Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Road: Zombie Apocalypse without the Zombies

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is well known for being one of the most depressing books ever written, so naturally as soon as I heard about it I was all over it.

If you're not familiar with it, here's the plot in a nutshell: the world has been pretty much destroyed in what's hinted at a nuclear war. All the animals are dead, as are all the plants, even the trees are hollow husks that occasionally disintegrate or burst into flames because there's no rain and the air is dry as a bone. People have survived, as they always do in this kind of situation (and let's face it, there'd be no book if they hadn't) but the only food to be found is whatever they can scavenge from abandoned buildings and those supplies are, when we meet our protagonists, picked clean.

This is a pretty big nutshell, isn't it? On a tangent I should point out that I'm writing this as I watch the film version of Phantom of the Opera, so writing about the apocalypse while listening to Gerard Butler sing Music of the Night (he's trying, bless him) makes for some interesting dissonance.

Anyway, we meet our main characters, known simply as Man and Boy, just like in Antichrist. The man is one of those gruff survivalist types, and the boy is a boy. He's convinced that in this world he and his father are the good guys and they're at battle with the bad guys. The bad guys happen to be cannibals. That's right, with no more food to be found people are eating each other. And any random person they come across.

McCarthy pulls no punches with this, the novel shows several different instances of cannibalism in different forms. At one point the boy and his father come across a baby that's been roasted on a spit (and as with any media that shows small children in peril, I freaked out a bit) and at another point the father finds a cellar full of living people who are having their limbs harvested one by one by some 'farmers'. Every person they come across during the book, with the exception of an old blind man and a single guy who steals their stuff while they're distracted is a cannibal. That's how bad things have gotten.

To top it all off, the man is dying. He's got that cough that signals death for anyone in a work of media, and it's hinted that it's radiation sickness. He's trying to get himself and the boy to the coast for some reason. By he way, if you're wondering about the boy's mother, she walked out of their hiding place in a fit of despair. It's left up to your imagination as to what happened to her. The boy, despite the hopeless setting, is naive and unable to defend himself, so likely the father is trying to get him to some remote place before he dies. Even so they have a contingency plan; their gun has only two bullets, so they practice committing suicide in case they get caught by someone. This is what passes for a spot of hope in this book.

They get to the coast, relatively unscathed, but with the boy having lost some of his optimism along the way and finally the father collapses and dies. Despite everything that's gone before and how everything the father did to keep him alive, the boy just sits with his body until he's discovered by someone else. The person who finds him just happens to be not a cannibal like everyone else has been, but a family man with a wife, two children, a dog and a gun full of bullets. And apparently he has access to fresh fish, which means life could possibly be coming back to the world. And he wants to adopt the boy. It's the most depressing Deus Ex Machina in the history of literature.

Someone once suggested that the end is false and that the boy was hallucinating this new family as he was dying beside his father. It is just a bit too perfect to be true...come on, they have a dog! Probably a white picket fence too...

The film that was made recently did a very good job of capturing the bleakness of the novel, in fact I couldn't imagine anyone doing it better than John Hillcoat did. Viggo Mortenson is pretty perfect for the haggard survivalist father (and he cleans up so well for the happy time flashbacks) but I wasn't really feeling Kodi Smit-McPhee as the boy. He felt a bit old to me, especially when he kept calling Viggo 'Papa'. Kid looks about thirteen to me, it felt a bit off. Then again, given the material it's hard to imagine giving that part to a younger child so it's forgivable.

All in all, both versions compliment each other nicely. The book is sparsely written in McCarthy's usual minimalist style and the film fills in the blanks. It would be hard to imagine a film being made with this kind of desolate ethos unless there was a book behind it and that book happened to be very popular.

Even so, it's not the most depressing thing I've ever read. With dead parents, society crumbling and the world slowly perishing, how can that be possible? Because Cormac McCarthy isn't Joyce Carol Oates. If she ever decided to write a dystopian novel (and it's possible she started and finished one as I was writing this review) God help us all.

She's next on my list. Ad the novel I'm reviewing will be Rape: A Love Story. Hoo boy...

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