I have a rather equivocal opinion of The Road. On one hand, it’s a beautifully phrased novel, full of powerful images and rich language. On the other hand, the plot is rather pedestrian, and the author’s defiance of writing conventions is tiresome.
There’s no doubt that McCarthy is a gifted writer. Many passages are profoundly beautiful and show McCarthy’s daunting command of language. He is a fabulous painter of words. The son, for example, is described in a wonderfully figurative manner: “Knobby spine-bones. The razarous shoulder blades sawing under the pale skin” (p. 218). Quite often, individual words surprise and enrich: “rasping”, “viscera”, “dentil”, “macadam”, and so on. In an age of anti-intellectualism, where so-called “big words” expose a person to abuse like glasses do in a Khmer Rouge nightmare, McCarthy’s breadth of vocabulary is impressive, perhaps even inspiring. Finally, the relationship between father and son seems genuine and real, and moves beyond the easy nihilism for which McCarthy is often accused.
Nevertheless, many aspects disappoint. The plot is predictable and surprisingly repetitive: look down at a town or house; search town or house for food; discover amazingly well-preserved food stores just in time to avoid starvation; avoid cannibals where necessary; climb to the top of the next hill and consider the depravity of man (or at least flat caricatures of depraved beasts); repeat sequence at least four times. Indeed, the plot seems awfully amenable to a screen play, almost as if The Road was written as a novelization of a movie. McCarthy’s well-known aversion to grammar rules also grates, and I personally think it overwhelms the linguistic and emotional side of the book. I don’t really care about the lack of apostrophes or quotation marks; I get the rather bludgeoned symbolism about the artificiality (and thus fragility) of society. But the apparently random use of sentence fragments borders on the unbearable. I spent a lot of my time filling in the subject or the predicate, or both. Such undue effort eventually led me to skip-read much of the novel, only occasionally slowing down to savour an occasional passage. Are such rules of writing really so imposing? McCarthy seems to be saying yes, but it’s a bit like arguing that the colour scheme of traffic lights is fascistic, when such conventionality is really about moving on to more important things. In the end, the fragments and other broken rules seem like gimmicks, and convince me that McCarthy should have spent more time on plot development than the arbitrary rules of grammar.
So The Road leaves me perplexed: maybe it’s his Pulitzer Prize for the novel, and maybe it’s because other people lavish such praise on his book. If Oprah loves the novel, it must be good, right? Yet for me, it has the whiff of pretentiousness. McCarthy is a great writer, no doubt, but beating up sentences and punctuation does not replace good old fashioned story telling.