The Road: Haunting, impactful

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Road by Cormac McCarthyThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

Slake-moth, Uruk-hai, or vampire, the mark of great SFF authors is often their ability to describe monsters and horrors. They say that children are desensitized to violence, but I submit that many SFF readers have become desensitized to monsters. I have read about many SFF monsters before bed, but was never once afraid of the dark until I read Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road.

The premise of The Road is simple: The world as we know it has ended. An anonymous man and his son are trying to escape winter. Other people are still alive. Those people are monsters.

Reading The Road before bed was a mistake. How come?

It may be because its horror is so unexpected. Unlike McCarthy, many authors use horror simply to propel the plot. Take, for example, Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES books, which are among the most thrilling YA SFF works ever written. Collins’ hero, Katniss, is heroic in part because she is a monster slayer.

Consider the “muttations” that appear at the climax of The Hunger Games:

The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human. And that revelation has barely registered when I notice the collar with the number 1 inlaid with jewels and the whole horrible thing hits me. The blonde hair, the green eyes, the number… it’s Glimmer.

A shriek escapes my lips and I’m having trouble holding the arrow in place.

Collins’ muttations are abominations made in part from the genes of children that Katniss has killed. It’s pretty gruesome, if you think about it. Fortunately, Katniss takes the time to be horrified on our behalf. She goes on to reflect how disturbed she feels so that we don’t have to.

Instead, our job is to keep reading until Katniss is once more full of righteous, brutally violent fury in defense of her partner. Collins is a very talented author, but for me, this imagery is little more than the cost of doing business and these monsters are little more than target practice. The muttations are nightmarish, but they will never give me nightmares. Call me desensitized, but I will remember Katniss firing her bow much longer than I will recall the muttations.

And perhaps it’s just as well that I’ll remember the righteous heroism of Katniss rather than the monstrous obstacles that she faces. After all, Collins is writing for a young adult audience.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsStill, I hope her work will suffice to illustrate how different it felt to read The Road.

Although I first read The Road over three years ago, I have found it difficult to forget the horror of what McCarthy describes. McCarthy’s imagery without confessional introspection is horrific, an approach that McCarthy takes right from the start of The Road:

A creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

This image has haunted me for three years. To be honest, I wish it was the only one, but the man and his son continue on their journey.

In McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world, people have begun to feed on each other. Still, the man and his son are sometimes forced to find shelter, and McCarthy has no need for his hero to reflect on the horrifying reality of what is kept in the cellar of one house:

He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, males and females, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

Many authors would take the time to outline in detail how their protagonist feels as if to offer the reader a guide to experiencing and overcoming horror. McCarthy resists this tendency, leaving his readers to cope as best they can.

What McCarthy describes is perhaps the most monstrous depiction of humanity that I have ever read, and I found that the impact was overwhelming. Every time the man and son encountered human beings, I had to flip ahead to see whether they survived.

The best thing about good monsters is finding a way to defeat them and most of us who read SFF – a rather optimistic genre when it comes to monster slaying – enjoy watching our heroes overcome overwhelming odds to do so. But if you’ve begun to feel that SFF’s fantastic monsters are a little flat, consider reading this bleak post-apocalyptic tale.

But be careful: when the man tells his son that “You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget,” he might well be describing McCarthy’s The Road.

~Ryan Skardal

The Road by Cormac McCarthyIn a way, the literary mystique that surrounds Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road makes it easier for me when it comes to review it. Several of the world’s most prestigious literary reviewers have already dedicated thousands of words dissecting McCarthy’s prose, lifting the veil from his words to reveal the obvious — to them — genius of his brain. This autopsy performed by dozens leaves me, a humble reader and reviewer, without having to bear the weight of having to go from word to word trying to get from them the revelatory message that will, if it’s there, shed a light on the human condition, as if God itself has peeled away the metaphorical human skin and shone a light on our own souls. No, instead I can just sit back, relax, and talk about how much I enjoyed, or did not, the novel. A much easier, and pleasurable, activity.

There’s a certain aura that shrouds books like The Road: books loved by the literary circle, recognized as masterpieces of literature as an art form. I don’t think anybody approaches a book expecting not to like it; we all want to like the books we read, for why else would we be reading them. But we, at least I think this is something general that we all do, approach books like The Road differently. We not only want to like them, we want to extract from them the genius that was recognized by everyone else. We want to be made part of that circle of intelligent people that can grasp the ultimate meaning of what is recognized as a masterpiece.  And there’s obviously nothing wrong with that, dime novels have fundamentally different reasons for existing than do the novels of Victor Hugo, for example, but I found that The Road rides a very fine line between actually having something to say, and just being about the random occurrences of a boy and his father in a ravaged world.

