Friday, November 16, 2007

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I added The Road to my top ten list. I read it at home and nearly cried in front of my roommate. I read harrowing and tender passages of such craftsmanship, beauty, and sorrow that I choked up. This is a dark and terrifying book. It is a work of art.

I dare not attempt to address larger compositional issues, not after reading Michael Chabon’s superb NYT review. Is The Road science-fiction or literature? What possible outcomes are there in an apocalyptic novel, and how does the reader’s understanding of the limited number of resolutions affect their reading? Chabon addressed these and many more issues, so I direct you there. As far as Oprah selecting The Road for her book club, a fellow bookseller said it best: “I want those people to feel like I did.”

How did I feel? I felt like someone close to me died. Over and over and over again, with every turn of the page.

The following paragraph constitutes a single scene interrupting descriptions of a ruined landscape in which the father observes gray snowflakes fall on his hand and watches them “expire there like the last host of christendom:”

“From daydreams on the road there was no waking. He plodded on. He could remember everything of her save her scent. Seated in a theater with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music. Gold scrollwork and sconces and the tall columnar drapes at either side of the stage. She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze this frame. Now call down your cold and your dark and be damned.”

This is some of the most masterful writing I’ve ever read. This is a stand-alone creative writing lesson.

A burned, winter landscape transitions easily and swiftly into a pleasurable memory of music, summer, and love. Then it slams the reader back with one of my favorite lines in any book, “Now call down your cold and your dark and be damned.”

That line is pure English. Monosyllabic pentameter, pure poetry of the English tongue. The alliteration of “down, cold, dark, damned.” The beautiful vowel sounds of “now, down, your, dark, and, damned.” Everything works, and it works together. Immediately following the bliss of memory, it is a crushing, emotionally devastating statement that ties two people in love into the dualities of past and present, have and have not, happiness and sorrow, civilization and wilderness. More, it subtly supports one of the central themes of the novel, that of a father’s love for his son.

These dualities run throughout the scene. Take, for example, “seated/theater,” “tops/stockings,” thin/stuff/summer/dress” – evocative pairings of S and T sounds again mirroring the two lovers, the pleasure of memory with harsh reality.

Or, look how well the syllables of “gold scrollwork and sconces” compare to “tall columnar.” The letters of “tall columnar” almost resemble the physical objects the words describe, with the vertical stems of the L’s and the rounded bowls and stresses of the C, O, and U. Say “gold scrollwork and sconces” and you also find that the sounds resemble the letters.

McCarthy chose every word with the utmost care. It is spare prose to match the subject and it is beautifully crafted. Nothing is wasted, overwrought, or unnecessary. A casual reader will read it with ease, without an awareness of the craft, and that is, perhaps, for the best. Too much awareness of the writer’s work spoils the stew – and this is heavy stew, considering the scene with the baby on a spit.

Yet, despite the weight of its subject matter, The Road is a hopeful novel. The father’s love for his son, his unwavering efforts to protect and provide for his son, and his hope for his son’s future make even the bleakest moments bearable, and sometimes, uncomfortably familiar. Although McCarthy has shown us a world where the living exist with “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it,” he also shows that beauty and happiness also exist in borrowed time, in a borrowed world, through borrowed eyes.

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