The Slow Descent to Chaos

Over the past few years, an old literary genre has been making the rounds, rousing the curiosity of every avid read. The unparalleled popularity of literary series such as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy, Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy and Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy ushered in the golden era of the dystopian fiction. Dystopian fiction, with its bleak vision of how the future is going to turn out, has piqued the imagination of many a reader. It has slowly become a familiar and ubiquitous term. There is something fascinating about the prophetic vision of the future that rivets in readers, and curious spectators.

In his tenth novel, The Road, American writer Cormac McCarthy painted his own bleak vision of the future. The Road charts the story of an anonymous father and son pair and their journey through the titular road. A couple of years before their journey, a major extinction event transformed the landscape of the United States. The once diverse colors now assumed a bleak and gray appearance. Everything that were once teeming with life are now shrouded with a post-apocalyptic ash, magnifying the eeriness of the world around them. The landscape was thoroughly altered. Everything that once represented progress, wealth, and a teeming society was obliterated.

When the father became cognizant that it has become impossible to survive the glacial winters of the more northern latitudes, he decided to embark on a journey to the warmer southern region. With his son in tow, they placed what very little they owned in their knapsacks and a supermarket cart. In their journey towards the sea and warmth, the father and son duo trudged down the interstate highways, both familiar and unfamiliar, the titular road. However, no journey comes easy as the road is filled with stumbling blocks and obstacles that must be overcome. Danger also lurked in the dark, in the areas surrounding the road. In what is literally a man eats man world, father and son must look after each other.

“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.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road

For the very few survivors, the bleakness of the surroundings made it virtually impossible to hope, to yearn for a better tomorrow. Memories of the past must now remain in the past lest they open points for vulnerability and, consequently, reveal one’s weakness. In a world that is bereft of hope, one cannot afford to expose his or her weaknesses. Everyone must buckle up for the tough ride for it has now become a game of survival. Each one was on his or her own, as the father and son are. As all resources dwindled down, the baser instincts start to kick. Each now trusts the instinctive more than they trust the seemingly logical.

As everyone strives to survive amidst the chaos, one challenge start to surface. With everyone fighting to stay alive, it has become doubly challenging to gauge who is a friend and who is an enemy. As danger lurked in every corner of the gray world, one can never be sure who is a comrade. Again, the baser instincts take flight. To ensure safety at all times, it is best to assume that the next person you meet is more of an enemy than a friend. With this in mind, the father even taught his son to use the revolver they have in hand.

The winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, The Road also subtly underscored the transformation in a person’s values as brought about by the disruption in the natural flow of events. Hopelessness was one attitude that pervaded the entire narrative. On top of this was the primal instinct to survive, in contrast to the feeling of desperation. Human spirit, when pushed beyond the boundaries, is capable of overcoming nearly everything, from vicious enemies to even elements of nature. Stretched too thin, we discover that we are more than capable of persevering beyond what we perceived as our limits.

In contract to the hopelessness that permeated all throughout the story, one contrasting emotion stood above all: the all-conquering power of love. It was a beacon that shone through the darkness. The strong bond between the father and son was the one thing that propelled the narrative. It was also this profound power that reinforced the other underlying themes explored in the narrative. Love, in all its forms, has the ability to transform a person, like a typical father who instantly turns into his son’s protector, tenaciously shielding him from all forms of danger and harm that come their way. It was the bond between the father and son that compels readers to dig deep, despite the horrific and bleak atmosphere that hovered above the narrative. It was this vivid portrait of unconditional love that strikes the proverbial strings of the heart.

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Whilst the father and son were well-bonded, they nevertheless exhibited contrasts that changed the complexion of the narrative. The father, toughened by his experiences, evoked the typical machismo patriarchal figures are renowned for. He exudes angst, frustration, and, at times, anger. To protect his son, he often resorts to violence. In one of the most intense scenes in the story, the father told his son: “You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?” This strongly-worded passage is a deviation from the lighter theme of love. However, it underscored the reality that both ugliness and beauty can emanate from the same source.

