The Road

book by Cormac McCarthy

annotation by Lee Stoops

“As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road (57)

Chilling. Dark. Cold. Hopeless. And yet, The Road is full of love, regardless; both McCarthy’s love of a real story told well and the love a father and son share, even in the face of nothingness. The landscape is America, though the time is epitomic post-apocalyptic. Nothing remains but ash, broken, Spartan roads, and a few, hungry, desperate, withered people. Winter – and it’s not clear if it’s seasonal or nuclear – sets in and color long ago left the world. McCarthy paints a bleak, grim environment and ravages his characters with it. Yet, they never give up. They sustain each other entirely. And that sustenance is the point. Days without food or water, weeks on the road, sleepless and cold and knowing that the only other people alive are eating each other, and moving toward a goal simply for the sake of having a goal – none of these keep the story moving or give it its poignancy. Its strength, its very meaning, exists in the bond of love the father and his son share.

McCarthy’s intentions with the story are clear. He so much as eliminates visual, typeset elements of the page so that everything makes way for the truth of the prose. None of the dialogue is quoted, and only some the time is it tagged. The characters (the boy and his father) remain nameless for the entire story. No states are labeled, no nomenclature of town or geographic shows. Titles and places, even extra ink on the page for apostrophes or quotations, are unnecessary distractions in McCarthy’s vision.

“At the top of the hill he turned and studied the town. Darkness coming fast. Darkness and cold. He put two of the coats over the boy’s shoulders, swallowing him up parka and all.

I’m really hungry, Papa.

I know.

Will we be able to find our stuff?

Yes. I know where it is.

What if somebody finds it?

They wont find it.

I hope they dont.

They wont. Come on.

What was that?

I didnt hear anything.

Listen.

I dont hear anything.

They listened. Then in the distance he heard a dog bark. He turned and looked toward the darkening town. It’s a dog, he said.

A dog?

Yes.

Where did it come from?

I dont know.

We’re not going to kill it, are we Papa?

No. We’re not going to kill it.

He looked down at the boy. Shivering in his coats. He bent over and kissed him on his gritty brow. We wont hurt the dog, he said. I promise” (81-82).

McCarthy’s characters engage is continual dialogue, and the speech patterns and choices are masterful. Part of the story’s brilliance lies in the boy’s true form; he is a young boy, witness to a world devastated and lonely, but remaining a young boy. The father recognizes and pities his son’s innocence and forced loss, and he struggles to balance survivalism, reality, and compassion in a world that doesn’t care whether they live or die. McCarthy’s approach to developing the boy’s character through reflection and interaction with his “Papa” is one of the indicators that not a single element of The Road is accidental.

Devoid of chapter breaks, or even long scenes, the story reads like a close observer’s journal accounting of the pair’s journey. Most scenes, sequences, or flashbacks are only pieces on the pages, some spanning two or even several. The technique, if described, sounds choppy, like a series of false starts or gapped prose. However, in the case of The Road, it might not work any other way. The reader is trusted to intuit time, place, emotion, and pace. The story may jump from the man holding his son, protecting him while he sleeps, to a flashback to a time when the boy’s mother was still alive, to the next morning or even several days later. Despite the technique and things left unsaid, the disjointed style, rather than create a disjunct narrative, gives even more truth the story, to their lives, and to the experience as a whole.

“He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said.

Yes. Of course.

Are we going to die?

Sometime. Not now.

And we’re still going south.

Yes.

So we’ll be warm.

Yes.

Okay.

Okay what?

Nothing. Just okay.

Go to sleep.

Okay.

I’m going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?

Yes. That’s okay.

And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?

Yes. Of course you can.

What would you do if I died?

If you died I would want to die too.

So you could be with me?

Yes. So I could be with you.

Okay” (10-11).

And, that’s what The Road is – an experience in life at its most uncertain, most hopeless, most true. As a reader, I read rapt. As a writer, I couldn’t put the book down, even though I needed a hand free to make notes – recording everything he was doing right, when and how he was doing it, and why it worked everywhere it did. The story is spare, made rich by authentic characters and some of the strongest contemporary prose available. I closed the book, inspired and terrified, thinking, “This is what a story can do? This is what I can do with a story?” If Cormac ever reads this: Thank you.

