The Week in Books 2009, No. 48

Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road is a riveting and intense novel about what might happen if sudden catastrophe hit our society. I thought the premise was well executed, in that McCarthy imagines a very real threat (if you’ve never considered how quickly our society could fall apart, think about how much we rely on gasoline transported goods, electricity, city water, and so on. It would not take much to disrupt our grid. Sorry if that freaks you out.) The level of tension McCarthy maintains throughout the story is admirable, especially since he uses language that effectively portrays the spare bleakness of an unplugged world.

Without being heavy-handed, McCarthy gives different characters a variety of viewpoints and philosophies for dealing with the staggering deprivation and tragedy of the situation. Faith, fatalism, pure pragmatism, and the like are explored as the main character, who is only named as The Man or Papa, and his son press on to try to reach a place of safety. The Man says at the beginning of the book that his son is his proof that God exists, and he perseveres because of the hope his son gives him and to protect his son’s meager chance for a future. I wish I could go more into the relationships in The Man’s family without giving away too much information.

It was fascinating to consider how people would respond to a cataclysmic disaster in our era. In the face of so much deprivation, how would you respond? What lengths would you go to survive? In one scene the man realizes the disaster has happened and he fills up the bathtub with water. It was poignant to think of his pitiful attempt to prepare considering the reader knows he and his family have been surviving for years afterward and that bathtub of water can’t have lasted them very long.

I’m supposed to suggest a book for book club in February and I’m tempted to make this the one, because I think there is so much to talk about, but I fear the group might find it a little too heavy. As I said, this is a very intense book, but I would highly recommend it.

As a final note, I saw that they have made a movie of The Road (starring Viggo Mortensen) and I’m skeptical – so much of the story happens internally and on the level of ideas and motivation, not in what you would actually see on screen, so I fear much would be lost in a movie adaptation. That said, I haven’t seen the movie, so maybe it’s awesome. If anyone sees it, let me know what you think.

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