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Review of 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy

This is perhaps the most stylistically distinct book on the reading list. The novel’s typical sentence structure is unlike any others in this unit, matching a pared down prose style with an austere, unadorned world. Yet despite its literary minimalism, it would also be true to say that McCarthy is a lyrical writer. Do you think McCarthy finds poetry in sparseness?

I do feel that McCarthy finds a lyricism and poetry in sparseness. Sections I particularly felt illustrated this include pg 210 “They left the cart in the woods and he checked the rotation of the rounds in the cylinder. The wooden and the true. They stood listening. The smoke stood vertically in the still air. No sound of any kind. The leaves were soft from the recent rains and quiet underfoot” (repetition of ‘stood’, concentration on movement and lack of movement – vertical smoke, still air, silence, quiet leaves, rotation, etc). The sparse sentence – “The wooden and the true” could be interpreted in a great many ways, so the seeming simplicity doesn’t always simplify intended meaning. Much seems to be more like prose poetry than standard descriptive prose.

Also, I consider the following to be really endearing writing - “He’d a deck of cards he found in a bureau drawer in a house and the cards were worn and spindled and the two of clubs was missing but still they played sometimes by firelight wrapped in their blankets”. It has almost a breathless quality, lacking in punctuation, but it is both sparse and lyrical.

Many of the other novels we’ve looked at employ elaborate prose styles – polysyllabic, hypotactical, linguistically playful – whereas McCarthy uses a pared down and noticeably paratactical style.** Does this make McCarthy’s language any less charged? Is The Road’s compression and concision in fact more powerful and/or provocative than the contrasting prose styles on this unit?

Pared down writing of a type referred to as ‘paratactical’ is undoubtedly the intentionally selected style for this novel. According to an article on, the function of parataxis is that it is “…useful in explaining a rapid sequence of thoughts in poetry and prose. They could evoke the feelings in a similar way as though they happened at once. It is a helpful device when describing a setting. In simple word, parataxis helps the readers to focus on a particular idea, thought setting or emotion. Also, cultural theorists use it in cultural texts where a series of events are shown side by side”.

To get inside the mind of a complex person in a complex society (for example, the characters in “Arlington Park”), description and connection are required. The psychological intensity needs description. However, in “The Road” the society has been reduced to desperation levels and the human beings equally so. I feel therefore that the short and snappy prose is both powerful and provocative. Its lack of description and frippery simply mirrors the world in which the characters all live. It makes the reader uncomfortable and miserable, and that is how this probably should be. It also enables the reader to connect with the difficulties of the man and boy, in a way that detailed introspection may not.

Why do you think McCarthy writes in this particular style? Think especially of the novel’s sentence structure - sentences that often read like individual clauses subtracted from larger sentences, so that something seems to be missing either from the beginning or the end of the sentence. Does this make the novel’s images seem isolated, or does the prose work by a slow process of accumulation and accretion? What is the effect of parataxis?

I believe that this style is used intentionally. The world of the book is fragmented and the prose is too. To some extent the imagery in the novel is a series of tableaux, but are connected by the isolation and desperation within. I don’t feel the prose works because of accretion and accumulation but certainly the endless style consistency does add to the numbing effect of the writing. Perhaps there is some element of accretion owing to the fact that the book does work towards a climax (the death of the man), at which point it ends.

Can you find any notable uses of simile or metaphor? How does McCarthy use these devices? Does his minimalistic style lend itself to lyricism, or is a significant effort of modulation required?

The beginning of the book uses these devices when the man is dreaming – “Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granite beast”. Interestingly, the very final paragraph of the book (pg 307) uses these devices - “On their backs were vermiculite patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lives all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery” – regarding trout in the streams.

Regarding the rest of the book, there are far less than might be expected in a book of this length and depth. I wondered if perhaps this encourages the reader to consider that still in the man’s mind there is a lyricism and appreciation of beauty and coincidence etc, and towards the end, we get this again and feel a little more hopeful – as if we may be looking towards new beginnings and new adventures to be had, etc.

Parts of the book which do use metaphor etc, tend to refer to thoughts of the past or the future – pg 43 at the waterfall – “He’d stood at such a river once and watched the flash of trout deep in a pool, invisible to see in the teacoloured water except as they turned on their sides to feed. Reflecting back the sun deep in the darkness like a flash of knives in a cave”.

The novel has very distinct tones (ominous, forbidding, weighty, almost biblical) and textures (rough, hard, mineral), and uses a consistent palette of greys and shades (ashen, leaden, ‘the gunmetal light’ [p. 4] …) How does McCarthy evoke these qualities, and to what effect?

