Reviews of The Road (2006) and related work

The Road (2006Text)

Cormac McCarthy (writer).

Read in 2021.

A nameless boy and his father trek through a postapocalyptic USA, “carrying the fire” of civilization as two of “the good guys”. Around them, the ashes drift through dead forests. There are a few mushrooms, occasionally apples, but not much moving along the road.

That rare beast: A novel straddling bourgeois literature and science fiction, yet it’s good by the standards of both genres.

Like a lot of bourgeois writers trying their hand at SF, McCarthy eschews some of the hallmarks of the genre. In his postapocalypse there is, stereotypically, no history, no known cause, no monsters, no futuristic technology, no factions etc. It is incongruous in this context that The Road still indulges in the threat of roving cannibal slave-driver sado-rapists, rather like the regressive Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) or the moderately progressive The Postman (1985). That one big cliché of US post-apocalypses is played straight but the sheer cartoonish evil of it adds an unintentionally campy glimpse of fun, and the work as a whole is brilliantly well balanced.

It could be incidental for all I know, but it’s true as Mark Lynas, George Monbiot and others have remarked, that the nature of the apocalypse in The Road seems to be the end of ecosystem services through the death of almost every macroscopic life form except people. Though it stays marginal, this is a fascinating bit of apparent worldbuilding and a marked improvement over the bourgeois apocalyptic dramas that avoid the causality of SF even more completely, such as Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003).

McCarthy’s focus is not on the world but on the language, the characters and the feelings of the end of civilization. The moralism and vulnerability of the child block all the narcissistic bullshit of earlier, cathartic apocalypses and cozy catastrophes. That choice is very good, but I do not believe that worldbuilding would have ruined it. Consider, for example, why the mushrooms in the novel are not more common. In the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, populations of many fungal species exploded as food became plentiful and predators suddenly disappeared. A slightly more alien landscape, dominated by fungal rot, would have made sense to me without hurting the literary value of the novel.

fiction text

The Road (2009Moving picture, 111 minutes)

Seen in 2013.

Faithful to the vision.

adaptation fiction moving picture