I recently finished reading "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. It's a book set in a post-apocalyptic world and I'm using that as a pretty thin justification for reviewing it here - beyond that setting there's precious little here that's left of America and virtually nothing at all that's trash. Indeed, I was simply so struck by the book that I wanted to be able to share a few words about it, hence my flimsy justification. I have often wondered in the past why it is that science fiction seems to offer authors such a rich ground for exploring important questions and ideas whereas my favoured genre, fantasy does not. Having read this I'm left wondering - and wishing - even more.
The idea of an Ameritrash post-apocalypse world is inevitably some sort of mad-max type scenario in which the lawlessness of a broken down society is used as a backdrop to explore familiar quest-motif concepts of good guy heroics against wicked thieves and ruffians. Here society hasn't broken down - it's completely absent. The wicked outlaws are replaced by gangs of men who would - quite literally – eat your children. There are, it is true, heroics aplenty but not in the good triumphs over evil sense but simply heroics needed to stay alive from one day to the next. There is eventually a sort of vindication here, and with it some sense of redemption, but the journey to get reach it will take you through some of the most harrowing wordscapes literature has to offer.
Ironically then this is primarily a story about morals. About how much of a fragile luxury a sense of morality proves to be when people are confronted with matters of survival. Of how we rarely put into practice the morals that we preach and try to pass on to our children. Of how reliant we are on the transient trappings of modern life to sustain our sense of morality. And ultimately, in spite of all this, how important morality is to what it means to be human, and to be able to hope for a better future.
That might seem a lot of stuff to pack in to a relatively short book in which not a great deal actually happens. What's truly amazing about the book is that there's an awful lot more. The primary antagonists are a father and son making their way along a road through the burned landscape, motivated by nothing more than a sense that they are the last "good guys" in a world of nightmares who need to try and keep that flame alive. Beyond the morality play there is a taut and gripping thriller, a shocking horror story, a rite-of-passage fable, a reflection on bonds between parents and their children, meditations on nuclear war and environmental catastrophe, considerations on metaphysics and religion and thoughts on the birth and death of civilisations. "Everything the modern novel can do is here" says one reviewer on the cover of my copy, and they were right. There really is.
A few months before tackling The Road I finished the first novel in the Gormenghast trilogy. And I was struck by how the book had been sustained almost entirely by its sparkling poetic prose and how wonderful and clever that prose was. The Road, in contrast, is an exercise in minimalism - achieving the same imaginative impact and more through sparse, carefully chosen words which create pictures in your head that will haunt you for days. In many ways that's the more impressive an achievement and it's this Spartan way with words that's the secret to managing to jam all that stuff between the covers. The bulk of the time the book spends talking about religion is confined to a two-page conversation between the father and an old man they meet on the road. “There is no God” the old man says “and we are his prophets”. This is a typical example of the way the book offers many questions and relatively few answers, but there is much pleasure to be had in chewing over the issues that it raises.
For all the unremitting desolation and bleakness of the all-too-plausible potential future that the book offers, the chief thing that I took away from it is a lesson in how to value the here-and-now. It taught me the lesson with such emotional force that in the days that followed I found myself considering the smallest things of beauty with a renewed sense of wonder and, in the end this is a lesson that lasts once the haunting images of death and destruction have begun to fade. And what greater gift could you want from a book than that?