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.