Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Yes, our men's book club chose for its second book the current Oprah's Book Club choice. If you haven't kept track, though, you should know that Oprah's gone hardcore: Steinbeck's East of Eden, three separate Faulkners, Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, some difficult stuff. Admittedly she's also chosen Sidney Poitier's biography Measure of a Man (which, let's face it, would be a just plain crazy choice for a book club), but McCarthy's books have always been rough and blooded and old-school manly. Hardcore as well, I figured.

But I bought this book today, and I'm already done. Comfortably. Is this the easiest read to win a Pulitzer ever, or what?!?

The gist is clear: Life on earth has been destroyed, though it's taking a few years to finish dying out. Nothing grows in the world: no birds fly, no animals or fish or even insects remain. There are only people, trekking the ash-filled world in search of tinned food, fresh water, and people to eat. A man and his son wander like everyone else, but they've drawn some lines of decency: no eating people, no theft from the living, only self-defense. The man can't figure out why to keep living, since the world is dying out, but he can't see a reason to give up either. God isn't his answer, but he does tell his son to keep "carrying the fire." How else to respond to apocalypse?

Since there are hundreds of reviews of The Road in papers and blogs, I'm going to make a few points and let it go:
  • what makes McCarthy think he's too good for standard punctuation marks? I kept having to reread dialogue to figure out who was the one saying nothing but "Okay" in this particular exchange
  • some images are going to stick with me: the spitted and roasting newborn mentioned in every review, obviously, but also the apparition of the gray sea under gray clouds of ash, the decay of abandoned houses, and so on
  • the tone is devastatingly appropriate. Devastatingly appropriate
  • how the hell else is a decent person to respond to apocalypse and the inevitability of imminent planetary death?
But I don't know about the Pulitzer. The Road is the most McCarthy-ish novel imaginable, so since he's already been praised for this kind of thing, it's reasonable that he gets bigger praise for doing his standard schtick more intensely. But for those who read apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic "genre fiction," this won't sing -- it's easily read genre fiction for people who think they're too good for genre fiction, but it isn't great genre fiction. I grudgingly admit that I guess it's better "literary fiction," but it should still take me longer than two hours to read three hundred pages of it.


fiona-h said…
ha ha!! I nearly missed that snide remark about Measure of a Man... Funny!
Anonymous said…
The lack of quotation marks is effective to my mind. The prose seems to flow more than it would with extra punctuation. Sometimes quotation marks can take you out of the experience, they remind you that you are reading and not experiencing the story.

That said the point about re-reading to find out who said 'Okay' is on the money. On balance though I thought the book was better for the lack of quotation marks.
richard said…
I guess, Keith - I appreciated the momentum, the sense of flow, associated with the stripped-down punctuation.

But if we're going to talk about narrative, isn't it a very fragile story if the reading experience can't survive the use of conventional punctuation? If you can be knocked out of the reading experience by some quotation marks, I'm not sure the author's done a good enough job of building a sense of narrative.
Anonymous said…
I thought I had posted this before, but looks like it was lost in the ether.

I agree that the narrative is pretty fragile if you can be knocked out of the reading experience by some quotation marks. But I'm not sure that being in the reading experience is a binary state. I think you could have a fairly robust narrative and the lack of quotation marks still draw you further into the reading experience with it not being the case that their addition would entirely knock you out of the reading experience.

I imagine that this lack of punctutation is the sort of thing that literature academics have theorised on, I would be interested to hear what theories are out there about the justifications for lack of punctuation, although presumably those theories are as varied as the literature that plays with punctuation rules and more so given the nature of arts academia.
richard said…
Yes, given the nature of arts academia indeed! I'm on the inside, technically, but yep: theories in abundance about almost any subject.

And you're right that reading isn't a binary experience, sure, but I'm influenced by my tech writing experience: if the words don't work on their own, then tricking them up will have less impact than will changing them.

In McCarthy's case, we agree that quotation marks and commas would increase visual clutter and minimize the prose's stripped-down effect (that matches the characters' stripped-down world). That's close to saying that the words don't work on their own -- I think they do work, but I also think that enough of the book's impact derives from its punctuation that I'm unwilling to predict this book's long-term place in literary history (such as how it'll stack up against other Pulitzer winners from this decade, for example).
Anonymous said…
The link between the stripped down punctuation and the stripped down world passed me by, I'm not a very sophisticated reader so that is no great surprise to me. But on reflecting after reading your comment the effect did clearly bring out that feeling of starkness that the book captures so well. So another good reason to leave out the quotation marks.

That said, I don't think what I want to sign up to is close to saying that the words don't work on their own. It's hard to get some secure knowledge of the counterfactual given that I have read the book without quotation marks, but I think the book would work with them. I feel less secure about this claim than I would have done before I considered your point about the prose mirroring the landscape.

What I feel more secure about is the aesthetic claim that if much of the impact derives from the use of puncutation then this ought not to count against its literary merit. Do we not want to assess the book as a whole when making aesthetic judgements about it? For example one typically wouldn't suggest that the impressionists' work should be aesthetically assessed as if one could not see the brush strokes since they add so much to the painting.

In terms of its place in literary history I am equally unwilling to predict, although comparing it to 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay' (the only other Pulitzer winner from the last decade I've read) I would suggest that it has a longer *literary* shelf life, although I suspect that the buying public will favour Chabon's work for longer for reasons to do with ripping-yarness and the like. Looking at the list and knowing something of the other authors that is probably an uncharitable selection for me to compare The Road against. But comparing it to another literary Pulitzer winner, 'Rabbit at Rest' I think it shapes up fairly well, and , for what it's worth, as a work of literature I rate that very highly.
richard said…
Keith said: "if much of the impact derives from the use of punctuation then this ought not to count against its literary merit."

