I have long had a bizarre affection for stories depicting catastrophe; books like When Worlds Collide and CUSP and Deus ex Machina are on my list of favorites. When I'd heard that an Authentic American Novel Writer™ had written such a book, and moreover he was one of those Important American Authors™, I was unsure of approaching this one.
I finally have, though, and not because The Big O herself inducted it into her Onliest Book Club. To give some idea of its demand, I put my name on the waiting list at the Multnomah County Library and waited almost five months for my name to come up (if memory serves–it might not here). I then missed picking it up, and put my name on the list–only to wait several more months to get the chance to read it.
The book has lived up to all the promises its reviews made–it's a compellingly told story that exists in a world that it must have taken no small amount of courage to envision. Everything is essentially gone. There's no society, no community, no countries, states...no cities, except as a word for the ruins they pass by. It has been noted widely that the exact form, dimensions, and nature of the tragedy that produced the world that is the setting for the novel was never described, and that makes the story indeed maddeningly compelling, as the reader searches the descriptions in the text for some clue as to what it may have been. The author gives us no indication, but does hint at widespread conflagration and extreme heat. Some have hinted at either a nuclear war or an extinction-level asteroid impact.
One of the most quoted lines of the novel is one which hints at the event itself, told from the viewpoint of the father character: The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. This excerpt is ended, I think, prematurely. Consider in its proper setting (punctuation as in the original)–from the top of page 45 of the first hardcover Knopf edition:
The description cited suggests a cataclysm delivered from above, resulting in a wide-scale inferno. But what? We'll never know. I dare say McCarthy will never tell us. Bereft of all but the most basic punctuation, the author's staccato delivery richochets around in one's head, pinging endlessly, and draws one into the world that the man and the boy inhabit. I find it worth mentioning per se that the two principal characters inhabit a world some years removed from the initial disaster, as the character of the woman–the boy's mother and presumably the man's wife–was pregnant with the boy in the above excerpt, and, overwhelmed by the disaster, takes her own life at an unspecified (but perhaps not too removed) time hence. The boy has no knowledge of the warm, colorful world that ended just as he begun, other than his father, who copes by making the boy's safety and welfare into nothing so much as resembles a religion.
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?
I dont know.
Why are you taking a bath?
The arc of the novel–a journey across what is generally assumed to have once been the southeastern United States, in quest of the sea where there might be a little more warmth and perhaps a haven–is unrelentingly grim. There is one benign character, but what other straggling survivors they find are either out to steal what little they have or, failing that, cannibalize them. There are a wealth of colors, but they are all shades of gray; the world is cold, so well described as such that one shivers even thinking about it.
Aside from the dwindling survivors, there is no life at all. There is no stunning climax, no happy ending (unless one feels that the man and wife who apparently find the boy mourning his father's death amount to a happy ending–but the future is still, at best, dubious). The dearth of life and color is so complete that when the father and son find an old-fashioned fallout shelter about halfway through, just as their last supplies run out, sealed tight and stocked with edible supplies and absolutely undamaged, it's a burst of color even though it might not be particularly colorful. Even then they can't stay; there would be no way of knowing if someone else might come upon them and do them to death there.
It made a mark on me; I think any bit of literature that is so unrelentingly grim would. If one would be alive, then there are situations in which the determination to remain alive, in the face of all reasons not to, is the only difference between life and death. Whether or not that is a desirable thing to consider is something each one of us must decide for ourselves. That's as may be. But it seems to me that in some situations striving to remain alive may be the only alternative–even if it's not a desirable thing (the wife character chooses the quick way out in the back story–she takes the place of those of us for whom there is no point in remaining alive if there's no apparent point to living). The father pays the price for this, and the son reaps the rewards.
Designing the End
McCarthy's work in this book has been noted for (as I myself said) a staccato style, a sort of rat-a-tat-tat rhythm while at the same time, not crescendoing in any way. The result is a prose style which aptly communicates the smothering, gray sameness of each cold day the protagonists must endure.
More than that, though, the book's design aptly enhances the feeling, which is ironically claustrophobic given the characters range over the open countryside; though they are not prisoners in fact, they are prisoners in scope: a monotonously gray, cold world that has no ending and no way of communication with anything beyond the sound of a voice. The book's type, cited by The Believer magazine as Bulmer, is an unadorned serif face, somewhat like Bodoni, whose plainness and matter-of-factness stands above its artistry. The folios–book title at the top of the verso, page number at the top of the recto–look like a downmarket variety of Koch's Neuland; hand done but cut rather sloppily. Designer Peter Anderson has designed to the subject matter, and has done so superbly; the rigidly-obeyed margins and the generous leading enhance and reinforce the author's prose style.
The entire design of the book is spare and dressed down; the dark, sparse cover, designed by Chip Kidd, features distressed, out of focus type in two ugly colors; the author's name is scarcely visible, and the books title gets distressingly close to the edge of the book. The Road is not a story designed to make you feel good (I hear they're making a movie from this one...the mind truly boggles), and the physical design–type, jacket, everything–are every bit as discordant.
These are all ways that indicate how type and design can be used to support the message or, in this case, defining the atmosphere. The design here acts like a musical score sets the mood for a movie or play.
As such, it's wicked successful.
Tags: The Road, Cormac McCarthy, Book Design, Chip Kidd, Peter A. Anderson