The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Ever since I read the last word and closed the book, I've been trying to figure out how to properly write about Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's one of the few books that honestly made me cry, really cry, not the vague teary-eyed thing that happens way more often than I'm willing to admit, but full-out, put-the-book-down, bury-your-face-in-your-hands sobbing. I probably shouldn't admit that, but...damn, you know? If it affected me that much, I kind of need to mention it. And since then, I've been struggling to put that experience into words, because it's rare that I read something that haunts me so completely afterward. A month or so later, it's still not out of my head. How on earth am I supposed to review that?
So. The Road, in one sentence: after I read it, I felt like I'd been punched in the face...in a good way.
Ugh, I'm terrible at this.
The Road takes everything I love about post-apocalyptic fiction, and extends the tropes so far that they're almost unrecognizable. McCarthy's world is one of unending silence and overwhelming dread, all grey snow and falling ash, the dead, twisted crags of blackened trees, the empty shelves of long-looted supermarkets gathering dust in the neverending gloom. We never learn the names of the main character or his son -- they're referred to as "the man" and "the boy" -- and their conversations are odd and stilted, every stark line of dialogue bursting at the seams with the things they aren't saying to each other. The man has a gun, and he has only two bullets. He loves his son. They're always hungry, and they're always scared.
What's horrifying about the world is that humanity as a construct has ceased to exist -- most post-apocalyptic stories take place in dystopias, or something close to it, but here there's no dystopia to speak of, because there's no society to speak of. It's all individuals, surviving as best they can, often in brutal, horrible ways, and in the middle of it all is the narrator and his son, traveling along the ash-covered road with their cart, their gun, their two bullets, making their way towards the ocean because there's nowhere left to go.
This was the first Cormac McCarthy book I ever read, and I went into it not knowing what to expect. I'd heard that his writing style can be off-putting for some people, and now that I've read him I'm inclined to agree. Personally, I love it -- there's something spare and poetic about the way he uses language and eschews punctuation. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would've been a mess, but McCarthy wields words the way a murderer might wield a straight razor. He's excruciatingly precise, and it's not until you're bleeding out than do you even notice the wound.
It's not a book for everyone. There are long stretches where nothing of immediate consequence happens, and while I read through those sequences with held breath and a sense of growing dread, I know other readers would probably find them boring. The lack of quotation marks might grate on some people, and I suspect the ending won't sit well with everyone. But. It's still worth reading. It's different, and it's powerful. There's a sense of inevitability to what happens, and while the ending made me cry like my heart was breaking, it still felt like the ending the book needed to have. It felt like the right ending.