In praise of Cormac

the_road.jpgSo I finished The Road finally, relishing its ash-strewn bleakness at my own sluggish pace. It’s worth noting (since I missed the event) that McCarthy’s novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for best fiction earlier this month, and deservedly so, I’m sure. As if that wasn’t enough, we’re also awaiting the bizarre spectacle of the man who shuns interviews granting an audience to Oprah since The Road has been chosen for her latest book club title.

It’s difficult offhand to think of another writer that can command critical and popular acclaim in this way, although it should be said that if Oprah’s book hordes are looking for an easy or a light read with this one they’re in for a shock. The Road is a dark and desolate tale that makes most contemporary horror novels look anaemic by comparison. That black cover design with its retreating, corroded type suits a story where the sun shines fitfully, if at all, and all is burned, ransacked or destroyed. This is also (as Beaumaris Books and others have noted) a work of speculative fiction—if not full-blown post-apocalypse SF—which is something the book world conveniently ignores. Science fiction has been offering up devastated landscapes like these for decades but for many of McCarthy’s readers this will be a new experience. The belated flush of attention won’t do anything to bring people to SF but it may enlarge the audience for McCarthy’s other work which can only be a good thing.

John Clute examines The Road from an SF perspective

Previously on { feuilleton }
Cormac McCarthy book covers
Another masterpiece from Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s venomous fiction

13 thoughts on “In praise of Cormac”

  1. One of the few great novels of the 21st century (so far). If this is indeed McCarthy’s final work then it’s a hell of a way to bow out. A slim volume, The Road shames 99% of other bloated ‘novelists’, with their cod-Dickens aspirations. There is little hope here and, while it doesn’t quite touch the full-on bashed brains and maroon dust hell of Blood Meridian, its ‘quiet horror’ is all the more stunning. A key moment being the father and son’s discovery of the humans in the basement. Extraordinary. Apparently, John Hillcoat is up to direct the film version. It may well translate as long as they cast it right. My choice for the father: Peter Krause, who played Nathaniel in Six Feet Under.
    Books like The Road are a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, they make me wonder why I bother writing. But on the other, they make me realise (like Scoot Walker’s music) that the bar has been raised and I must put in my all to reach it…

  2. Ugh, that’s the first I’ve heard about mention of a film but it’s probably inevitable given the attention the book is receiving. Having said that, it’d be easier to film than Blood Meridian which I don’t ever went to see ruined by being put on screen.

    Interesting you mention Scott Walker. It suddenly occurred to me how the cover of The Drift and the US edition of McCarthy’s book complement each other and how I described the Walker album as “a journey across a rusted landscape into darkness” just over a year ago.

  3. Oh, and another thing… My web stats show the searches people use to arrive here and one of them in the past couple of weeks was “what does the last paragraph mean in the book the road by cormac mccarthy”. Looks like some of the Oprah hordes might be having problems.

  4. Considering that Hillcoat’s last film was The Proposition, I hope that something good comes of any cinematic version, but the books vs films debate is for another time. The Oprah readers have probably been guided towards The Road as a “father and son’s emotional road trip across a post-apocalyptic landscape” and not “two human beings trying to survive in a world where women only give birth to produce meat.” Can’t wait to see CM being interviewed by her. Odd is not the word.
    Yes, it’d be encouraging if readers went off down other roads after reading this one, the places of Moorcock, Ballard, Farmer… I suspect that if The Road had been written by another and sold as sci-fi, it might not have garnered the praise it has so far. We are, after all, living in a literary universe where the likes of Martin Amis can freely admit that they failed to “get” JGB’s Crash the first time they read it. There’s still a block between those who think they write important things, and those who just get on and actually do.
    The Drift and The Road covers: Not just dark… darker than dark!

  5. Martin: Yes, it’s a common syndrome: literary writer does SF and the lit world ignores the genre attributes. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days; all are SF to a greater or lesser degree but weren’t reviewed or marketed as such. The Road is merely the latest example of that.

    Eroom: They’re both post-apocalypse stories but that’s where the resemblance ends for me. Both are very different in tone, content and–ultimately–meaning.

  6. It’s not like those either, or most other novels I’ve come across, since most follow a very similar trajectory: our world > the event > the devastation > the reconstruction. The ones you mention are primarily concerned with the reconstruction alone, or at least the world after it’s been partly reconstructed. The Road concerns itself solely with the devastation and two people trying to survive from hour to hour. Survival is a big theme in McCarthy’s work and here’s it’s pretty much the predominant thing. Beyond that, as John Clute’s review points out, there are symbolic resonances which again lift it away from regular SF.

  7. I wasn’t particularly pleased by the idea of a film, but there it is. Perhaps if we could raise Tarkovsky from the dead he could direct it with a Hollywood budget and a Russian production team.

    Incidentally, I was playing the videogame Stalker ( at the time I read The Road, and couldn’t help thinking how the book lends itself better to a game format than a film: a survival experience, where your hunger and helplessness are all the more terrifying because you’re trying to pull a child along with you. A kind of Project Ico in ashes.

    God, after ten years of games criticism I can’t *not* think in terms of videogames. The very idea of games seems to trivialise these things in some way, but I suspect that one day they’ll produce some poignant experiences. There was a moment playing Stalker where I was trapped in the dark and the rain, hiding in a shed and listening to the screams of a stricken comrade out there in dark, too scared to move because I knew there was something out there. I sat there wondering whether I should just wait for in-game morning (in-game day/night cycles were a couple of hours) so I wouldn’t have to face these things in the dark. It’s only a game, ha.

  8. I’d worry if a zombie Tarkovsky did The Road we’d have scenes of poetry recital and philosophy discussion which doesn’t quite seem right for Cormac.

    I think seeing things in game terms is probably an occupational hazard, just as I often see things in terms of illustration (or design) depending on how my brain is fired by something. It’s true that the simple, linear nature of the story would translate pretty well but you’d lose the interiority of the thing. This still seems to be the big problem with games-as-art, everything is surface level and linear; life and fiction tends to be more complicated than that.

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