November 16, 2009


Apocalypse Now: Amid fire and torment, a man and his son endure the end of the world as we know it.: a review of The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Ron Charles, Washington Post)

Among his thinly plotted novels, The Road is McCarthy's most thinly plotted of all, as there's literally nowhere to go, no sense in going, just the inexorable impulse to move. The plot, such as it is, comes down to this father's existential need to keep his son alive and hopeful in a world that offers no life or hope. Day after day, month after month, they're starving and freezing, pushing along a cart with the few provisions they scavenge from decrepit homes looted bare years ago. "The boy was all that stood between him and death," McCarthy writes. "He saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe."

But against that lifeless state, the man clings to a raw faith in his mission: "My job is to take care of you," he tells his son. "I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you." With everything scraped away, the impulse to sanctify, to worship, to create meaning remains. "All of this like some ancient anointing," the man thinks after washing his son's hair in an icy dead lake. "So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them."

Concurrent with keeping his son alive is the more metaphysical challenge of sustaining his son's innate goodness while forcing him to witness the corruption of all moral behavior. "Are we still the good guys?" the boy asks in moments of confusion and shock. His father insists they are. "This is what good guys do," he tells him. "They keep trying. They dont give up." Why, then, his son asks, won't he help the stragglers they run across instead of running from them or shooting at them? "We should go to him, Papa. We could get him and take him with us. . . . I'd give that little boy half of my food." How to explain the necessity of abandoning others to certain death (or worse, in one particularly terrifying scene) while maintaining that they're "the good guys," the ones "carrying the fire"?

Under these singularly bleak conditions, the boy's nature -- his impulse to help, his anxiety about stealing others' food -- is, of course, naive. But even when fighting for their lives, his father knows that it's a naiveté inspired by the boy's goodness that makes their fight worthwhile, that allows him to resist the age-old temptation "to curse God and die."

The encounter that illumines the final moments of the novel will infuriate McCarthy die-hards who relish his existential bleakness, but the scene confirms earlier allusions that suggest the roots of this end-of-the-world story reach far past the nuclear age to the apocalypse of Christian faith. The book's climax -- an immaculate conception of Pilgrim's Progress and "Mad Max" -- is a startling shift for McCarthy, but a tender answer to a desperate prayer.

The book allows for a number of readings--though all of them Christian. A fable of the love between Father and Son can't help but be read as a Christian allegory, especially when the boy is referred to as a tabernacle and proclaims: "I am the one."

But I was struck throughout by the obvious way in which the author was challenging existentialism. This is the sort of book the mature Camus would have written to rebut his younger self. In particular, Mr. McCarthy makes the direct argument that the man's love for the boy justifies existence and the selflessness of this love is made apparent by the man's sacrifice. Meanwhile, despite a situation of literal lawlessness, the two characters are continuously bothered by whether their actions conform to objective standards of good. The boy is even more insistent on this point than the man, functioning as a prick to his conscience. In a world where existence has been boiled down to little more than the individual and utter freedom seemingly reigns--the ideal condition for the Existential anti-ethos--our heroes reject individualism and freedom, choosing love and the Law instead.

The unrecognized money shot of the book though come when the man is remembering a special night on the beach with his wife and recalls that: "he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different." The suggestion is that this moment of beauty and love justifies Creation. Perhaps too the love of the man and the boy does, no matter the circumstances under which it occurs. Or, maybe the story alone does. Were you God, wouldn't the capacity of man for such love justify your Work to you? Despite all the awfulness and evil we're likewise capable of?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 16, 2009 6:21 AM
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