be inconsistent in portraying the child? Let’s assume it was on purpose. Let’s assume he has enough skill to control tonality, emotional register and the huge contradtion at the end of the book. If approached from this way, he is saying something about the child that all of you missed: the child does not exist.

The man is talking to himself, or an imaginery child, the entire book.


GeoX 01.23.07 at 12:27 pm

I don’t understand why McCarthy is supposed to be good (okay, I *understand* it, but I sure don’t understand why so many people subscribe to the notion). Blood Meridian may be the most monotonous thing I’ve ever read. I guess he gets a few points for style, but even at his best, he lapses into self-parody a *lot*.


Rasselas 01.23.07 at 5:19 pm

Man, nobody on the Internet ever likes anything that isn’t by Joss Whedon.


Tim 01.24.07 at 2:07 am

I couldn’t help but read it as a father with a son and found the conversation between father and son nothing like I would’ve imagined. Worse, he didn’t convince me that these two would speak this way. So I’m very attracted to Jill’s notion that there is no child.

I also had precisely the same reaction as China: that it was aimless; pointless.

But again, Jill’s explanation brings it all together for me.

So I’m with Jill. There is no child.


JR 01.24.07 at 8:11 am

“The man is talking to himself, or an imaginary child, the entire book.”

And after he’s dead he continues to imagine the child. Neat trick. You’re making a valiant effort to save a bad book – sort of like “It was all a dream” – but it doesn’t work.

The book is genre fiction. It’s a combination of wish fulfillment and horror story. The people aren’t meant to be real people- they’re fantasy projections of the intended reader (in this case, middle-class dads- I know, I am one) – about how they would behave if put in a difficult situation.


Jill Hummelstein 01.24.07 at 12:01 pm

The problem that no one has addressed is, If the narration of the entire book is from the father’s point of view (close third), who is narrating the book after the father dies, for the last six pages?

The tone and language do not change once the father dies. So whoever is the narrator is remaining consistent.

I put this out: there was never any father. Was the story told by the child the entire time?

“You said you wouldnt ever leave me.
I know. I’m sorry. 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.
Will I hear you?
Yes. you will. You have to make it like talk that you imagine. And you’ll hear me. You have to practice.” (pg.235)

The novel is the child practicing.

The novel is framed, sort of, by two dream. It opens with a dream, but whose dream is it? And it ends with an impossiblity, a detail that could only take place in dream: fish. But in this world there can be no fish. Most probably the water is too polluted. The black water in the opening dream, the trout in the last paragraph, who sees these images?

There are way too many instances of dreams for them to be discounted.

“Why dont you tell me a story?
I don’t want.
I dont have any stories to tell.
You could tell me a story about yourself.
You alredy know all the stories about me. You were there.
You have stories inside that I dont know about.
You mean like drems?
Like dreams. Or just things that you think about.”

Is this novel the dream of the child? The above passage goes on in which the child says stories are suppose to have happy endings. This one does, albeit in the last paragraph, ironically. Ironically, because the weight of the preceding paragraphs completely cancels out the measly last paragraph.

There are no easy answers to the questions I’ve posed. These questions need to be addressed. These questions indicate, if you read the text closely, that McCarthy is on top of his game and remains brillant.

Clue: why are there no contrations? i.e. Why is “I dont want to” not “I don’t want to.”

Hint: because the child hasn’t learned grammar yet and the entire text may be from the child’s POV.


Jill Hummelstein 01.24.07 at 12:07 pm

There is no rule in literature that the portrayal of a child or a father need be realistic. Writers take traits and aspects of relationships and conflate them for their own purposes. Since when is McCarthy a realistic writer? Never.


Jill Hummelstein 01.24.07 at 1:45 pm

So, jumping the gun since no one has responded yet: the book can be read in two ways, from the POV of the father and the POV of the child. But wait. It can’t be read in either of those ways, either. The one cancels out the other.
Or maybe it’s from another POV, and McCarthy is taking advantage of the slippery slope of thrid person narration. Who is telling this story?

What a magnificient stunt for McCarthy to have pulled off and that eludes most readers because they only read for plot. He deserves his genius award to have pulled the wool over the eyes of all readers. And I’m sure that was not his intention, to trick readers. I’m sure he, like any serious writer who doesn’t write schlock, craves a close reading and craves someone to ask the question: Just what the hell is he doing, writing a story that can be read in two ways and in no way.

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