If ever you are in the mood to take a literary punch to the solar plexus, you might give Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road a try. I mean that in the best possible way. I just finished it in a thirty-six hour reading marathon, and I can’t get it out of my head.
The Road re-defines the term “post-apocalyptic.” It makes the opening chapters of A Canticle for Leibowitz look like a romp through Narnia. McCarthy creates probably the most brutal setting I have ever read. Nearly all life has been burned away. The few survivors scavenge through the ever-present ash, searching for canned food and clothing left over from the time before. At no point does McCarthy explain what happened to the world, but the cause is not the point of the story. The story follows two characters who are never out of earshot of each other, and never wavers from their point of view. We see the world through their eyes as they travel the titular road in the hopes of finding the ocean. We learn how they survive, and through their experience we catch horrifying glimpses of just how far humanity has fallen.
The setting firmly roots the story in speculative fiction, but McCarthy’s language and sense of realism bridges the gap between fantasy and mainstream literature — something I find encouraging as a fan of fantasy and sci-fi, and who feels that genre fiction is not accorded enough respect among literary critics. I hope the Pulitzer, as well as the book’s induction into the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, will open more doors for genre writers.
I saw the film adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men a few weeks ago. I have not read the book, but the same quiet intensity that runs through the film is equally present in The Road. The setting itself takes the place of No Country’s Anton Chigurh as the monster pursuing the main characters. The scorched earth of The Road is far more menacing, however. Chigurh’s victims at least occasionally had a chance to shoot back.