Dark days on a dying planet.
Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize winning, bleak, heart-breaking post-apocalytic novel of the remaining few survivors, scrabbling towards the final, dying days of a wasted, destroyed planet, some time in the very near future would have been a sombre, regret filled read at any time.
But in these days where the Presidential Office is filled by an erratic, self-obsessed and unreflective man, McCarthy’s book seems far less fictional than might be comfortable. Less allegorical and possibly more prophetic. I hope not.
The ‘event’ some ten years ago in the past is never spelled out, but, there was a blinding flash, there were sonic reverberations, and people burned, disfigured. Some kind of nuclear winter appears to have occurred. Almost all living things have now ceased to be – vegetation, insects, birds, mammals, most humans.
Pockets of survivors, feral, cannibalistic exist in the unnamed place, somewhere in America, where the novel takes place.
The central characters are a man, and his child, a boy who is probably now 10 years old. His mother is no longer living, and why, will be revealed. The father looks back to a time before the event, before his son was born, before the world was catapulted into these dark days.
His son is his reason for living, he has been charged, he charges himself, to take care of his boy. Some years after the cataclysm, and all the available food sources (whatever there was, canned), in houses, in stores, across the world, have all been looted by whatever survivors there were. Most have long since, horribly, died, but those small bands who remain – are they people of decency and humanity, or are they those who now regard other humans merely as food, offering a few more weeks and months of survival for those who kill them?
Bleak days, little hope. And yet, McCarthy offers us a strong love, some relic of who we might have been, when we seemed to ourselves to be evolution’s finest flower. There is the tenderness and dependence of father and son upon each other, as they walk a road ‘South’ in search of warmer weather Practical tasks occupy the pages. Scavenging odd discovered stores of tinned food, clothing, rags to bind round feet, wheeling all these worldly goods in abandoned supermarket trolleys. Balancing the need for fire and warmth with the possibly dangerous signals given out by smoke.
The reader knows the father and his son are ailing, infections taking hold, breathing laboured. The outcome is bleak, cannot be good, for either. Nonetheless, there is also something about the child. He has a kind of holy innocence about him. He might be a kind of naïve fool – or the repository of human wisdom, not intellectually, but in goodness, in kindness, in tenderness and that so sullied thing ‘humanity’ Time and time again he rather sets a moral compass for the father to orientate towards
There are many, sometimes subliminal nods to religious imagery, and I thought this a kind of journey through an anti-Garden Of Eden, where nothing grows, but the child might be – possibly a new kind of ‘Adam’.
It took two days to cross that ashen scabland. The road beyond ran along the crest of a ridge where the barren woodland fell away of every side. It’s snowing, the boy said. He looked at the sky. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of christendom
McCarthy does the reader the great service of keeping a kind of ambivalence going in the story. We know how the story must end, realistically, without appeal to any kind of magic, corn, or unsatisfying tied up wrap. But, isn’t life itself something evolving? There have been earlier cataclysms which destroyed life as it was known. Didn’t other forms arise? Might a conscious, a self-conscious species, be able, some of them, to choose to be some kind of bearers of light?
I found the concepts, the far wider considerations McCarthy was presenting the reader, kept me engaged and absorbed, as did the practical details. Father and son, and particularly, that relationship between them, and the father’s memories of ‘before’ were all extremely powerful.
And, often his writing is magnificent, carrying his weighty themes, particularly in his chilling descriptions of the new, harshly wasted world
The land was gullied and eroded and barren. The bones of dead creatures sprawled in the washes. Middens of anonymous trash. Farmhouses in the fields scoured of their paint and the clapboards spooned and sprung from the wallstuds. All of it shadowless and without feature. The road descended through a jungle of dead kudzu. A marsh where the dead reeds lay over the water. Beyond the edge of the fields the sullen haze hung over earth and sky alike
Despite these undoubted strengths I sometimes struggled with McCarthy’s writing. He has a tendency to a kind of portentous elevation, using archaic language – and then over-using it. As example, he carefully seems to want to avoid using the word ‘wash’ replacing it with ‘lave’ Using an unusual or poetic word like that, once or twice, helps the feeling of strangeness. But if every time something – hand, face, hair, knife is not washed, but is laved, it becomes grating and repetitive in a way the reader would not have noticed if the common word had been used over and again, for a common action
Still, a very powerful read indeed
And I must link to blog-chum FictionFan’s review of this, first bringing it to my attention a while ago.