Thursday, 17 January 2008

'the absolute truth of the world'

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy

On the stark cover of this book there is a banner announcing it as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The first review on the back declares it's good enough to win him the Nobel Prize. The inside covers and first three pages are covered with stunning reviews from around the world. Surely after all that praise a book can only be a disappointment.

The event that has devastated the world is never made explicit beyond 'a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions' but what it has left behind is a man and his son journeying south through a ruined landscape and struggling to survive. The symbiosis of their relationship is clear from the start, this isn't simply a man looking after his son, 'the boy was all that stood between him and death'. The boy's belief in the world is the thing which keeps them both going, which is why when he says he doesn't care at one point his father replies 'don't say that, you musnt say that'. After he has a particularly bad dream his father tells him; 'When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you cant give up. I wont let you'. Much later when the man says 'You're not the one who has to worry about everything' the boy replies simply 'Yes I am...I am the one'. Their laconic exchanges punctuate the novel, each of the boy's questions an attempt to construct a new moral structure in this dangerous environment. He needs to know that they're still the 'good guys' and as his father informs him 'They keep trying. They dont give up'.

The prose is as stripped back as the landscape itself; no speech marks, no apostrophes in words like 'dont' and 'musnt' and an almost poetic economy of language ('By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp'). Adam Mars-Jones in his review in The Guardian has already pointed out the influence of Beckett and there are many similarities, this is a writer writing with absloute conviction about what it means to be human. It is a bleak vision at times.

'He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.'

Sometimes there is a tinge of light breaking through.

'There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasnt about death. He wasnt sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things that he'd no longer any way to think about at all.'

But there are also surprising moments that lift you up. The boy's simple enjoyment of a salvaged can of Coke is incredibly effective, I was gasping for one afterwards. His delivery of grace when they enjoy a relative feast at table is filled with hope in a world which seems to have been forsaken by God.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted, it is filled with everything that we're made of; episodes of brutality and violence, pure animal survival, heads raised to the sky filled with questions and moments of redemption which bring a tear to the eye. I was utterly involved from start to finish and I urge you to read this book now. It really is as good as they say.

'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.'


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