An Imagined Sacrifice: McCarthy’s Road

November 16th, 2009 § 0 comments

“How does the never to be differ from what never was?”

The Road seems like the kind of book that requires little explanation and needs no context. I knew before reading it that Cormac McCarthy’s last son was a young child when he wrote the book—it is dedicated to him—and that he was born when McCarthy was in his 60’s or 70’s, but I actually forgot these personal inspirations while I was reading the novel. The Road is a contemporary revival of the classic father and son journey narrative, but more than that the book questions and explores a father’s self-sacrificing love, and to what extent and under what circumstances that love can be maintained. It does not seem to be a story about McCarthy and his son, or even about a real father and his son, but more an imagined speculation of all that a paternal love could entail. The Road is not literally about a dark and desolate projected future for mankind, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it is a nightmarish story born of parental anxiety.

“I wash a dead man’s brains out of [my son’s] hair. That is my job. Then he wrapped him in the blanket and carried him to the fire.”

In describing his inspiration for the book, McCarthy talks about traveling with his 4-year-old son in El Paso. Watching his child sleep, he looked out of a hotel window at the dark landscape outside and imagined, for a brief moment, the book he wrote years later. His story reminded me of how it feels to understand what it can mean to care for a child. Children, with their tireless appetite for silly things, are full of fun, but they also have a habit of unearthing disturbing considerations in anyone old enough to understand what they themselves can’t. We all learn this more adult knowledge in stages. I watched a little girl I loved, left in my care, fall into a pool, and vividly recall that moment of shock as I watched her begin to drown. My neighbor’s twin daughters came home from the hospital premature and disturbingly small, and it was terror I felt when I first held them. I watched that pulsating gap in their skulls, memorized with care and concern for what seemed to be their tenuous connection with life.

the road

Throughout The Road, the almost life-granting pleasure the father takes from his son, even when he believes he is watching him die, reminded me of those memories. The father faces McCarthy’s dark setting with a perseverance that lacks a practical purpose, as there is no imagined future other than a slow fight against inevitable death. He tells his son, “I said we weren’t dying. I didn’t say we weren’t starving.” He stays alive, even while he is slowly dying, so his son will live, but he keeps him alive for little else than to keep him alive. He feels the responsibility to protect his son’s life with unfathomable conviction, and suffers through an obligation he himself has created. The book is a sequence of human gestures that transcend the plot or storyline, which is why it feels so much like those anxious daydreams we have when concerned—we create scenarios and settings simply to give a voice to our worries. There is a distinct reality to the narrative, a familiarity that has nothing to do with an impending world of cannibalistic human sorrow, charred earth, or ash drenched landscapes. The book is a personification of feeling a neverending concern for the well being of another.

“Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if [the gun] doesn’t fire? It has to fire. What if it doesn’t fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? Can there be?”

Impending death hangs over the story throughout to such an extent that it becomes expected, inevitable, and is almost disappointing when it doesn’t come. For such a compelling book its conclusive finish feels at odds with the world it has described. The books rushed grappling with an unlikely resolution reminds me that our minds imaginings do eventually seek reassurance, or at least closure. If the novel is a dark daydream of McCarthy’s, than his concluding optimism was perhaps the end of his own speculations. We all tend to pull our minds back quickly from the brink of fear and doubt when we have entertained those thoughts a little too long. McCarthy’s pacing is so plodding, his tone so characteristically spare, and his concerns so methodical, however, that his rough awakening almost shatters the dark beauty of his dream.

the road 1

“Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be.”

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