Almost everybody I know has read The Road, whether in English or in the French translation, so I was not surprised to see, in a recent Globe Focus & Books section, that Cormac McCarthy's gloomy novel was a popular choice among the personalities asked to name the book that mattered most to them from the past decade.
Some of my friends were in tears when they finished The Road. Others found it so upsetting that they weren't able to finish. But while I hate to sound like a contrarian, I don't really see what the fuss is about. I read the novel without a tear in my eye and found it slightly annoying, somewhat sanctimonious.
Not that I'm hardhearted. I was moved beyond words by Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of The Day. I was in tears at the end of J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace. I never go to a movie without a few tissues because any touching scene will make me cry. I was transfixed with horror as I read Les Bienveillantes ( The Kindly Ones), Jonathan Littell's fictional memoir of a Nazi officer who describes in vivid detail the demented story of the Holocaust, but I read it without flinching from cover to cover.
Why others find The Road emotionally devastating is beyond me. The two main characters, the Man and the Boy, have no identity. We know almost nothing about them. And apart from expressing fear or hunger, they have nothing to say. Most of their dialogue, while walking south in a country destroyed by some huge cataclysm, goes like this: " What did you dream about? Nothing. Are you okay? No. We'll be okay. Okay."
What bothers me even more is the novel's Manichaeism. In this post-apocalyptic world, there are only two kinds of people: "good guys" and "bad guys." I thought such expressions had disappeared with George W. Bush. The Man and the Boy are among the good guys - they believe they are "carrying the fire." (Which fire and to what end is not clear.) The bad guys have become cannibals. Luckily, after his father dies, the boy is rescued by a good guy and his wife, people who "don't eat children."
This simplistic and moralizing tale features the enduring love between father and son, but this is hardly a novelty. Isn't it the norm in most families? And since I'm not a native English-speaker, perhaps I was not as sensitive as I should have been to the beauty of Cormac McCarthy's style. It is true that his sober, minimalist narrative is interesting, but does that justify the novel's enormous success, in a world filled with wonderfully written books?
The hype that surrounds The Road must have something to do with l'air du temps, the times we are living in. Because of the apocalyptic prophecies of the millenarian fringe of the ecological movement, there seems to be a vague but widespread feeling that the world might be coming to an end. The Road certainly plays on this theme.
The funny thing is that we've been there before - at least those of us old enough to remember the Cold War and the constant threat of nuclear disaster. I grew up in the 1950s, terrified at the thought that a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States would annihilate the world before I had time to start living a real life. When my mother would forbid me to go out to some party or other, I would scream at her that curtailing my freedom was especially cruel since I wouldn't have the chance to live my youth in full, doomed as I was by the prospect of the bomb. Reading The Road, I thought it would have perfectly fit the state of mind of the impressionable teenager I was at the time.