The Rear-View Mirror: The Road (2006)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

It’s utterly puzzling to me that Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road was published only in 2006. It feels older. Sometimes you open a novel and you can sort of guess the decade, at least roughly. I had read The Road twice until I realised it was not from the 1980s, but only six or seven years old. Maybe that’s because it tells such a timeless story. Of course, an apocalypse where everything is covered in grey ash and food, and shelter and friendly people are in short supply can take place anytime. Or maybe my mistake was that I didn’t know that its author was an octagenarian.

But then again, McCarthy is very good at swan songs. His so-called Border Trilogy (All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain) is a long, drawn-out goodbye to the old West. Blood Meridian deals with the savage border wars between the U.S. and Mexico in the 1850s. The only McCarthy novel distinctly set in the present might be No Country for Old Men, but even there, a certain kind of nostalgia for the past is evident.

The novel is reduced to its absolute essentials; McCarthy has trimmed the fat so rigorously that he makes Hemingway sound like a tattletale. And yet he manages to paint a certain kind of atmosphere with only a few words; there is a lyricism there that is paralleled only by the novels of Marilynne Robinson. The Road is about a man and his son travelling south towards the sea through a landscape covered in ashes. I dread to think about that because I am afraid what those ashes might mean. There are horrors all around, and it’s utterly miraculous that they have made it that far, and will make it even further. It’s one of the most claustrophobic stories I’ve read, but there is always that faint glimmer of hope, no matter what kind of savagery the two characters might come across.

It’s been made into a movie well worth watching, but there is some kind of distortion, a kind of pity for the filmmakers because it’s the hardest thing to bring the novel’s essence on screen (although I will readily admit that the Coens’ No Country for Old Men does a very good job). Something got lost in translation; maybe the images of what people do to other people in The Road are too raw and too immediate when put on screen. And there is a reason why Blood Meridian has not been filmed yet. The Road, the novel, could be over at any point, and yet it goes on, to another place, another sanctuary, another threat. It could be shorter, but then, because you want the characters to succeed, you read on. McCarthy has stated in an interview that he doesn’t like literature that doesn’t deal with life or death. That’s not an empty promise.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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