The only reason I say it rides a fine line is because of the literary praise that the book received, for I must say I didn’t find in The Road anything that would elicit a deeper, more thoughtful, analysis of it. As a post-apocalyptic book presenting a world left without hope or meaning, it is as if that same portrayal of the abandonment of those two important qualities is itself the message the book tries to convey, as if by saying nothing, it is saying something. You could make an argument for that and I would probably not be able to refute it thoroughly, but I myself find that argument not only circular, but self-defeating, not unlike (and this is but an observation) religious people that find in their doubt of the existence of God the very reason to hold on to their faith more strongly.

Why is The Road such a lauded novel, anyway? McCarthy writes in a sparse, direct style that is able to paint that barren world in few words, but apart from his style, there is not much to point to and say “that’s just incredible.” The plot is meaningless, and is that the purpose? To show that in a world ravaged and barren there can be no purpose? Events just kind of happen, without any real significance. The father wants to take his son down south, and that’s as much agency as you’re going to get from both characters. All that remains for those two characters is to react to their environment, which, granted, is a very important part of surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, but just as prehistorical Man didn’t resolve himself to living in a cave, there’s no reason for post-apocalyptic Man to resign himself to living from the scraps that he can muster from behind the blackened ruins of what was before.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe ending of the novel is the distilled essence of my problems with The Road, and it can be grasped at by asking: “Why did The Road end when it did? Why couldn’t it have ended some pages before, or some after?” It’s not that it is predicated by the previous events that it has to end there, it could have ended some pages before, some pages after, or just when it did. There’s no principle to it. And it’s not a particularly original ending either; the reader is expecting it to happen from the beginning, but, just like every other event in the novel, it’s an event that just sort of happens. It’s as if McCarthy sat down, drew a blank, and said to himself “You know what, we could end it right here and it would be alright.”

Maybe I am missing some sort of emotional context to connect with the novel. I can empathize with the father’s love for his child in a world as cruel as the one they live in, and there are certainly some moments that are cruelly sad, but that does not a story make. In the end, as I finished it, all that went through my mind was, “So, uhm, that was it?” And I grabbed the next book for me to read.

~João Eira

The Road by Cormac McCarthyI listened to the audiobook version of The Road read by Tom Stechschulte. It was powerful, horrifying, and depressing. I was near the end of the book when I needed to attend my daughter’s soccer game and I couldn’t put it down so I finished it up just as the game ended with a win for my daughter’s team. I am sure a few of the other soccer moms were wondering why I was crying.

~Kat Hooper

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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JOÃO EIRA, one of our guests, is a student at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, one of the oldest universities in the world, where he studies Physics and Economics. Having spent his formative years living in the lush vistas of Middle Earth and the barren nothingness in a galaxy far far away, he has grown to love filling his decreasing empty bookshelf space with fantasy and science fiction books. For him a book’s utmost priority should be the story it is trying to tell, though he can forgive some mistakes if its characters are purposeful and the worldbuilding imaginative. A book with no story can have no redeeming quality though. João probably spends more time fantasizing about books than doing productive things.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. I’ve had The Road on my TBR List for a long time now. I really need to get to that one.

  2. wept at the end of the road. Not choked up, not wet eyes, not even a tear running down the cheek–out and out weeping. I’m not sure I would have had such an extreme reaction were it not for having a son of my own, but it’s hard to imagine not being powerfully moved if even not to that extent. And beyond the post-apocalyptic, sci-fi elements; I’d call it the most powerful love story I’ve ever read

  3. @William – My understanding is that your experience is not unique.

  4. Yes to everything you said about The Road. That book embodied horror and hopelessness. Even the text itself was bleak and barren. It was something special to read and there are times I wish hadn’t read it. It is a book that kind of sticks with you. Bridge to Terabithia had a similar impact on me, and was very young when i read that.

  5. @Justin. I actually read Bridge to Tarabithia a couple years ago. It’s surprising how many children’s books deal with death and loss. Charlotte’s Web and Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events come to mind as well.

  6. You know what, I might have to really think about this one then. I totally get what Justin said about sometimes wishing he hadn’t read it.
    Not sure if I up for taking something like that on, but its also got me even more curious about it.

  7. I’ve never really had much desire to read this, after reading your review it simply solidifies my choice to give it a wide berth.

