Friday, November 27, 2009

The Road

Ah, Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is, to me, a pretty strange time of year. I mean, either you're a thankful person or you aren't, in my opinion. If you're not thankful for your health, friends, family, loved ones, computer, car, shelter, grocery stores, running water, etc... all year round, it probably isn't going to really shine through on this one day of the year. Especially because most of us probably first experienced this holiday dressed up as pilgrims and Indians (back then they weren't being call Native Americans yet) in elementary school. At least I sure did.
My point is that this holiday isn't exactly sacred. In the way that Christmas was once about the birth of a deity-on-Earth and is now primarily about Christmas music/decorations appearing inappropriately early in stores and restaurants, Thanksgiving used to be a day on which people were truly thankful for the little that they had and is now about gluttony, football, and Black Friday shopping specials.
(Get ready for this transition, because it's fucking brilliant.)
I think that's a shame, because we have so much to be thankful for. Heat, food, shelter, and clean water are things that we so easily take for granted in this country while millions of people around the world go without, and it's important to recognize that more than one day a year. In fact, having electricity with which to play our sweet video games and refrigerators with which to store our delicious leftovers are a relatively new phenomenon in the big scheme of things. Rather than consider our technology a permanent fixture of life, you may consider it a flash in the pan random happenstance that could one day vanish as easily as it came. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the kind of book that reminds one of that possibility.
(Sweet Jesus, I NAILED that transition.)
If the man and the boy from The Road sat down to a Thanksgiving dinner at some point in the novel (not that they have any goddamn clue what year it is, let alone month) they would probably be thankful for absolutely nothing. Maybe the kid would be thankful for the one time he got to drink a Coca-Cola, and maybe the dad would be thankful for the one bullet he has left in his gun. But that's pretty pathetic, isn't it? I mean, that's stretching your thankfulness pretty thin. One bullet isn't even enough for a murder suicide, and you know that's got to just break the dad's heart.
The Road is a novel without hope, without any kind of light at the end of the tunnel. For nearly 300 pages the two nameless main characters march through "burned America" towards the coast for absolutely no reason other than the fact that they have nothing else to do. Well, also, they have to keep moving in order to find food. And to avoid the roving bands of cannibals, who seem to be the only other characters in the novel. Literally. Just about every single time you see another human being, he's about to eat somebody or he's being eaten. How absolutely horrifying is that?
What I like about the cannibals, though, is it really lets you know that McCarthy knows what he's doing here. (The Pulitzer Prize the book won in 2006 helps too, but I prefer the cannibals as my indicator.) I mean, roving bands of cannibals is not the first thing that pops into your head when you sit down to write a father-son post-apocalyptic road-trip novel. At least it wouldn't be my first thought. That kind of thing would come on the second draft when you realize that cattle, crops, and all other edible things would be unable to survive a nuclear holocaust. So what do people eat when they run out of canned corn? Answer: The only fresh meat left on Earth. The kind that can figure out how to survive something as unnatural as a nuclear holocaust.
And yes, this vision of post-apocalypse America IS a nuclear one, and I wouldn't concede that point if McCarthy himself told me something different. Don't let the movie trailers fool you into thinking that this was some sort of environmental catastrophe. In the novel they have to wear masks because the air is full of ash. The snow is gray. The sun is blotted out by a gray sky that never clears. Certain food is deemed unsafe to eat. Water has to be strained through a rag before it can be drank. Etcetera. I have no idea why they would change it for the movie, but let me assure you that we are seeing the aftermath of nuclear war here.
Also, that movie is going to suck. Don't see it. Watch the trailer on YouTube instead, because they used literally all of the action from the book in that two and a half minutes. The only reason that anyone would ever dare to make this book into a movie is because the last time somebody made one of McCarthy's books into a movie it won like 19 Oscars. (Even though I thought that movie was mediocre at best.) The book didn't win the Pulitzer because it would make a good movie. It won because...
Actually, that's a good question. To be honest, the entire time I read The Road I expected something to jump out at me, to really stun me and make me think differently about writing, the way that Pulitzers have in the past. (See: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The novel, not the blog post I wrote about it here. That post is terrible.) But, really, after finishing The Road I can't quite get behind all of the "A subtly brilliant, deeply disturbing, beautifully written, triumph of American Literature," talk that surrounds the book. It was good, sure. Quiet and beautiful I suppose. True to life in a painful sort of way and emotionally deep, but LOTS of books fit those descriptions, don't they? That's what a good book is all about.
I don't know. Either I'm desensitized by read one amazing novel after the other and my expectations are set so high that Pulitzers seem average, or I'm missing something about The Road.

NOTE: You'll notice I didn't discuss the fact that The Road is technically a work of science fiction, and the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction has generated some controversy amongst the nerds of literature.
That's because by "controversy" I mean that a lot of gloaty sci-fi nerds are writing up criticisms and blogs about a sci-fi novel winning the Pulitzer and rubbing them in an imaginary audience's face. "The Road is sci-fi, make no mistake! Literature snobs won't admit it, but it's true!" In reality, nobody cares. All great literature is stripped of genre when it would otherwise fit into one. You're not going to find Frankenstein in the horror section, now are you? Shut up, sci-fi nerds.


  1. Hey. It's your old grill pal... or arch enemy... either way. It's Adrian. I, too, patiently waited to find the reason that this book recieved the praise that it did. I waited about 300 plus pages, actually. I don't think this book is a waste of time or anything, it's really good. Just not THAT good. Also, I couldn't agree with you more about the movie. If Charlize Theron has ONE more line in that movie than she does in the previews, then they added shit in. In the trailer, she says literally every line that character owns in the book. Retarded. All in all, I concur with your review whole heartedly.

  2. "Just not THAT good."

    And, the movie, man oh man.
    Charlize Theron actually gets more lines than the mother in the novel. In the trailer she says, "We won't last another winter here."
    That's what the man is thinking at the very beginning of the book.
    But I guarantee the flash-back scenes will be played out like mad. Otherwise, why would they have cast Charlize Theron?