I was 22-years-old when I first read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I was old enough to grasp the gravity of the story, but young enough to feel as though I was the first person in the world to recognise the depth and profundity of the written word. The Road is no longer my favourite of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, nor do I now consider it his best work, but it was the first of his books that I read and marks a turning point in my literary life. Even though I’d been a voracious reader my whole life, it was The Road that taught me literature’s ability to lead readers to the limit of experience. By which I mean The Road was almost more than I could bear, emotionally and intellectually. I couldn’t read anything else for months afterwards. I felt as though I’d never read again. But I did, because the only force greater than the fear of what a story could do to me was the fear that I would never experience it again.
My response to The Road certainly had nothing to do with its plot, or at least, not plot alone, because it’s a book in which nothing really happens. A father and son wander a blighted, post-apocalyptic landscape, trying to find food without freezing to death. That’s pretty much it. You never find out what the catastrophe was, you don’t know the protagonists’ names, and there’s no real narrative resolution (or at least, there’s no consensus about what the resolution might be). There are a few gruesome incidents that have become quite well known, such as the father and son’s discovery of a cellar full of people who are slowly being eaten off by other people, and later, a baby’s carcass in the woods, also cannibalised. But these scenes, while obviously horrifying, do not form the true terror of the narrative; indeed, they are puncture wounds on a bleaker and far more desolate plane of feeling.
For that is precisely the power of The Road for me: the feeling it leaves behind, its affective and emotional resonance. One of McCarthy’s strengths is his ability to create a particular mood without explicitly describing it. In fact, he could be said to barely tell readers anything, despite the volume of writing he’s produced. McCarthy often confounds readers by providing an almost ludicrous amount of detail around mundane processes (like cooking a burger, or cleaning a gun) and literally never describing what a character is thinking. His fiction strongly evokes a sense of the material world, such as the ashen wasteland of the American south in The Road, but his prose is not realist in a conventional sense. Rather, it’s characterised by unusual (sometimes bordering on impenetrable) syntax, obscure and archaic terminology, and his own neologisms.
And yet – I have never felt so connected to two characters as I did the father and son in The Road. The tenderness between two people in an utterly hopeless situation, the desperation of a father to protect his son, the child’s confusing desire to be ‘good’ in a world where good and bad seem to have lost their meanings: I felt like I knew them, as though I’d been on the road with them.
But I also felt utterly stricken. In anticipation for John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaption, I tried to re-read the book. I couldn’t do it. I got half way through and was so filled with foreboding that I had to stop. I was about to fly to Scotland to begin my Masters – a project about gender construction in McCarthy’s fiction – and I nearly dropped out before I’d even left Melbourne. Why on earth would I want to become an academic and spend my life thinking about books like this? For weeks I was haunted by sentences like “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.” I genuinely wondered why more literature scholars weren’t yet dead by their own hands. For what looms over even the most hopeful aspects of the father and son’s relationship is the threat of meaninglessness: the idea that they might be fighting for survival, and for goodness, when no goodness exists at all.
I completed my Masters, and now I’m working on a PhD about McCarthy, and I still often ask myself why. But because of The Road and its particular effect on me, I think I’m able to better invest in other fiction. I read more slowly. I consider more carefully the tone and the mood of the writing. I am better at seeing what the writer is showing me, not just telling me. The Road taught me what literature can do, in terms of making me feel, making me care. Ultimately I think that’s one of The Road’s aims – to assert a spark of hope through the father and son’s need to care for each other, and the weight that need carries even in the face nothingness.
Julia Tulloh is a writer in Melbourne. She’s working on a PhD about gender and affect in Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. She tweets at @jtul.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.