    It fits well with the review of the film, in which the reviewer said something to the effect that “the failure of the Theaters to collect Neckties and Shoelaces before the movie could be considered an act of negligence on their part”

  8. Reading your review makes me wonder how I might have reacted to this book had I read it 30 years ago. Reading it when I did, in my late 40’s but more importantly as a father, my response was to weep for about 10-15 minutes immediately upon finishing it and then to refer to it from then on whenever I spoke of it as “the greatest, most powerful love story I’ve ever read.” (I found my meaning in that love and their tag line about “the fire”). My guess is those would not have been my responses had I read it at a different stage in my life. Of course, I did cry at the end of The Yearling. And Where the Red Fern Grows. And . . .

    I’ll be interested to see the review of your re-read in a few decades :)

    Nice point about the difference in coming to a book so lauded versus a relatively unheard or upraised one.

    • I’m with you on this one Bill – even the crying when Old Dan and Little Ann died in Where the Red Fern Grows. Like you, The Road was for me a very powerful tale of a father’s love and devotion to his son in the most dire of circumstances. The ending I found to be a whisper of optimism. Perhaps not in the “things will get better” vein, rather in the “you’re not alone; as crappy as the world may be (getting), there are others who also care about maintaining some degree of civilization”. For such a simple setup, The Road has a huge amount of impact.

      • Joao Eira /

        I’ll see in a few decades how I different my reaction to it will be :)

  9. Well, I’m not a father and I’m closer to where you are, Joao. To say what I think of the book is to create a spoiler… Hmm… I guess I thought the point of the book was “survival,” and what that might mean for a dad and his son.

    I thought the other moral point of the story was when the boy says to his father, “I thought we were the good guys.” Regardless of whether I agree with McCarthy’s view of the “luxury of morality” or whatever, that moment; that questioning of what you will let go of in order to survive, seemed important and stayed with me.

  10. Joao, I completely agree with your review, as you articulated all the points that I felt. I came into the book knowing the enormous amount of hype in literary circles (which I care nothing for), the Pulitzer Prize, and critics fawning over it. I really liked All The Pretty Horses and No Country For Old Men, as they were powerfully written and vivid novels, so I had high expectations.

    Reading The Road was like hitting a brick wall. As you said, the stripped-down, barren prose was probably intended to show the absolute devastation of the post-apocalyptic world. To mean it just felt empty and utterly pointless to read. If McCarthy meant to show a world devoid of hope and meaning, he certainly achieved that, but there was no point in writing a book to illustrate this.

    I am a father of a 12-year old daughter, but the father/son relationship didn’t resonate with me at all. I must be a very cold and emotionless parent, but this story didn’t make me feel anything but frustration. I literally had to force myself to finish it. It’s quite interesting how polarizing this book is, even among the FanLit reviewers, and that just shows that we each bring a different perspective to each book!

  11. I think there’s another factor here; as SF readers we are familiar with apocalyptic settings. Several of the reviews I read exclaimed McCarthy’s “unflinching gaze at civilization in ruins,” when to me it was one more post-apocalypto setting and not a terribly imaginative one, at that. Maybe the author’s musing on what it is like to lose everything captured the literary world’s imagination.

    For me, Station Eleven was the anti-Road, and I mean that as high praise. Terrible things happen in that book, too, but there is still connection and humanity.

  12. Marion, excellent point! For SF readers, this territory is so well-tread and McCarthy’s world was drab beyond compare. Literally nothing about it interested me. But can the literary world really have not read post-disaster novels/films before? There have been plenty of mainstream depictions like On the Beach, Alas, Babylon, The Postman, War Day, The Day After, etc.

  13. I don’t know how many of the mainstream reviewers I read have read at all in the field unless it was a Ursula K. LeGuin essay in the NY Times or something. They seem to think SF =Star Wars, period. Maybe they liked the Battlestar Galacta reboot, but they haven’t read On the Beach, or a Canticle for Liebowitz, just as an example.

  14. I agree that the setting itself isn’t all that imaginative, but I don’t think that was a fault of McCarthy’s. I really don’t think he was interested in writing a “post-apocalyptic” novel–that was just a convenient setting for his purpose. And so we don’t get any of the details we might normally get (is there any govt? What’s going on 100 miles away? Are all countries like this? etc) and we don’t spend the time we might normally spend on things like cannibals etc. because they’re just a means to an end.

    Unfortunately, mainstream reviewers who haven’t read, as Marion says, all those others have no context and I think just assume McCarthy must “do it better” because, you know, he’s “literary” and stuff

  15. I’m with Bill and Jesse on this one. I cried at the end. When I read Joao’s review, I thought the same thing Bill said: I wonder if he’ll have a different response when he’s a father.


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