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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I always liked the idea of book clubs, but for some reason, whenever I wanted to start one, the attempt was stymied by the inertia of my, let's say less dedicated, friends. The book club I started at my old job lasted just one book--Microserfs by Douglas Coupland, a really good gender neutral read I highly recommend. The Internet book club my high school friends organized while we were in college hundreds of miles away from each other also only lasted one book--A Thousand Secret Senses by Amy Tan, which was okay, although after you read The Joy Luck Club, her stuff starts blending together a little.

So I'm not totally 100% sure that this new book club, imported by one of my best friends when she moved to the metro area a few months ago, will take a real hold, but she's dogged and we all like to read. The first book she picked was The Road by Cormac McCarthy and, like the dutiful club member I have always been, I read it.

I wasn't excited about The Road--not before I read it, not while I was reading it, and not afterwards. I found it difficult to get into--a sentiment shared by all of the club members who decided to show up (we had two beg off sick, not an auspicious beginning). I am of the somewhat unpopular opinion (at least in the literary community--not so, necessarily, among actual readers) that a book without a plot is not worth my time. A book can be full of beautiful, singing prose, finely crafted metaphors and transcendent imagery and have a plot. I firmly believe that.

The Road is thin on plot. What it's got in spades is a series of heartbreaking and stomach churning vignettes that form a gruesome portrait of humanity (such as it is) after the end of the world. It's never stated just what caused this apocalypse--whether it was an act of God or an act of man isn't entirely clear, although from the way the people in this book behave, it must've been some manmade disaster. Nuclear fallout? Perhaps. The sun has been blotted out by a thick layer of atmospheric ash that covers everything and makes it necessary for our protagonists, a man and his son, to wear masks.

They have no names. They're moving south because another winter would kill them. It's the man's sole purpose in life to get his son to the coast, where he hopes that "the good people"--those who do not rape, pillage, destroy and cannibalize their fellow survivors--YES I SAID CANNIBALIZE. One of the things we talked about in book club was the sheer horror of the state of humanity presented in the book. We're largely desensitized to murder from watching television and movies, but cannibalism is the last frontier, an uncrossable line that makes these scenes particularly terrifying. I almost put the book down once when the man and his son found the charred remains of an infant resting in an ersatz barbecue pit, and was doubly disgusted when my friends reminded me of a scene I seemed to have repressed--that in which the man and his son find cannibalized humans, ALIVE and IN PAIN, in the cellar of a house and leave them there.

The man and his boy represent the dual options facing people with nothing left--faith and despair. While the man believes that the world is doomed, the boy believes in God and has an enormous amount of empathy and compassion for other suffering people. The father refuses to help other people in need, believing that their options are to think only of themselves and possibly live, or stop to give aid and certainly perish. But still the boy insists, and while he has no faith the father doggedly tries to preserve his son's, although for what purpose it is unclear. The boy is afraid, but not of death, and the father is desperate to keep him cynical enough not to give in to the death urge but hopeful enough to keep moving down the terrifying road that they are traveling.

We were all disappointed with the ending, unsure that its message fits with the real possibilities presented by the novel, but one interesting theory did come up. My friend said that while she was reading it she expected, in the end, to discover that the man and the boy were one in the same person, that the man invented the boy in his head to give himself a reason to live. McCarthy certainly doesn't state that that's the case, but it makes a lot of sense and would have been the BEST TWIST OF ALL TIME.

By the end of book club, I'd changed my opinion of the book. One of my friends said at the start of our discussion that she's glad that she read the book, although she would never read it again and would be unlikely to recommend it to anyone. I feel similarly. I resented the lack of plot and the quasi-poeticism of the language, but I admire the ideas that it tries to grapple with and the way it struggles with issues of faith and morality. I feel better for having read it.

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  1. Blogger chris | 10:02 AM |  

    Boo. This sounds a lot worse than No Country for Old Men. Change my "Will I See It?" percentage to 74% and my "Will I Read It?" percentage to 45%.

  2. Blogger qualler | 10:19 AM |  

    I felt about the same on the book as you did, except I did like the sorta-emo father-son "we'll get through all this dirty air and murderous vagabonds together because you're my boy" dialogue and wasn't so bothered by the lack of plot. But overall I'd put the book a step above "m'eh" and a step below "I liked it".

  3. Blogger Sean | 5:52 PM |  

    I liked Cormac's vocabulary. So many weird, fancy words for things like hinges and farm equipment.

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