The Road
Cormac McCarthy, 2006

After a (curiously low-yield in terms of radiation) nuclear war, there is nothing left alive except for a handful of people, some fungus, and maybe a dog. The world is a place of dirt, rain, snow, dead trees, and ash. Lots of ash. As the ash swirls around them, a man and his young son shuffle down a road.

Last year I read over a dozen books about nuclear apocalypse, and watched nearly as many movies about it, so when I heard about this book, naturally it went right to the top of my list. At first there were several holds on it at the library, as one would expect when dealing with a new book by a well-known author; I decided not to place my name on the hold list since I had a lot of other books to read. Then a couple of weeks ago I happened to pass the New Releases shelf and saw a couple of copies of The Road sitting there, so I grabbed one. Good timing! A few days later Oprah named it her new Book Club selection. The hold list is now months long again.

The last nuclear war book I wrote about in 2006 was A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the same article I wrote about the first book in the contemporary novels class I briefly audited, Malone Dies. That class was also where I first heard of Cormac McCarthy; I bailed on the class right before it got to his book, so The Road is the first thing of his I've read. I bailed on the class because it seemed to be an exercise in reading deliberately opaque piles of words and then poking through them looking for Christ imagery. Well, The Road is about an opaque gray world, told in a rather opaque manner — just as gray snow blends into gray ash blends into gray sand blends into gray water, narration blends into dialogue (McCarthy doesn't use quotation marks and rarely indicates who's speaking) and sentences alternate between fragments and run-ons. And when I when I browsed some reviews to see why everyone is gaga over this book, what did I find? "Hey, check out all the Christ imagery!"

Anyway, as a narrative this is not as bad as Malone Dies, though when you've read a bunch of stories about the postapocalyptic struggle, often involving people trudging down the remains of a US highway, it's hard to find it all that arresting or novel. It may be superlatively bleak to those expecting another Alas, Babylon or Leibowitz with their basically liveable futures, but is it really bleaker than On the Beach or Level 7 or even The Day After? On the surface, it seems like the answer is no. The book offers a sappy concluding message — even in the face of near-total annihilation, God lives on in the souls of little children! — that appears to be a key to the book's popularity among the Oprahs of the world. And yet it's very easy to read as a slap at them. "Goodness will find the little boy," the father says with his dying breath. "It always has. It will again." And on cue, the boy is found by a kindhearted family who adopts him! The end! Hooray! Enjoy your deus ex machina, Book Club! And, uh, try not to think about the hundreds of millions of little boys whom Goodness did not find, or about the fact that these people still have nothing to eat and are trapped in a global wasteland surrounded by cannibals. The hope offered by the book is so obviously false that I can't help but wonder what McCarthy was thinking. Another example of this sort of ambiguity is the much-quoted line, "If he is not the word of God God never spoke." It sounds like a powerful statement of faith — but even a heathen like me can wholeheartedly agree with it. After all, both the antecedent and the consequent are true.

So I don't know. Is The Road, with its central Christopher figure traveling down a broken highway "carrying the fire," a subtle reminder that Christianity began as a religion of slaves and women, offering them the succor of deluded hope in a world that was a hell to them? Or is it just wankery of the highest order? Since everyone else seems to be taking it at face value I'm assuming it's the latter. Maybe McCarthy clarified the issue in his TV interview, but I don't watch Oprah.

The Road feels a lot like an IF game. In real life, as you walk around there are countless objects with which you could interact — I would estimate that the room in which I am typing this contains, at a minimum, several tens of thousands of distinct objects — but IF games narrow this down to a handful of "important" ones. But in The Road, since everything is ash and scenery, the focal character catalogues pretty much every object he sees and decides whether to add it to his inventory. Object-fixation in survival narratives has a rich tradition, of course, with Robinson Crusoe serving as perhaps the most famous example... and, hell, in a medium in which *** You have died *** is the most commonly encountered ending, couldn't one make the case that interactive fiction has its roots in survival narrative? (Nick Montfort, if you ever write a paper about this I want a footnote!)

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