Wednesday, July 8, 2009

the road

i just read cormac mccarthy's novel "the road" cover to cover. i'm gutted. filled with emptiness. filled with the colour of the book. the colour is spread like pain across the grey-scale. filled with the immense joy and suffering that is love. i don't really know what to say.

the last time i read a book like this was many years ago when as a young adult filled with naivete and a fascination with obscurity, i happened on samuel delaney's dhalgren. dhalgren had more of the spectrum to it - a redefining of life that while unnerving and off-centre was still recognizable and tolerable. but it too described a world that had relocated its centre and was comprised of a quality of life far removed from that which we assume today.

but then, it's amazing what we'll tolerate. i look at my life as a child and my life as a fifty-two year old and wonder.


how did i come to be this person? how did the world come to be this world?

after reading "the road" i knew that much of what i had valued as a twelve year old (passionately immersed in the whole earth catalogue of stewart brand, knee deep in the don river hauling garbage out to help the environment, and later, as i listened to my grade twelve urban studies teacher detailing the exponential growth of the world's population, not to mention the concommitant pollution and even global warming) had come in a long mobius strip to land in the lap of me as a fifty two year-old dad/teacher immersed in sharing and supporting the work of people like green-up, biking every day instead of driving, choosing wherever possible to provide my family with food and materials that support the work of others and to the degree i am capable, trying to maintain our planet as a healthy home.

"the road" follows and details the journey taken by a father and his young son over an indeterminate period , across a landscape completely and irrevocably destroyed by an event that seems to have brought to a crashing halt, all civilization and, apparently, most life on earth. needless to say, it isn't pretty but the writing has a constancy of presence about it that doesn't allow for the usual sort of breaks provided in literature - chapters are non-existent, apostrophes are almost non-existent. mccarthy's writing is clipped but vivid in the way that haiku and tanka are vivid. there is so little on the page, but the mind's eye is filled to overflowing with images, the emotional centre quickly overflows.

in the story there is so little. so little is left. everything is dead or empty or taken or destroyed. what is there is glorious, amplified, magnified. a tin of pears becomes the centre of the universe. the love that flows from the father to the boy is like a garden in winter. the trust, the questioning trust that erupts from the boy to the father is so clear in its fullness.

here's an excerpt: "with the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. barren, silent, godless. he thought the month was october but he wasnt sure. he hadn't kept a calendar for years. they were moving south. there'd be no surviving another winter here.

when it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. everything paling away into the murk. the soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. he studied what he could see. the segments of road down there among the dead trees. looking for anything of colour. any movement. any trace of standing smoke. he lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. he knew only that the child was his warrant. he said: if he is not the word of God God never spoke.

when he got back the boy was still asleep. he pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out 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. he spread the small tarp they used for a table on the ground and laid everything out and he took the pistol from his belt and laid it on the cloth and then he just sat watching the boy sleep. he'd pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets. he watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. this was not a safe place. they could be seen from the road now it was day. the boy turned in the blankets. then he opened his eyes. hi, papa, he said.

i'm right here.

i know.

an hour later they were on the road. he pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. in the knapsacks were essential things. in case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. he shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. the road was empty. below in the little valley the still gray serpentine of a river. motionless and precise. along the shore a burden of dead reeds. are you okay? he said. the boy nodded. then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire."

the book is stunning in its unwavering attention to the slightest detail. to setting an emotional tone. to establishing a moral heriarchy that extends beyond the terms of the world described in the book into the world we are welcoming / creating. if nothing else this book builds on similar thinking established in rachel carson's silent spring, schumacher's small is beautiful and thoreau's walden.

after the book's presence had calmed somewhat inside me i reflected on the fact that this world is so extraordinarily beautiful and so utterly fragile. we need it much more than it needs us. and so it behooves us to express a degree of care that supercedes our inclination towards our own needs.

the images are from the film version of the road which is scheduled for release in 2009 but who knows when?


JennyMac said...

Great coverage of the book. I loved it.

steven said...

hi jennymac, thanks for visiting. i don't usuually write book reviews - and i read lots and lots of books - but very few books reach deep enough inside me to affect me to the degree that this book did and so i felt compelled to say something out loud. have a peaceful day. steven

Goldenrod said...

Wonderful recommendation, Steven! Now, I'll just have to go to the library and check it out. You've really got me intrigued.

steven said...

hi goldenrod, it's tremendous writing, powerful, and leaves a lasting impression. but it's harsh, very ugly at times, and yet despite all that it does have a deeper uplifting message. have a peaceful day. steven

Dan Gurney said...

You write:

i reflected on the fact that this world is so extraordinarily beautiful and so utterly fragile. we need it much more than it needs us. and so it behooves us to express a degree of care that supercedes our inclination towards our own needs.

I so agree. Our self-serving "needs" are really wants. Our most urgent *need* is to care for all forms of life and to find ways to dramatically shrink our collective ecological footprint. I'm glad to have met you--a kindred spirit out there.

steven said...

hi dan, first of all thanks for "behooves" to remind me that i had spelled it incorrectly in my entry!!! additionally, thanks for underscoring my sense that "needs" are more often "wants".
in my work as a teacher i embed in the classroom's daily practice some observance or work that connects my kids to their place in the world - on their own scale and in their own place. i find that they are passionate about caring for the environment just as i was at the same age. i'm very hopeful for the future of this world. have a peaceful day. steven

Sid Smith said...

Debra has been urging me to read this book for the past couple of years. Somehow I got out of the habit of reading fiction many moons ago concentrating my reading into "research" or political biography, etc.

Reading this intense overview has just bumped this book to the top of my reading list.

steven said...

hi sid, in the same way that crimson's music, and sometimes robert's soundscapes paint a bleak picture with a constant reference to an underlying rightness, there's always that glimmer of trust and hope mixed somewhere inside this very dark novel.
i hope that if you do read the book, you write a review of it. have a peaceful day sid! steven

Cheryl Cato said...

McCarthy is a fabulous writer. I have read most of what he has written. His writing is very dark, but The Road is the darkest yet. Your description of it is spot-on! It is the saddest book I have ever read in terms of the future of humanity.
A conversation between the son (1st speaker) & the father (2nd speaker) is absolutely chilling:

"There are other good guys. You said so.
So where are they?
They're hiding.
Who are they hiding from?
From each other.
Are there lots of them?
We dont know.
But some.
Some. Yes.
Is that true?
Yes. That's true.
But it might not be true.
I think it's true.
You dont believe me.
I believe you.
I always believe you.
I dont think so.
Yes I do. I have to."

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

steven said...

hi lizzie, thanks for sharing this excerpt. there are others that (as i write this) i am recalling that were even more chilling. i haven't read any of mccarthy's work before and so can't describe or connect to the journey he has taken to arrive at this point. i mentioned some earlier books written by others who pointed to possibilities in terms of the direction mankind is or could take. certainly this is the darkest book i have read in terms of a perspective on where we could go. but i hold hope in spite of the book's darkness that his intent is to show us an ending. from that ending comes a perspective on a turning-point, an awareness that can drive us in a direction that results in goodness and not this sad, bleak emptiness. thanks so much for your insight lizzie!!! steven