The son, the more complex and better developed character of the two, was the antithesis of his father. Despite the atmosphere of violence that proliferated his young world, he remained pure, the representation of purity and goodness. He is an embodiment of the other side of love, the love that is innocent and is untarnished by the bitterness of the world. He was surrounded by a world that is slowly descending into chaos, where humanity is a thing of imagination, yet he opted to trudge down the path of righteousness. He felt compassion towards the people they meet on the road. Many a times, he echoed his sentiments, that he is scared. Nevertheless, with his father as his primary source of motivation, he kept pushing on.

What bound the various elements together was McCarthy’s writing. The novel is rather short but it can take quite some time to read because of the heaviness and the darkness that weighed down on the narrative. He painted a dark and sinister portrait, his own vision of a world that is falling at the seams. McCarthy’s rich imagery made the post-apocalyptic landscape come alive before the reader’s eyes. He managed to capture a wide spectrum of emotions, ranging from darker emotions such as desperation, frustration, anger, and hopelessness to lighter emotions such as love, and enthusiasm.

However, it was also the darkness that permeated all throughout the narrative that weighed down on the story, exposing a simplistic and predictable plot. The novel tend to suffer from repetitions of scenes and images. The recurring scenes of violence, hopelessness, and amidst it, a father and son whose unconditional love beacons through the darkness, exposed the thinness of the plot. McCarthy also offered very little background to what caused the apocalypse that altered the landscape of the United States. The readers are forced to accept the world as it is – the attitude of the denizens, the grayness of the surroundings, and the absence of hope. McCarthy’s aversion with punctuation marks also contributed to some levels of confusion. The lack of quotation marks made it a challenge figuring out the speaker, or if it was perhaps an internal monologue. Commas and apostrophes were also scant in a narrative that was already running low on resources.

“He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road

The Road had its fair share of blemishes and highpoints. It portrayed the slow descent towards chaos. McCarthy painted a dark and sinister world where violence has become ubiquitous, where survival is the main goal, and where the boundaries of good and evil are blurred. McCarthy offered a despairing diagnosis of the future. Despite this, he wonderfully underscored that in times of bleakness, love can conquer all, that unconditional love, like that of a father to his son and a son to his father, is capable of breaking boundaries.

Ratings

57%

Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 14%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%

It was through must-read lists that I have first encountered Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I was initially apprehensive about buying and reading the book despite its apparent popularity amongst avid readers. I gave in when I encountered it during another random escapade in the local bookstore. After putting it on hold for years, I managed to find the time to read it last year. Before I opened the first pages, I barely had an iota on what the book is about. I did, however, note that it was a dystopian fiction; it was, honestly, one of the reasons why I put it on hold. Ironically though, I read the gloomy text during one of the most uncertain periods in recent memory. McCarthy did a commendable job in shrouding the narrative in a veil of gloom and bleakness. The relationship between the father and son was also vividly portrayed. However, I found the plot a little lacking, stagnant almost. There was also very little background to what really happened. McCarthy’s aversion on quotation marks made distinguishing between dialogues and the primary narrative a challenge. It was still an evocative read, a bleak and, to some degree, prophetic vision of the future.

Book Specs

Author: Cormac McCarthy
Publisher: Picador
Publishing Date: 2010
Number of Pages: 307
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Synopsis

A father and his young son walk alone through burned America, heading slowly for the coast. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. They have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the men who stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.

About the Author

Charles Joseph McCarthy Jr. was born on July 20, 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1937, the McCarthys relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee as his father was employed as lawyer by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

McCarthy attended St. Mary’s Parochial School and Knoxville Catholic High School. In 1951, he enrolled at University of Tennessee (UTK) but later dropped out in 1953 to join the United States Air Force. It was while serving for the air force that he took interest in reading. When he returned to UTK in 1957, he published two stories in the student literary magazine, The Phoenix. These works earned him the Ingram-Merrill Awards for creative writing in 1959 and 1960. In 1959, McCarthy dropped out from UTK for the last time and moved to Chicago.

To avoid confusion with famed ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy, McCarthy changed his first name to Cormac. In 1965, McCarthy published his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. It was a critical success, praised for its imagery, and was awarded the 1966 William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novel. Outer Dark, his second novel was published in 1968. Whilst his earlier works achieved modest success, it was until the publication of All The Pretty Horses (1992) that McCarthy became a household name. It won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and became a New York Times bestseller. His 2006 novel, The Road, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. He has also written screenplays and essays. In 2009, McCarthy was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, a lifetime achievement award given by the PEN American Center.