Advertisements

The Women

book by T.C. Boyle

annotation by Tina Rubin

My rendezvous with this novel, which was on a sale table at Borders, was too coincidental to ignore. I’ve always loved the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and I always meant to read something by T. C. Boyle. When the two forces coalesced, I was helpless. Of course, this novel is about Wright’s messy relationships with the four women he loved, not his work—but through them and the narrator, we do get a sense of the complete man.

It’s fascinating to learn about each of the women and see how the architect, a classic narcissist, interacted with them and others in his world. But Boyle takes us beyond fascination. There are many elements of interest to writers here.

If I were contemplating writing this novel, the first question I would ponder is who should narrate it. Each of the four women and Wright himself—five narrators? Have Wright tell his own story? Use an omniscient narrator?

Boyle did none of the above. He created a completely fictional narrator, 25-year-old Sato Tadashi, a Japanese national whose father has paid steep tuition for him to join the Taliesin Fellowship and work directly with Wright. Intelligent, likable Tadashi was a smart choice for the book. Readers not only see the characters through Tadashi’s cultural bias, which makes this version of Wright’s life unique, but also get a look at the treatment of Japanese in midwestern America during the 1930s and 40s—including a poignant section in which Tadashi is sent away for internment. Bravo to Boyle for finding a way to lobby for social justice.

Tadashi tells his own story in a chapter prefacing each part of the three-part book, then comments in footnotes in the chapters that follow. He narrates those chapters in close third, capturing the voice of the dominant character: Olgivanna (wife three), Miriam (wife two), Mamah (mistress), Kitty (wife one), Frank, or the Barbadian servant, Julian Carleton, who murdered Mamah and seven others and set Taliesin on fire.

Tadashi comes to Taliesin late in Wright’s story (accurately, in terms of the establishment of the Fellowship), when the architect is married to his last wife. Fictional Tadashi relies on opinions from a fictional translator, his Caucasian grandson-in-law, who helps him get at the truth of Frank Lloyd Wright. The device is a bit muddy; Boyle could have carried on without this layer of complication.

However, Boyle does a terrific, fun job of expressing the character of Miriam, Frank’s morphine-addicted, flamboyant second wife (whom he married when Kitty granted him a divorce after Mamah’s murder). The chapters involving the psychotic servant, Carleton, also sing. A caveat: Boyle gives an island dialect to Carleton’s peasant wife, Gertrude. It serves a purpose—to contrast his education with her lack of it—but it made me, as a reader, slow way down to pronounce the words in my mind. Use dialect sparingly, if you have to use it at all. You don’t want the reader drifting out of the story. The Carelton chapters were the climax of the novel, so at least Boyle had timing on his side.

Another choice Boyle had to make was how to structure the story. The logical choice would be to do it chronologically, but that wouldn’t have been the dramatic choice. He introduces Tadashi and then Olgivanna. From there he works backwards, with overlaps. (The overlaps were actually a gift of Wright himself; that’s how the man lived. When one wife refused to grant him a divorce, he simply carried on with a mistress, completely disregarding society’s mores.) At first I was thrown by Boyle’s reverse structure, which (obviously) didn’t move the story forward or build much tension from chapter to chapter, but his reasoning became clear in the end. He closes with Mamah’s murder. High drama. But was it a great structural choice? If the novel hadn’t been about Frank Lloyd Wright, I might not have made it to the end.

Creating enduring characters may be the biggest job a writer faces. The fact that most of the characters in The Women were real made the job easier for Boyle, but he did a good job breathing his own energy into them. Here is passage from Miriam, when she receives Wright’s divorce summons while staying at the home of her friend Leora in Los Angeles:

Yes, she’d left him. Of course she had. Anyone would have. A saint—even the martyrs in their hair shirts and bloody rags. He was impossible, the single most infuriating human being she’d ever met, what with his God complex and his perfectionism, fussing over every last detail as if the world depended on it, his snoring, his musical evenings, the utter soul-crushing desolation of rural Wisconsin where he all but kept her prisoner and every overfed housewife and goggling rube staring at her as if she had the letter A sewed to the front of her dress. Of course she’d left him. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love him still.

In the end, The Women: A Novel is an intriguing, high-energy story with good pacing and some lovely language and imagery. And if one of your characters is a narcissist, as one of mine is, this is the book for you. There’s no better model for it than Frank Lloyd Wright.