The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road charts the journey of a nameless man and a nameless boy south through a post-apocalyptic America. They have nothing but each other and a cart of supplies. There is little food available. Nothing grows any more. The trees are leafless and ash covers the ground. The story is set years after some devastating event that turned the country into a charred ruin, presumably a nuclear war. The two protagonists are journeying south to escape the cold of the approaching winter, doing their best to avoid encounters with any “bad guys” (as the man calls them when speaking to the boy). In a world with nothing but canned food in ever diminishing supply, it’s not surprising that some might turn to cannibalism. The names of characters are never mentioned, I would guess, because in a world with so few people, names become meaningless. Likewise the names of the roads on which they travel have ceased to have meaning; there is only The Road.

You could be forgiven for skipping this novel on account of the bleak storyline. But nothing could be further from the truth. The novel shows the reader a world where on the surface of things there is nothing to live for – where you would either kill yourself or long for death. But the man’s entire life is transformed by the simple fact that he must take care of the boy. This is a story about where true meaning in life resides, when you strip away all the comforts and distractions of our lives: in the love one person has for another human being. It’s such a simple story: a long journey interspersed with occasional dramatic encounters. But it’s an absolute page-turner, because it’s meaningful, realistic, uncompromising.

The fact that it’s hard to put down may also have something to do with the strange style in which the book is written. There are no chapter divisions at all, but a great many scene divisions throughout the book. Many scenes consists of only two or three paragraphs. Rarely do they exceed two pages. This brevity, oddly enough, works quite well, and has the effect of making the reader think “Just a bit more before a put it down.” Then, before you know it, you’ve read another twenty pages.

The author has decided to rewrite the rules of English grammar and punctuation for himself. If McCarthy were a self-published author, I would be balking at such arrogance. But since he’s an accomplished author, and since I enjoyed the novel so much, I’m forced to pause and examine the matter closely. I always read with a critical eye, so here’s a list of all the things I saw McCarthy doing a little differently:

  • There are no quotation marks. Speech is rendered indistinguishable from narration, like this: Let’s go, he said. All things considered, it was fairly easy to distinguish the two.
  • Commas are in short supply. This decision did cause me a bit of grief. Occasionally I got mixed up in the meaning of a sentence and had to re-read it.
  • Several clauses in a sentence are often joined with multiple “and”s, in a manner that seems quite childlike, which is bizarre because McCarthy demonstrates a rich vocabulary that puts me to shame.
  • There are no italics. Fair enough; not exactly a necessity.
  • Apostrophes are removed from words like “can’t,” but are retained for words like “he’d.” McCarthy seems to have decided that when two words are joined together (“he had”), you keep the apostrophe, but when one one (“not”) is concatenated (“nt), you remove it. Struck me as an unnecessary amendment to the English language.
  • Hyphenated words are usually rendered without the hyphen.
  • “He” does not usually refer to the last mentioned subject, but to the man, as opposed to the boy, regardless of whether the boy was last mentioned.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I get the feeling that perhaps the author is attempting to convey a style similar to oral storytelling; you can’t speak a quotation mark, so why write one? The idea has some merit, and I’m actually curious about attempting to write something in a similar style. I appreciated some of McCarthy’s changes, but others irritated me and made the prose awkward to read. There was also a limited degree of sloppy inconsistency going on. More than once, I spotted a sentence like Come on he said, where McCarthy left out a comma in a circumstance where he always used one. Also, about halfway through the story, in a the middle of a paragraph, I encountered a nonsensical sentence that began with a small letter. It was as if someone had accidentally highlighted the first half of a sentence and deleted it by accident. Don’t publishers proof-read their books before publication? Shame on you, Picador.

Enough criticism. I’m overlooking McCarthy’s oddball English, because this is an excellent novel. Thoroughly recommended.

10 thoughts on “The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  1. The PODLer says:

    I think that another reason for the nonstandard English is to attempt to illustrate the depth of the destruction and apocalypse–people no longer speak in standard ways.

  2. […] Cormac McCarthy ISBN: 9780330447546 DDC: 813.54 Read for the RIP Challenge See also: LibaryThing ; Darryl’s Library ; Skewed Perspectives ; Cynical Opimitsm ; Bookwomon When he woke in the woods in the dark and the […]

  3. Lee says:

    If you’re worried about the arrogance of a self-published author, just wait till you see Corvus!

  4. Earl says:

    This book is so good that it may be inadvisable to read it, for afterward other books are likely to seem shallow and poor by comparison. Leave it to the last and read it when you are about to croak it, in order that your enjoyment of other literature isnโ€™t spoiled.

  5. Darryl Sloan says:

    Don’t read it until you’re about to die? Like, maybe several decades from now? Poor ol’ Cormac’s already seventy-five and Earl here wants to cheat him out of his royalties. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Dennis Gascoigne says:

    I have just read this book and while it is good, I can’t help but notice the significant correlation to the short story “West” from Orson Scott Card’s book “Folk of the Fringe”. Using a near identical concept (post apocalyptic USA, a trip along a road, violent cannibalistic gangs etc.) is not plagiarism, but the book it borrows from should be referenced.

    I would be very surprised if Cormack has not read Orson Scott Card’s book. I am surprised the correlation is not more widely identified.

  7. Lindy says:

    Hi Darryl,
    happened upon your site when following an exorcism thread, (and, indeed, what a buzzing lot of comments were provoked from that entry), and moved on to review the reviews. found lots to read, including new and venerable. and so, sending my appreciation for the enjoyable hour and more spent in musing and perusing. Leaving this in a recent posting line as you may more likely see it. Lindy

  8. Darryl Sloan says:

    Thank you for the kind words, Lindy! Glad you enjoyed my scribblings.

  9. Darryl Sloan says:

    Hi, Dennis.

    Having read both books, I must say I never saw the connection. But you could be right. I’m not actually against this kind of borrowing – the borrowing of a setting or a piece of technology or whatever. Fiction is generally derivative. Every story with a time machine in it owes a debt to H.G. Wells, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that his novel should be referenced. The same is true of all the vampire and zombie movies; tTrue of every Mad Max spin-off.

    Of course, if you want to read something truly original, try Chion. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. Chris Dowd says:

    What impresses me about the book is how you are drawn into the “world” of “the Man” and “the boy”. You feel you are traveling along with this father and son and the “world” is only the few hundred yards they can see by daylight or the small circle of light illuminated by their camp fires and makeshift oil lamps at night. “The world” is only what they encounter- what is right in front of their faces- and nothing else. A hill, that to us is not even noticed in our cars and trucks and buses and trains- becomes real again- an obstacle- an expinditure of calories to mount- or perhaps over the crest of such a horror awaits? Distances become real again. Weather is real. Darkness is real in this novel. Night, a terror for most of human history- becomes terrible again in this novel.

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