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.

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The Road

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Cormac-McCarthy/dp/B002H40NH2/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1254448807&sr=1-6
book by Cormac McCarthy

Annotation by Aaron Gansky

Maybe because I’m a man, maybe because I’m a father, this book resonated with me much more. This isn’t what I expected. I’ve heard of McCarthy and how wonderful he is. I think I was expecting something ornate and overly-literary. Instead, what I got was the sparseness of Carver or Hemmingway. My God, the dialogue! My first impression was that it was overly-redundant, and that he could cut out about fourteen pages if he simply deleted the word “okay.” My final impression, on that note, however, was the same. By the end of the novel, I still thought that the dialogue was overly-stiff, overly-sparse, overly-redundant, overly-overly, really. That being said, there were moments that were outstanding. He really nailed the dialogue at times, but not often enough, methinks.

That being said, I loved the book. I would have liked to have known what happened to the world (and I’m really surprised he got away without having to spell out what it was exactly—normally in post-apocalyptic books you have to give light to the cataclysm to satisfy readers). At the end of the book, I still wanted to know, but I was satisfied with the book regardless.
There, I’ve said my criticism. Now, on to what I love. The suspense and tension were ever present. McCarthy made isolation intimidating. He made company terrifying. He made old men and young boys daunting. Weather was ominous, empty homes were menacing.

But, what I thought he did really well was provide a respite for the man and the boy. I read somewhere (why can’t I remember where?) that characters should reap the reward of their actions—good guys should catch a break sometimes, bad guys should get what’s coming to them. It doesn’t always work that way in literature, but having the man and the boy catch a break at times (the ship, the fallout shelter), those were good times. It allowed me to breathe as a reader—something I couldn’t really do in The Grapes of Wrath *Aaron fashions a noose as he types the title*. In my novel, I need to let my characters catch their breath. That’s something I don’t normally do, but it’s something I’m looking forward to trying.

Blood Meridian

Blood Meridianannotation by Seth Fischer
book by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian is violent. I say that not as a critique or a compliment. I say that because it is what the book is about. There is very little central tension, aside from a little bit of “father-son” uneasiness between “the kid” and “the judge.” But what made me keep reading, page after page after page, was the new depths to which the characters were falling, the necklaces made of human ears and the male genitals cut off and stuffed inside mouths and the babies whose skulls were smashed on rocks. It was like watching a car accident. And all of this would have been a problem — would have made the book no more than a textual grindhouse film, really — if the sentences weren’t all perfect, if the voice wasn’t so gripping, and, most importantly, if the violence wasn’t there to make us fundamentally reimagine the “old west” that we so often romanticize.

After reading No Country for Old Men, I was expecting Blood Meridian to be violent and minimalist. I was expecting a matter-of-fact, rural, rustic voice that would describe the most unconscionable things I could imagine as if it were describing fabric softener. And there is some of this. Wisely, I think, McCarthy’s narrator does not graphically describe a lot of the more terrible things that happen in the novel. For example, “He took a skinning knife from his belt and stepped to where the old woman lay and took up her hair and twisted it about his wrist and passed the blade of the knife about her skull and ripped away the scalp.” This is disgusting to read, but it sounds almost like a description of a medical procedure. We don’t feel the murderers’ regret or disgust or anything of the sort. McCarthy allows the reader to fill all that in. And it’s almost more terrifying that way.

But Blood Meridian is a better book than No Country for Old Men because it does something more than this. McCarthy, in this book, is not so minimalist that he doesn’t allow the images to breathe. For example, there’s an image of “the judge” walking through the desert with a parasol made of human bones and hide walking a crazy man like a dog seeking out “the kid” in order to kill him. Or the image of a dancing bear being shot for no reason at a saloon while a little girl weeps as it bleeds out. Or the image of “the kid” wearing a necklace of human ears while a group of teenage boys ask him why all the ears are black in they’re Indian ears and not the ears of black people. I could go on forever. These images are so powerful and so disturbing that they almost work as a reason to keep reading on their own. And because the novel is a historical one (it was heavily researched and is based on historical accounts of that era), we keep reading especially because we know there is an element of truth to it.

So here we have a novel, often cited as one of the best novels in recent American history, that fails to really have much of a story in the way we would generally think of it. It starts with the destruction of a priest and ends with the destruction of a bear. Nearly everyone dies. People meander around the west killing people. Every once in a while, the Judge and the Kid get in a fight. None of this kept me going. Instead, it relies quite a bit on its “historical,” “research-driven” nature to keep the reader going. It also relies heavily on images instead of a central tension, especially given that “the kid,” who is someone whose survival we at least nominally care about (and therefore could be that central tension), disappears for large swaths of the novel. Despite all the “weaknesses” an MFA program would see in this book, I couldn’t stop reading because of these two things.

I loved his style and his approach. That said, I’m not sure I would want McCarthy’s nightmares.