I must admit that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was a fairly tough book to read. I was initially intrigued by the post-apocalyptic story that held a lot of potential in its journey of hope, as well as the wealth of good reviews and awards the book received. What I discovered was a bleak tale that is, somehow, compelling to read quickly whilst simultaneously being not all that interesting.
The problem is in the plot: not that much actually happens. Father and son are travelling south through the USA after an unmentioned catastrophic event, but their constant struggle to have enough food and water becomes stagnant when this is only occasionally interspersed with an extra threat from “the bad guys”. Equally, it might be okay if I could care more for the characters but while the father is totally emphatic in his reasoning, worries and care for his son, the boy literally doesn’t stop whining. He throws tantrums when he doesn’t understand his father’s motives (obviously he has to take all their food back from the thief- it’s a case of them or him!) and about 50% of what he says is just the word “okay”. When there are only two consistent characters, this gets quite grating, as does the simplistic nature of their conversations and the punctuation they’re written with.
However, the admirable thing about the book is the message it conveys without explicitly saying anything at all. We are never told what exactly what happened to the earth to kill off its inhabitants, but this only makes it all the more ominous. It could be something we’re doing to the environment, something nuclear or something totally out of our control like a meteor strike. This doesn’t matter: the point is just that we don’t know when or how such a bleak future could come about.
Although the samey landscapes and their therefore similar descriptions get quite boring towards the end of the book, the overall picture is painted extremely well. Easily the best thing about The Road is its sequences of terror that occur all of a sudden. Author Benjamin Percy explained here why he found the basement scene to be one of the scariest passages of all literature, and I can’t help but agree; it was certainly one of the most successful parts of the book. The idea of humans having to stoop to eat other humans and how that pecking order could possibly be formed is one of the most horrifying things we could think of, so it is even worse than the monsters the reader may imagine as the scene builds tension. Equally, considering how disheartened I was becoming with the meandering style of the book by the end, it finished in a perfect way that managed to retain a glimmer of hope.
The Road isn’t a book that I’ll ever be dying to read again, with its slow (almost non-existent) pace and annoying characters, but I can’t fault its bleak message about both the environment and human nature. Perhaps it’s bad that this theme is so subtle, because it could have given the book an extra drive that may just make it easier to read and more satisfying in itself.