Thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

the roadI’m suffering from a book-hangover.  I can’t stop thinking about The Road by Cormac McCarthy…  oh, the haunting simplicity of it.

McCarthy’s prose is sparse, but tells so, so much.  He doesn’t offer an excessive amount of detail; the narrator observes the way, I think,  a starving, shivering, half-broken man clutching his young son would look at the world.  Speech interactions between the man and son are short and few, and serve great purpose in showing their nature.  The bleak, rotting landscape remains constant, yet never dulls in impact, and struggles are repeated time after time, but increase concern for the man and his young son.   McCarthy offers a beautifully heartfelt story of hope, love and how far one will go to make sure another keeps on going.

What struck me the most about McCarthy’s writing was how he handled the fear and violence.  In The Road‘s post-apocalyptic setting, one expects the characters to fear other men, to worry about being killed and/or looted.   Once I realized a main concern was avoiding rampant cannibalism, even planning to commit suicide if he and his son were doomed to meet such an end, I began to notice how McCarthy presented it.

The scariest part of the novel came about midway through, when the man and son enter a house and find a padlocked hatch door inside.  The boy begged his father to not open it, to leave the house.  As a father, the man felt obligated.  Of course, he thought someone was locking away food.  In just a few short sentences, McCarthy describes the harrowing scene as the man peeks into the basement room, and my eyes welled as I read.

He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light.

Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.

See how simple the writing is?  And it still brought such powerful imagery.

Now – don’t think I’m weird – after I read this part of the book, I stopped to analyze it, and my mind went to Chuck Palahniuk.  (Yeah.  I do this sometimes. Just one of my warped ways of teaching myself new tricks.)

There’s no questioning my love for Chuck Palahniuk.  He has this no-holds-barred, in-your-face style that, without fail, awakens my senses, my entire body.  I marvel at his ability to tell stories with equal amounts candidness and artful prose, but Palahniuk’s signature trait is his razor-sharp description without actually describing much.

I thought, how would Chuck have handled this situation?

Well, I can only guess, but I think he might have offered an image of the man’s missing quadriceps hanging somewhere like cured hams, or the salty, briny combination of piss, sweat and preserved meat, how they huddled together like slaughterhouse cows, or he may have thrown in a fun fact about how rats will eat human flesh and develop a taste for human blood… .  Gross, I know.  Anyway, my point is that good old Chuck wouldn’t necessarily change the language McCarthy used, but he would, without a doubt, throw in some extrasensory detail, or a little satire to give us accompanying imagery, to really drive the visual in our minds, to make us cringe even more.

Is Chuck’s signature trait necessary here?  Does it make the passage better?  Not especially, and here’s why:  McCarthy’s story doesn’t call for it.  The Road doesn’t want to exploit the violence or the fear, not in the way Palahniuk’s works can and must.  Think about the reverse of this exercise… if we removed those extra visuals from, say, Fight Club, what would happen to the story?   Fight Club, a story wrought with fear and violence, is about a crazy guy who forms a club that terrorizes cities.  Without the satirical anecdotes and the visual asides, the story would become somber, lacking in that off-color comedic relief needed to escape the beating.  Still interesting, though, just not as much so.

If I were writing my version of The Road, I would’ve bored myself to tears trying to flower-up the language and come up with completely unique sensory descriptions for the never-changing landscape.  I would’ve muddied up the basement scene with too much description, trying to paint an overly vivid visual of the dirty, tear-streaked faces, the protruding shoulder blades, the smell of rot and burnt hair… I could go on and on, making this scene much, much more than it needs to be.  I would put too much emphasis on it, making the story about cannibalism, not about the love shared by a man and his son.  McCarthy and Palahniuk, both in their expertly crafted methods, weave stories so readers will experience what they want them to experience.  And that is a skill, I hope, I can learn in time.

There are millions of guides on writing out there.  They attempt to blueprint how to write a novel.   Workbooks on developing characters ask  me to answer these ten questions about each of my characters…. now subtract one feature and keep it a secret… my character is complete!  Authors expose the secret to the perfect mainstream novel: describe everything!  Literary writers tell me to avoid plots at all costs.  In the end, no one can tell me what will work for me.  I’ll still read books on writing, but I have to examine my motives and purpose for a story.  No one can tell me how to do it; I have to figure it out on my own.

There is no formula, and we are its prophets.

– sld

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

    • Thanks for reading, A.D. Martin. I agree to a degree. Random variables translates into probabilities… if I write a book that perfectly mirrors the style, pacing and organization of The Road, but with an entirely different story, will it be a bestseller? Probably not. But that’s how many writing guides instruct. I can’t imagine McCarthy or Hemingway penning a step by step guide to finishing your first draft. Palahniuk wrote a series of (seriously) fantastic essays on mechanics, but he even says not to take his tips as the Word. So, I think it’s still all up to me, the writer. I could break every rule of writing and produce an amazing novel. Again, probably not. At least, not my first novel. 🙂

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