Monday, January 31, 2011

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

If you saw the movie, The Road, then shame on you–you should’ve read the book. This Pulitzer Prize winning, #1 Bestseller, is amazing on so many levels, I can’t begin to do justice to it here.

No wonder Donald Maass used Cormac McCarthy’s novel as an example in his The Fire in Fiction.

You’ll find The Road under the heading of “Average Joes, Jane Does, and Dark Protagonists” in Maass’s how-to book. You can’t get any darker than the main character, known only as Papa. Maass’s point is that few writers who want to nab your sympathy over their character’s plight do so successfully. They are so busy letting us know he’s pitiful, they fail to present a reason for us to care. Why would we want to read three hundred pages of “poor, poor me”?

McCarthy gave us reason to care immediately. In the dark, postapocalyptic world he paints, the only things that matter are Papa and his son, known only as “the child” or “the boy.”
When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.

There is no backstory to this tale. The idea that the setting is postapocalyptic is written on the back cover. If not for that, the reader would know nothing of the time or setting without reading further. Occasionally, Papa will reminisce about his wife, about his youth, but even then, there is no clear indication of whether either was before the catastrophe or after. There is no sunlight anywhere in the novel. Hope comes in the form of discovered food and is dashed with the constant need to move on. Throughout the book, we see the theft of the child’s youth softly portrayed through hints and moods; and when we realize it’s gone, our hearts break.

McCarthy tells of the dangers, the needs, the incessant moving, but he shows emotion in astounding and varied ways. Here is one example. In this scene, a poignant portrayal of love and despair, the boy’s mind is troubled. He says:
Can I ask you something?
Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die to.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
The boy says “Okay” quite a bit as an illustration of his acceptance of the way things are. He never knew the way things were, so he has no point of reference from which to moan his loss. As long as his father answers his questions, everything is “okay.”

Dialogue tags aren’t necessary in the book and are rarely used; when they are, a simple “he said” usually suffices. From what I’ve seen, the lack of quotation marks is typical for McCarthy, but whether the lack of apostrophes is typical, I don’t know. Unless a word would be totally misunderstood without an apostrophe, he simply doesn’t use it–particularly in contractions involving “not.” Instead of hyphens, he runs words together: diningroom, foldingtable, castiron, coalgrate. These omissions work together to enforce the hopeless of the situation. Who cares about grammatical correctness in a world where survival is the only goal?

Here are a few more examples of showing rather than telling.

When he got back the boy was still asleep. He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup.
Step by step, surrounded by “and.” They do the same thing, day in, day out.

He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.
He shoved the boy through the hatch and sent him sprawling. He stood and got hold of the door and swung it over and let it slam down and he turned to grab the boy but the boy had gotten up and was doing his little dance of terror. For the love of God will you come on, he hissed. But the boy was pointing out the window and when he looked he went cold all over. Coming across the field toward the house were four bearded men and two women. He grabbed the boy by the hand. Christ, he said. Run. Run.

All the “ands” in here just seem to add to the urgency. Short, strong words with the run-on sentences make this a powerful passage without exclamation points.

This post is already far longer than what we usually do on AC, so I'll end simply: Read the book, study the technique. Those of us who have yet to pay our dues are unlikely to get away with the things McCarthy did, but when we see why he's a best seller, we can improve our writing and become best sellers too.
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  1. My favorite novel. You've nailed why I love McCarthy's style and I think it's time for me to re-read The Road.

  2. Okay, I'm properly shamed. I haven't seen the movie or read the book. Going to have to correct the latter omission at least!

  3. Helen, that was the first McCarthy I'd read. He wrote two more that were turned into movies, and I'm tempted to read those too.

    Katie, I think you'll find his style fascinating, or at the very least controversial.

  4. Cormas McCarthy is a one-in-a-generation kind of talent. He's one of the most accurate writers I know. Every word has the weight of a the world of the person who says it. The ROad was great, but I still have a soft sport for Blood Meridian.

  5. I'm with Katie. I haven't seen the movie nor have I read the book. I'd never heard of The Road until 5 minutes ago. :)

  6. Ben--I agree. His work is amazing. He can elicit the maximum amount of emotion with a minimalist effect. Like you said, it's because every one of his words has weight. I'll have to find Blood Meridian.

    Lorna--it's a good one!