THE ROAD / Cormac McCarthy. 2006 (285 pgs)
First Sentence: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Third person familiar. Past tense. Unaffected, simple, functional. Considering the past tense voice, what makes this post-apocalyptic story so engaging is the constant comparison of the world as we know it (the past), to the world the story says is yet to come (the present). The narrator is neither of the two characters presented in the first ten pages, and I imagine will remain an unnamed character throughout the story. Much of the suspense of the story lies in the fact that these characters are seemingly alone, and yet “man” carries a loaded pistol in his belt and is on guard at all times. It is compelling to see how simply McCarthy utilizes two commonplace structural forms to support his story: third person – unseen, and past tense – unattainable. This kind of story could have been told as a first person account, but to have an unnamed, unseen observer in a dangerous world adds suspense.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The first sentence tells the reader that “man”’s awakening in the night to monitor the child is a generic, ongoing act. In the next several sentence McCormac gradually shifts the action from generic, nightly routine to waking from a specific dream as if every night feels like every other night in a world such as this, and one’s dreams are as dangerous as the waking hours. The author transitions into the dream by the sixth sentence of the book and it lasts half again as long as the first page. Presenting the dream so early in the narrative give it elevated importance, one that will recur, even though the reader does not return to the dream before the end of the tenth page.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The world has undergone a dramatic change. It isn’t explained, yet, and it has happened long enough ago to become blurred in memory (before the boy’s birth?) but not so long ago that one can’t remember the days prior to the cataclysmic event. “Man” comes across a telephone in an abandoned gas station. “…he picked up the phone and dialed the number of his father’s house in that long ago.” The boy asked him what he was doing.
Language: I found McCarthy’s abbreviated and sometimes abrupt linguistic flow mesmerizing. His sentences seem to fall away from familiar grammatical form as the post-apocalyptic world of THE ROAD presents to an unfamiliar reality. Complete sentences are often followed by descriptive fragments or lists of meaning, like a billboard “Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered.” McCarthy frequently uses prepositional phrases, often several in succession (like the first sentence quoted above) as if relationship currents between characters are undergoing constant adjustment or redefinition. In a failed society such as in THE ROAD breakdown is constant. McCarthy utilizes intentional violations of grammar to support the mood and environment of the story.
Character: The characters of “man” and “boy” seem to metaphorically resemble greater imagistic pairs of older / younger elements such as: responsible / vulnerable, vigilant / dependent, hardened / innocent, watching / wondering. They are the only two characters the reader comes in contact with in these first ten pages; however most of the dream that occupies the first page is of a monster in a dark, subterranean cavern (don’t let yourself think Beowulf!) and is given more descriptive detail than either “man” or “boy”. We learn more about these two main characters through their actions and their response to the eerie journey through empty, burned-out forest and town. Their vigilance against intruders is markedly more strange since over the several days covered in the first ten pages, they don’t encounter another living being.
Setting: The narrator gives regular, but subtle reminders of the gray ash the covers most objects and drifts down from the sky. “Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.” It is an interesting use of “before”. Does he mean before the event that caused this or each day is successively darker and grayer? It is clearly a bleak world, made bleaker by man’s interaction within it. The character “man” is a man, as the reader would know a human man to be, and his son whom he loves is a real boy, not a fantastical being or a Terminator, or a Beowulf. And yet, monsters have created this world.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: How did this happen? What did mankind do to let this happen? What will become of “man” and “boy”, literally and metaphorically? Is the book better than the movie? How will Viggo Mortensen look in a parka and a bushy, unkempt beard? I expect to meet more characters. Whether they are in the past or in the present, remains to be seen.
Random Comments: I originally read these first ten pages standing in the aisle at Powell’s, thinking that I could take notes and remember enough to write my comments. Foolish me! When I went back to buy it I had to force myself to stop after the tenth page. I can’t wait to post this so I can read it.