I read The Road (2007 Pulitzer Prize winner) over the holidays as it came to me highly recommended. It was fitting to read because of the recent movie release, and many of my peers (co-teachers and friends) had read it with varying responses and reactions. I was a bit worried due to McCarthy’s token violence and gruesomeness. Granted, the cannibalism is terrifying and sickening, but if you get hung up on that then you are missing out on the rest that this novel has to offer.
One of my students told me that The Road is the first novel that he’s read that seems to be more of a prose poem than a novel. This came during a conversation about some contemporary views that the novel is nothing more than an evolved epic (you know, the type that was sung by the ancient bards. Hello Helen…). I’m not sure I agree, but it’s fun to think about. There’s something just different about prose and poetry. In fact, Joseph Hutchison wrote this in a recent blog post:
. . .[W]hat is the difference between prose and poetry? I would say that it all comes down to this: poetry cares more than prose does about the imaginal dimensions of words. Poetry essentially exists in order to plunge the reader into the wild imaginality of language, while prose exists to let the reader experience the imaginal at a distance. This is why good poetry is more imaginal than good prose, why we call prose “poetic” only when it becomes imaginally heightened, and why we have a “form” called the prose poem.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this novel for a month, but was waiting for some sort of springboard. Is The Road a novel, a prose poem, or both? The context of Hutchison’s quote is one of the meaning of language, so nitpicking about whether poetry is just a wild imaginality of language is splitting hairs (in this instance!). But why even consider The Road a piece of prose poetry in the first place? For starters, the form.
This novel reads like none other that I’ve experienced. It’s not stream of consciousness like Joyce, but the only punctuation used are periods and possessive apostrophes. There are no chapters, only paragraph to page-long episodes that move along chronologically. Are poets the only ones that can mess with form? No, but hang in there. The form actually relates to the setting of the novel. The apocalypse has come and gone. The sun doesn’t shine, everything is burned or is burning, it rains and snows ash, and there is no warmth or hope. Those people that were left behind have resorted to cannibalism as all other animals and fruits/vegetables/grains/foods have rotted or been consumed. I guess punctuation rules were also raptured (haha). In all seriousness, life in the novel no longer has meaning (except for the main character and his son, who both spend the entirety of the novel looking for the good guys, “carrying the fire.”) and the lack of punctuation, formal chapter breaks, and sentence structure reflects this. I don’t think that this in itself is reason to call the novel a prose poem. But many of the snippets/episodes feel “poetical.”
As crazy and terrifying as the story is, I was engrossed in a novel–not a prose poem. And then I reached the end. Once the story concludes, when we know what happened to the father and the son, McCarthy provides a paragraph about mountains and a fish in a pond. Of the fish he writes:
On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which 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.
The end. What the–? Nothing else in the novel reads like this last paragraph. I’d say this is an ambivalent image that rips open the entire novel for interpretation. This forces me back into the novel, forces me to look at what is going on beneath the surface. I suppose that prose is just as capable of doing this as poetry, but it seems to me that McCarthy forces the read to look at the imaginal up close, though it seems kind of distant during the reading experience. Without the ending, this is just a novel. However, that last image thrusts the book into consideration for being prose poetry.
(I mentioned imaginal, and this may beg for an explanation. I first learned that term in a poetry class at University College under the tutelage of Joseph Hutchison (yup, the same Hutchison quoted above), who was also my thesis adviser. We’ve had many conversations about it, and I spent a good part of my thesis work defining “imaginal” from a Christ-centered point of view. Hutchison recently wrote some great, thought-provoking insights into the imaginal. I have come to a little bit different conclusion/definition of the imaginal, and I will post a blog in detail in the near future. However, the basis of the imaginal is clear and indisputable: there are things in our lives that we perceive outside of our five senses. We experience the unseen, feel the unfelt, sense the untouchable. For now, that’s the imaginal. Come back next week to read more specifically about my take on it as Christian artist)
But form doesn’t ensure poetry, so we have to look at imaginality. What’s so imaginal about The Road? At first glance, nothing. As crazy as it sounds, the apparent absence of imaginality establishes…yup….imaginality. As I read the novel, I shouldn’t care about the characters because everyone is as good as dead anyways. But I do care–deeply. What is it that causes that care? It’s not in the prose. The boy needs his father’s encouragement, but he also challenges his father to help everyone that isn’t going to try and eat them–even if that person is two steps from death. As I followed these two characters down their road, I was filled with absolute dread and fear that something horrible was going to happen. I have no textual evidence to explain why. By the end of the novel, I was filled was uncanny hope…with no textual evidence why. I experienced something that wasn’t written. But was this experience a pie-in-the-face or a distant observation? I don’t know.
So is The Road a prose poem? I want to say yes–the epic poetry of old is resurrected for the post-apocalyptic bard to sing on top of rotten strumming from a burned guitar. In a world (presented in the novel) where everything is dead–language, vegetation, humaneness, mercy, etc.–there is a mystery that my five senses cannot explain. Many may argue that this is prose and not poetry, which is fine. Either way, it’s a direct path to the imaginal.