The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road The Road by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When this book first came out, four years back, there was quite a bit of hoo-ha over it, not in the US or even the UK, but here in Malaysia. This was after it won a few prestigious awards, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006, and then a year later the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Malaysians then started to take notice of the book. However the reactions – not the reviews – were varied. One reader loved it, even cried over some bits in it. Some others hated it and cited reasons such as ungrammatical writing.

On the surface, admittedly, there is some kind of grammatical and syntactic quirks about the writing. The overt ones are when Cormac left out the apostrophes from some words, as in “You forget some things, dont you?” (my italics). There are others that are not that obvious, like “Trash in the floor, old newsprint”, “He went down the hallway and stood in the door to the parlor”, “Small cones of damp plaster standing in the floor.” And “They squatted in the road and ate cold rice and cold beans”.

An English language teacher would probably object to the uses of “in” in those sentences. Unless she’s finally grasps the direction Cormac is going.

We can see that the pervading environment in the book’s Earth is a dying one, or rather, an already dead one. Whole cities are burnt down to ashes. The key word here is “ash”. Ash covers everything, and the road the man and the boy are travelling on – or in – is covered with it. What Cormac is saying is that they are walking in the ash, because it is so thick on the road.

All this shows up Cormac as a master of language manipulation. In other instances, some of his sentences smack of Hemingway, the way he can sometimes string several sentences along with just the use of “and”.

Cormac is attempting to say – without saying it but rather showing it – that in the man's  and the boy’s dying world, language is devolving down to past its basics, to a place before grammar and syntax. The man tries to stem this by sometimes reading to the boy and getting him to tell him his dreams. The man is pleased and surprised the boy could even read:

“By the roadside stood another sign that warned of death, the letters faded with the years. He almost smiled. Can you read that? he said.

What with all this burning and fire, the ironic thing here is the man tells the boy they are carrying the fire, in them. At the close of the book the boy asks another man, not his father, if he is carrying the fire. He has to be sure before he can leave his dead father and follow this man.

All through the book the main protaganists are just the man and the boy - no names at all. Not even for other characters they meet along the road.

Truth be told, I only read this book after watching the movie. The movie version has kept closely and faithfully to the book, and Viggo Mortensen played the man admirably well. As for the actor playing the boy, he could have at least been a lot thinner or gaunt, like Viggo, all skin and bones. When the man died in the movie I cried a little. When I read that part in the book later, it made me emotional, as well.

Before this, I have to admit that I was foolish to have let the negative reactions of local readers then in 2006 influence me to give the book a miss. Now that I’ve read the book and understood how Cormac uses language so effectively, I’m thrilled, moved and blown away by it.

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