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In Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” an unnamed father and his sickly son navigate their way through a post-apocalyptic world, resiliently marching down a blasted highway in search of hope. Grey clouds have permeated the landscape, forcing the sun to retreat “like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” Time, too, has resigned, steeping the characters in a setting so utterly disoriented that all the world’s foundations seem to rest precariously upon the emotional bond that links the two.
Love and grief, dependence and the parent-child relationship, morals and their manifestation in a degenerate world: these are the themes that arise in McCarthy’s “The Road.” But as with the protagonists’ expedition down the road itself, it is unclear whether the journey through these themes will yield any answers.
Though the plot features some rich points, such as several encounters with ravening bands of cannibals and thrilling forays into abandoned (and perhaps not!) homes in search of residual supplies, the novel’s magnificence lies in its agonizingly intricate character development.
Much of this development comes in the form of unadorned monologues or dialogues between the father and his son. McCarthy’s conversations are simple and informal, while still managing to remain sophisticated and dramatic.
The minimalistic nature of McCarthy’s prose seems to match the uncomplicated and barren world in which the characters find themselves. Their relationships are confined to one another, their goals limited to reaching the end of the road, and the derelict backdrop provides little material for external distraction. In fact, part of what makes this work so compelling is that McCarthy forces the reader to remain fully engaged in the emotional turmoil plaguing both father and son by providing no alternative subject for consideration.
McCarthy’s poetic genius shines through just as brilliantly in the delicately placed extended narrations that are interspersed throughout the novel. One of the first exhibitions of this sort reads as follows: “The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief.” The cadence, the repetition, the piercing ambiguity—endless factors combine to perfect the tragic beauty of this passage. McCarthy proves his literary prowess over and over again throughout the novel, not only confirming his capacity for seamlessly shifting styles, but also encouraging manifold contemplation of the circumstances.
“The Road” is not a book to be missed. Without a doubt, it is heavy, somber, and mildly depressive. But McCarthy’s insights on the origins of significance, grief, and fear, the essential components of real horror, cannot go unheeded. The added bonus of intermittent linguistic masterpieces should tip any skeptics over the edge. For our generation, McCarthy’s work poses a grave challenge: to reassess the trajectory of the American Dream, to ask what lies at the end and what the journey to its acquisition ought to entail.
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