In terms of plot, not a great deal actually happens. The man and the boy (they have no names) make their way slowly towards the coast for no apparent reason. Along the way they trust their luck to find food while avoiding bands of cannibals and other thieves looking to either rob them or eat them. We don't really know what happened, as it is never explained, but they live in a world where ash covers everything and nothing grows. The landscape is almost totally grey, and it is almost always either raining or snowing. The man is getting gradually sicker and sicker from some kind of lung problem, while the boy needs repeated convincing that they are the "good guys" who "carry the fire".
They meet several people along the way, from terrifying cannibals to desperate thieves and people who have given up just waiting for death to take them. The whole time the man forces them onwards, moving on even when they find places they could potentially hole up for a while, because nowhere is safe accept possibly the coast. He is resolute and resourceful but more than anything he burns with love for his son. He will not give up like the rest of humanity seems to have. He will do whatever it takes to keep his son alive.
This is a novel that will divide opinion. It is not beach reading nor action packed nor a thriller. It is bleak, miserable, at times frustrating and confusing. There's no romance. There's no happy ending (depending on how you analyse it). It's simply a powerful novel about love and struggle that also serves as a warning to mankind. So many dystopian-type books are utterly unrealistic, but The Road, in the same way as 1984, shows a future that is actually possible. There are powerful people around the world right now whose fingers hover over a button which could condemn us to the kind of struggle seen in The Road. It's a sobering thought.
A lot of the criticism of this book that I've seen concerns the writing style. I sometimes think that a lot of readers really can't handle anything more complicated that what they can find on the rack in the giftshop next to an airport boarding gate. There are no speech marks and rarely apostrophes for contractions. And the problem is ...? Who really cares whether he writes "didn't" or "didnt"? And it is never, at any point, difficult to tell when someone is speaking nor who is speaking. The effect is hypnotic. It gives the whole novel a dreamy - make that nightmarish - quality. People that can't read a book that has no speech marks should try reading something that is actually difficult to read, like this. Danielewski's House of Leaves makes The Road look like Spot Goes to Town. The kind of reader who doesn't understand everything that this book represents is exactly the type of person who should read it.
Same goes with the grammar. I've read a lot of reviews that complain about it being hard to read. McCarthy does stuff like put adjectives in the wrong place or link five or six clauses with "and". This is a guy who won a Pulitzer Prize for literature. Every single word in this book is in it's place because he chose to put it there. As someone who writes vastly inferior books to this it is something to be treasured, because every line is something to learn from. And really, it's not very hard to read at all, nor is it frustrating. I found it fascinating.
A lot of people are going to hate this book. I had my own frustrations with it - mainly not knowing what caused the world to turn into a burned wasteland, while the ending will divide opinion - but it is not always about what is said but what is not said, or what is implied. The Road isn't a book that is going to make you happy, it's a book that will likely haunt you. However, a little dark makes the light so much brighter, and we could all do with a little haunting sometimes.
A bleak, chilling masterpiece. And the film is damn good too.
25th March 2012