There are few writers’ whose styles are as instantly recognizable as Cormac McCarthy’s and it is front and center in The Road. A predominantly bleak portrait of a post-apocalyptic world, The Road is incredibly haunting even as the delicate sliver of optimism and hope maintains a dull shine throughout the novel.
It’s unclear exactly what happened to the world or when, but beyond the decimation of most of the human population, there are no animals and most of the plant growth is dead as well. The sun cannot penetrate the clouds and ash blankets the landscape like snow. As winter settles in, a man and his son slowly and carefully maneuver their way south along the road, hoping to reach the coast despite not knowing what they will find there. The man has developed a necessary wariness when it comes to the others they encounter on the road as some of those desperate to survive with food resources rapidly vanishing are willing to cross any and all lines of decency.
The prose style is very distinctive. The man and his son remain nameless, anonymous beings in a grey landscape where any and all identity is meaningless. There are no traditional chapter breaks. Instead, the novel is told in very short passages: a paragraph, a page, a string of toneless dialogue. With only two speaking characters through much of the novel it’s pretty easy to guess at who is talking, but the lack of emotional indicators referencing their tone of address is very reminiscent of Hemingway’s style. Beyond simply being a stylistic choice, the lack of directed emotion in the text itself is an extension of the novel’s forlorn atmosphere. Everything about the text is flat and colorless.
The lack of how, when, and why in The Road is perhaps what sets it furthest apart from other similar apocalyptic novels. In the end, those things don’t matter. Not to those who are left. The difference in the perspectives of father, who remembers the time before, and son, whose experiences are limited to the after, show a harsh disparity that makes the son’s will to believe the best of people even more amazing than it would otherwise be. It’s on these interactions that The Road rests. There isn’t a lot as far as the plot goes that happens. There’s a lot of walking, a lot of searching and scavenging for food. There are times when the reader, like the characters, must simply endure.
The Road is one of those books that I could see spending hours dissecting in a college literature class. It’s stylistically rich but as a story in and of itself, it’s not one that I would necessarily consider “fun” or something to be read strictly for pleasure. It reminded me of the time I tried to watch The Walking Dead, when I realized once and for all that I’m okay with zombies as long as they’re part of a comedy a la Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland. The Road is a book I tried to read before bed but then had to put it aside and read a chapter of something else before actually turning in, not because I was afraid of nightmares but because it was just too depressing a note on which to end the day. It is a quick read but one that I won’t be sorry to leave behind.