Certainly we can and should respect the artistic deployment of linguistic convention. With free verse, for example, we tend to accept the line breaks as we're given them. My point, though, is that we don't have to, and that we should question how much it does for the piece.

I liked the book, very much - but I didn't wish it any longer. I felt like I got it, stylistically, very early on, and I just didn't learn anything new from about page 20. Again, McCarthy did a great job of pairing style with content (such as by minimizing commas, using only a few apostrophes, and deleting quotation marks), but ... am I the only person who wondered why it wasn't just a lengthy short story?
Anonymous said…
I suppose if I make an overall aesthetic judgement then I should judge it as is. I see the fact that the punctuation could be different as no more relevant to an overall aesthetic judgement than that the language used could have been different. Obviously this leaves room to discuss what impact the punctuation had on the book but I don't see that some counterfactual statement about how the book would have been had its punctuation been different is germane to the actual aesthetic merit of the book. Rereading your posts I think maybe we are in agreement here just with different foci of interest.

Looking at your original post again I am inclined to agree that purely on word count it is pretty thin for a novel and for a novel to be considered for a prize such as the Pulitzer. I also agree that I wouldn't have wanted it to be any longer. It probably took me longer than 20 pages for the stylistic impact to hit home but then that's probably down to me more than anything. But there seems to be lots of merit to it being about the length it is, in particular in terms of things it teaches us about the human condition the length seems appropriate (a more hand-wavey sentence you would be hard pushed to find). I would have liked it to have been about two pages shorter than it was though, but I think this is down to my perverse desire to be left with a feeling of misery rather than one of hope.
richard said…
Yep, we agree, more or less: I was more distracted than you were by the lack of punctuation, because I'm not convinced by the necessity of it, but we both appreciate the prose style's contribution to the novel's development of narrative and theme.

As for length, in this I'm relying on the reading of a friend more than my own: a science fiction fan, he tells me that he's read dozens of stories and novels like this one. The Road counts as "literary," so the story itself is fresh to the readers of literary fiction, but it isn't the least bit fresh to readers of more speculative fiction. He was impressed by the prose and intrigued by the punctuation, but not by the story itself, whereas you and I both responded positively to the story.

What are you reading now, Keith? And do you blog about your reading?
Anonymous said…
Currently reading 'Lucky Jim' by Kingsley Amis, which has the most vivid hangover description that I have read to date, it now outstrips the yolk of mercury in head scene from 'Bonfire of the Vanities' which had stood in my number one spot for the last eight years.

No blog of my own, just parasitic posting on others' blogs.
Anonymous said…
For interest, 'No Country for Old Men' employs the same frugal approach to punctuation as 'The Road'. Evidence perhaps that the intention in 'The Road' was not to mirror the sparse landscape despite this being the effect?
Again I thought the punctuation worked, as regards drawing one into the narrative, although there are some longer and more involved dialogues in 'No Country for Old Men' which were more prone to invoking confusion in the reader than those in 'The Road' (which in themselves were not immune).
richard said…
Thanks for the reference. One of my book club cronies was offering a loan of No Country for Old Men, so maybe I'll take him up on it. I'll be posting in the next day or two about the club's conversation about The Road, if you're interested.

(And good on you for not having your own blog: a time-sink....)
Anonymous said…
I will suggest that McCarthy's lack of punctuation in The Road is intentional. Since the world as we know it has come to an end, so has our conventions. Thus, it is fitting that the writing style loses some of those societal conventions as well.
richard said…
Right, and that's Keith's point above as well. But everything about language is purely conventional, so if punctuation goes, then why not correct spelling?

It's intended to create flow and movement, to speed up the reading experience, and it works really well - except at those points where it has a disjunctive effect that reminds you how constructed and conventional all this is.
Anonymous said…
Hey, I randomly ran across this (hope I'm at liberty to comment, and this is probably from a long time ago) and thought I'd clear up the punctuation issue by what McCarthy has said. Although he doesn't do many interviews he has talked about this before. I have read six novels by him and he is, quite possibly, my favorite novelist. He himself has said that he thinks people overuse a lot of punctuation (commas and the like) and that he only likes to use punctuation when he finds it necessary. He has said that he doesn't like the aesthetic value of a bunch of strange symbols all over the page as well. He isn't the first author to limit punctuation at all, which I'm sure you know, but he has taken it to the extreme. You'll see lots of people comparing his language to that of the King James Bible with his use of and instead of commas in a series of items and things like that. His punctuation he does use is only when necessary and for the flow of the work. Quotation marks aren't really necessary anyway because you can always (almost always at least) tell when someone is speaking in his work and the marks themselves don't really matter much on being able to tell who is saying okay. I had that problem as well but then I realized that both of the central characters were saying it so it really didn't matter.

An issue I have with his two most recent works, The Road and No Country, is that he invokes a much more experimental style with these two and he is at his peak as a story teller (though I prefer Blood Meridian and The Crossing to all the others in story and otherwise) but he is lacking as a writer because the poetic quality is lacking in his prose. These two are highly stripped down compared to all his other works that I have read. But they are all amazing.
Read Blood Meridian if you haven't and I hope I have had a decent input.
richard said…
Thanks for the comment, Anon. -- one can always join a conversation, even if late.

I do get what McCarthy's doing with punctuation here, and really it was just a flip remark on my side. But you know, I'm not convinced that the book loses much of its impact if it includes quotation marks and a few extra commas. It has an effect, and it's a net positive effect, but to me it was less effective than it was obvious, if you see what I mean: it stood out enormously, and it had a mildly positive effect.

As for Blood Meridien or something else, yes, McCarthy more generally remains on my TBR pile, but it's an awfully big pile.... Why should I move him up the list, do you think?

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