Post-apocalyptic not-YA: The Road

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

How the world ends: “A long shear of light and then a series of long concussions”–some sort of nuclear blast, presumably.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this book. It’s a vivid book, with its gray landscape over which ash falls everywhere, all signs of non-human life gone and humans on the wane, only a few scattered survivors remaining, fewer all the time. I had vivid dreams while reading this. Through the ruined landscape, a man travels with his son, occasionally running into–but mostly trying not to run into–other survivors. There aren’t many–it’s a mostly empty landscape as well as a dead one.

Like Life As We Knew It, The Road works on the premise that if you turn off the sun (blocking it with ash in both cases, though the ash comes from different sources) and stop food from growing, you bring out the worst in people. In Life As We Knew It, people struggled to survive on dwindling supplies of canned good. In The Road, the canned goods are mostly gone, and some of the remaining people, with literally nothing else left to eat, have taken to eating each other. And while, after many acts of cruelty on all sides and a few acts of kindness on one, a tiny bit of hope springs up near the end of the book, the very last paragraph makes it very clear–to my reading, at least–that nothing new will ever grow in the world again–and so cannibalism notwithstanding, eventually everyone really is going to starve to death. There’s no hope whatsoever of bouncing back from this catastrophe.

Bleak, bleak stuff–I think this book may in fact be darker than M.T. Anderson’s Feed, which is already one of the darkest books I’ve ever read. I think, in the end, Feed actually has more hope than this book. Which is interesting, because I’ve been thinking of Feed as a book without any hope in it at the end whatsoever. Yet in Feed, even if the United States falls, as it clearly will or maybe already has–there’s a reasonable chance the rest of the planet will survive. Someone will survive, somewhere, anyway, which means that even though the protagonist has lost his chance at redemption, the larger world might yet be redeemed, somewhere beyond the scope of the story. In The Road, within a generation or so, there’ll be nothing left to redeem.

But the thing about The Road is, in the end? I don’t disagree with the book’s view that human beings are a mix of impulses towards kindness and towards cruelty. But it weighs the balance so strongly toward the cruelty, that in the end I don’t buy it. It was fascinating, really, to see just how strongly I found myself rejecting this book’s world view, and arguing that there’s more of kindness in the world than the story shows us.

Which gave me a bit to think about, and so made the book worth reading. But I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to read it again any time soon.

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