Book Review: The Road

Again, over spring break I got a lot of reading done; another one of the books I read was The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. It’s about a father and son trying to survive in post-apocalyptic America (it’s set about eight years after the apocalyptic event, which was presumably nuclear war but it’s never explicitly stated).

Now, this was a serious apocalypse – almost all species are extinct, there’s almost no food (they feed off of cans of food they find in abandoned grocery stores for the most part), and almost everyone is dead – they encounter very few people in the course of their several months of wandering. The world has no future. There is no hope. And that’s the main subject of the book – theological hope, and whether it’s justified in a time when there is absolutely no hope for the world.

One of the immediately noticeable things about any book by McCarthy (I’ve also read All the Pretty Horses, a quite good book with very different subject matter) is his style. It’s very minimalistic; no quotation marks, no long sentences, very matter of fact. It can get irritating at times, when it seems over-used or forced, but for most of The Road I thought it fit perfectly. It conveys amazingly well the feeling that what is happening is inevitable, that there’s no way the man or his son could somehow better their situation, that there is any escape; this is how the world is. It’s fruitless to hope for anything else.

There’s no hope for the world, anyway. And so the question becomes, what of theological hope? There are extended discussions in the book between the man and his son in which the son is talking about God as if he believed in him, while the man is thinking to himself about how God does not exist – but he tries to keep alive in his son this belief in God. It is as if he wished he could believe in God, but cannot bring himself to, because if something like this apocalypse were allowed to happen, God could not exist.

This is just an extreme version of the problem of evil, of course. So we’re back to theodicy. So, what is McCarthy’s theodicy? It’s hard to say. He does a really good job of setting up the world as hopeless – but then, at the end… well, spoilers are perhaps inevitable: the kid survives and is adopted by a family and the grandmother begins telling him about God. Is this cheating? Has McCarthy just avoided the problem, giving us a Deus ex Machina ending where he says “oh wait, there actually is hope, never mind about all this theodicy stuff, ignore what i said about the world being completely without hope”? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.

The last passage in the book, after all, is not of the child being catechized. It pans out, to a broader view.

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing that could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

Now, this is a weird passage, hard to understand…  but I think part of what it’s saying is that the world is fallen; it is fallen because of man; the evil in the world is because of man; but this evil does not drown out the beauty of nature, God’s creation; in the end, there is theological hope because creation is good, God is good, and even though man is fallen and brings himself to a place where there is no hope, it is possible for him to get out if it, if not in this life then in the next.

Obviously I’m reading a lot into this. I’m not sure it’s all actually there to be read into it. I’m not sure if McCarthy’s a Christian or even a theist. But… I do think something at least somewhat like the above can be found in the book. Which in the end is why I don’t think the ending is a deus ex machina, and why I think the book is certainly worth reading, rather than just being a somewhat interesting exercise in depressing speculative fiction.

In the end, then: it’s worth reading, and it’s certainly a quick read. It’s a very good book, and the only reason it’s not a great book or a classic is there’s just not enough there; it doesn’t attempt enough to be great. But what it does do, it does very well. And it’s a very good exploration of theodicy, which we don’t get enough, I think (except from people who think that the problem of evil proves God doesn’t exist, which I’d vehemently argue it does not).

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