Why The Road deserves its Pulitzer.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is phenomenal. It sat on my bookshelf for the better part of a month (you can read about the day I added it to my library), and I finished it in two days. I have some initial thoughts on how McCarthy uses craft to put the reader into his story and I feel like writing them out. I may edit later, but here’s what I have for you, dear reader.

McCarthy uses sparse language to mirror a sparse landscape.

It’s not that The Road is a fast read, it’s that it has sparse language. The book has no chapters, unless one counts the occasional ” . . . ” markers as chapter breaks, but even then, there is white space in-between sections within these “chapters,” each indicating a passage of time. This sparse feel on the page makes all two-hundred and eighty-seven pages seem faster than they are, which is an irony contrasted to the tale of a man and a boy trudging across the wilderness mere miles a day. Take this paragraph, for example:

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.

These are simple, sparse sentences to describe the journey of a man and a boy through a simple, sparse land. The subjects are always simple: the man, the boy, the gun, the ship, the tarp. Predicates aren’t far behind, just look at the above paragraph. McCarthy isn’t afraid to use the word “and” to link long lists of tasks, but these are almost always followed up by a short, punchy sentence. It’s language reminisce of the pair’s journey – walk for a long time, rest a short while, then walk for a long time, and so on.

McCarthy uses repetitious language in description and dialogue to help the monotony of endless travel hit home.

There is a strange sense of give-and-take when it comes to describing the landscape in McCarthy’s novel. He uses simple terms like the woods, the road, the beach, the house, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps on their own. Then he’ll throw in a splash of detail, though the details seldom stray from a repetitious track: black, ash, gray, corroded, smoke, dark. McCarthy populates the story with these sullen details to the point when an orange scarf seems bright in the dreary world. And the life-saving, heat-radiating glow of blue and orange and yellow fire becomes much more than simple color.

Much of the dialogue conversation reminds me of something straight out of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Words between the man and the boy come quick and in short bursts, rarely a conversation lasting over one page. The dialogue, too, is repetitive, featuring phrases like “You have to talk to me” and the all-catching answer “Okay” over and over. This repetitious dialogue isn’t the kind that’s easy to skim so one can move to the action. In fact, it’s impossible to pass over; human conversation is infrequent in the novel, and any chance to hear these characters speak to one another is immediately devoured and savored like a rusty can of peaches.

Consider this from Waiting For Godot:

To be dead is not enough for them.

– It is not sufficient.

– They make a noise like feathers.

– Like leaves.

– Like ashes.

– Like leaves.

– Say something!

– I’m trying.

– Say anything at all!

– What do we do now?

– Wait for Godot.

– Ah!

Now this from The Road:

– He’s going to die. We cant share what we have or we’ll die too.

– I know.

– So when are you going to talk to me again?

– I’m talking now.

– Are you sure?

– Yes.

– Okay.

– Okay.

I’m not suggesting this is word-for-word, and it’s definitely not a rip-off, yet the comparison remains for me. Godot is philosophy on life and death, as is The Road. The comparison doesn’t stop at the dialogue. Godot features two characters in a sparse landscape – a road with a tree off to one side – speaking of survival and God. Certainly, McCarthy’s bleak vision of our possible future doesn’t stray far from this image.

McCarthy uses third-person limited point-of-view to assist a feeling of the unknown.

The story follows the travels of a man and a boy, but only dives into the head of the man. It’s consistent, even when the story twists into brief flashback or (even briefer) bits of first- and second-person. The man is always trying to learn more about the world around him, always on his guard. Likewise, he’s trying to learn more about his son, always asking him what he’s thinking and how he feels. Even at one point in the story when it steps away from the man and follows the boy, it doesn’t go into his head, further creating the sense of isolation and unknown between the reader and the character, the character and his surroundings.

Those are initial thoughts, and none too-well fleshed out. However, I wanted to mark them down before they had a chance to escape out one of my brain holes. I’m feeling both excited by how good The Road is and frustrated with myself for not reading it, sooner. I meant to pick up the hardcover last fall. I meant to pick up the paperback long before Oprah put her little sticker on it. But, as I’ve come to realize over and over again, meaning to do something is far from doing it. I take it as another lesson learned, yet hopefully one that will stick with me more than the rest.


[tags]Cormac McCarthy, The Road, Godot, Beckett, third-person limited, sparse language, writing craft[/tags]

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