McCarthy evokes the darkness and misery of the novel not only by the use of stark sentences, but also by the use of stark words – bleak, black, limp, long, cold, grasping, grudging, scared, shuffled, frail. It just goes on and on. The first time I read this book I was completely unable to finish it as I was very vulnerable at the time. Finishing it this time, feeling stronger, I nevertheless did find the tone of the writing to be biblical in its inevitable apocalyptic portrayal and the ultra down-at-heel nature of the characters. There were no kings in their towers, and no slaves etc. Each person is as miserable and scared of each other as the next. Also as one example, there were many little things – like when the man goes through a house and finds an apple on the ground outside. Pg 127 “He’d stepped on something. He took a step back and knelt and parted the grass with his hands. It was an apple. He picked it up and held it to the light…”. There is an air of miracle and of the parting of the red sea: the apple symbolises the purity of fresh food (now dried and withered) and the fall of humanity in the garden of Eden.

The novel isn’t broken down into chapters, but is instead made up of short blocks of text. Why do you think McCarthy has chosen to structure his narrative like this? And what affect does this have on you as a reader? How does it affect narrative qualities like pace and suspense? Does it add or remove a sense of scale (e.g. a sense of the relative importance or impact of specific moments)? Does it make it harder for the writer to modulate between different moods, emotions, experiences, different levels of significance?

There is no end and no real beginning to the story. The short blocks of text give us a feel of a lack of structure to days and to lives, and to the grim monotony of their daily misery.

I am not sure if pace and suspense are altered as a result of the block rather than the use of chapters etc.

Perhaps it does make it harder to discern the different moods, levels, emotions, significance etc. But I actually think that the sameness of absolutely everything makes even small real events stand out a little more.

How does McCarthy use dialogue? What effect does containing snatches of dialogue in short isolated sections have?

Dialogue is presented as part of the prose, with no defining punctuation. Unlike “NW” and “Arlington Park”’s treatment of dialogue, I did not find the unusual treatment in “The Road” to be pretentious and irritating. I actually found it to be the absolute best option.

Using the short dialogue sections does make things interesting. It makes the reader feel that silence is the status quo and conversation of any kind is exceptional so therefore deserves its own section.

Why the removal of some punctuation (particularly in words like ‘cant’, ‘didn’t’ etc)? And what is the effect of removing speech marks?

The effect of removing speech marks almost seems to be a depersonalisation of the humans, and mixes their utterances with standard prose. The people are as much a part of the desolate scenery as the deserted houses landscape is.

I suspect that punctuation was removed in order to make the reader more aware of the sliding effect of the misery – in other words, all senses of grammar and punctuation is lost because civilisation is also lost.

How do thoughts of the man’s past life filter through into the present?

They tend to filter through regretfully as dreams, more than as positive reflections.

How does McCarthy fill us in on the past, on both a cosmic scale (e.g. what has happened to the earth) and a local scale (the past life of the man and the boy)? Is the narrative method oblique or direct? What role does mystery play in the novel?

There is a lot of unclearness regarding what has actually happened to the earth and the people on it. The mystery element is actually beneficial to the way the story plays out. We don’t need to know about the people and the places and what happened. We just need to know that it did. We also need to know that everything, even the earth, has lost its identity and the oblique narrative expresses this well.

How does McCarthy frame the book’s philosophy, ideas, symbolism? Is there profundity in the novel, or is it too strained/forced? Does the narrative slip into allegory at all (e.g. the boy and the man stand for something larger)? (The section pp. 178-85 listed in the close-readings below is worth looking at in these respects. Is this a parable? A fable? Or just a story?)

I don’t feel that the profundity of the novel is strained and forced. Yes, I believe that the boy and man do stand for something larger - but they don’t need to. They stand on their own as characters. The quote on pg 179 is interesting “People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there”.

Who says this on p. 209: ‘Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.’ ? And the section on pp. 279-80 beginning ‘He got up and walked out to the road’ to ‘To seal my mouth with dirt’; and the novel’s final paragraph? What is happening to the voice in these moments?

My first assumption was that the man had been responsible for the quote about fathers watching. My afterthought was that it could have been the narrator breaking through.

In these sections, the novel becomes more allegorical and more fantastical. It is harking back to better times and looking forward to better times – temporarily removing the characters from the misery.

How is time treated? Think of the many painful moments that last and linger, and then how suddenly a series of days will simply pass in a clause (‘In three days they came to a small port town’ p. 280); or how the harrowing thought of the boy unable to leave his dead father is stated with no ornament (‘He stayed three days’ 301).

Time is treated as a fluid entity that is almost incidental.In a place where there is no reliance on jobs, on punctuality, or keeping appointments etc, the time itself is not necessary to be considered. So, the boy staying with his dead father for three days indicates that’s the time it took him to deal with it, rather than some arbitrary boundary that needs to be bidden.

**(Parataxis is when sentences and/or clauses are kept short and declarative, usually orchestrated by coordinating conjunctions [most commonly ‘and’] rather than subordinating conjunctions [‘therefore’, ‘because’, ‘so that’, ‘which…’, ‘perhaps’ etc]. Hypotaxis occurs in more complex sentences, often made up of multiple clauses which use subordinating conjunctions and qualifications. Henry James’ writing is a prime example of the hypotactical style, and Ernest Hemingway’s of the paratactical.)

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