First published:- 2006
Terror. Stark naked, clear as the day and indelible in its intensity. Terror that turns its unflinching gaze on you, commanding you to quake in your boots and disintegrate into pieces. This book is that kind of cold dread that seeps into your blood like insidious venom and drains away your strength in a steady, agonizing trickle as you read along. The horror of being stranded in a world, where the living live on either to become sustenance for other survivors or to hunt and feast on fellow brethren to survive, becomes as real as the morning sunlight pouring in to your room through the gauzy curtains.
The trouble with dystopian fiction (literary and otherwise) is that if you have read one book from the genre you have pretty much read them all. And the rather unabashed confession I have to make in this regard is that I have read quite a lot of them - this is the 'guilty pleasure' I am not really guilty of indulging in once in a while. But when the focus of the discussion on dystopias shifts to a universally read book like 'The Road' then opinions range from acerbically negative criticism, a patronizing, reluctant pat on the back to disappointed neutrality and effusive praise. Cormac McCarthy's prose has also garnered less than enthusiastic responses from quite a significant number of reviewers. I suppose some thought his metaphors to be too flowery for their taste. While the rest have found him to be repetitive and dull.
Fair enough. But I did not.
To bring to life a world, where there's nothing left to do except scrounge around for nourishment, it is obvious the author will be hard pressed to elaborately detail the act of unscrewing a jar top and drinking from it. The monotone adopted while chronicling these trivial actions conveys the chilling truth of how much gravity is being accorded to affairs considered undeserving of even a passing mention in a former way of life.
Thus, I refuse to join in the chorus of complaints. The very visceral and undiluted reaction the narrative elicited from me as a reader, caused me to refrain from belittling McCarthy's gift for utilizing the same old genre tropes to offer such insightful commentary on the human condition. And despite its bleak and nihilistic leanings, 'The Road' surprised me with its deft handling of a subject as sensitive as a parent-child relationship, a theme that is often explored in many fictional narratives but with varying degrees of success. More than any tear-inducing gimmickry, the relationship depicted here bears a frighteningly close resemblance to how things are in reality.
Our two unnamed vagrants, a listless father-son duo, who move down this seemingly endless road strewn with the debris of a world long gone and the echoes of a way of life no longer preserved, seemed to me to be representatives of a large majority of humans. The father acts as a kind of misery-sponge, enduring the brunt of all the vicissitudes of fate that await them on this cruel and unforgiving peregrination, while shielding the son from the same. And as the toil of this godforsaken journey wears the parent down to the point of no return, the child is familiarized with the brutalities of the world at large and gently shown the ways in which one can side-step all the unpleasantness and maintain an existence without challenging authority in any form. Isn't this what a majority of humans have been seeking to accomplish on an infinite loop? 'Survive and don't ask for trouble in any form.' is the motto etched onto the blank slate of our minds since childhood.
All the horrors lying in ambush for this father-son pair, starting from chance encounters with roving bands of cannibals to combating the evident threat of starvation and the bitter cold which freezes them to the bone, can be taken to be allegories of all the challenges of living that individually all of us have to contend with. The metaphorical road is just another minefield where one can never foresee the kind of evils one wrong step may unleash. All the lawless laws, by which the world is governed once the formerly established edifice of order and organization has crumbled to dust, are deeply reminiscent of the relentless cycle of injustices institutionalized by our so-called 'civilization'. Just as the weak are preyed upon and devoured alive in this dystopia, the downtrodden and oppressed are victims of a sort of economic cannibalism enshrined in the 'laws' of our reality.
The scales are tipped ever in the favor of those who wield power in some form; in this dystopia it is the possession of a weapon, in ours it is the ownership of wealth.
"The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all."
It disturbs me how near invisible the line of separation between an imagined dystopia and a real one is.