The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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.


10 thoughts on “The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  1. I love these musings, Joel, and had much the same reaction to The Road. The post-apocalypse setting makes it instantly imaginal. We follow the road with the characters, who are condemned to it, to move on it, with destinations in mind that do not matter in the end. The road is it. It would be interesting to read this alongside Kerouac’s On the Road, where the work in a similar way to McCarthy’s scenes: they pass before us like painted panels, like visions we sometimes feel might explain the road, or justify it, or absolve it or something. But the road just is, and in the end the imaginality of the world the road moves through is laid before us. Dean Moriarty wants to find his father, who is also named Dean Moriarty, but he never does; McCarthy refracts the model by giving us a father who wants to protect his son and help him survive, but who must in the end pass from life and leave his son on the road with another man, another father, who leads the son on down the road. Both books at the end shift away from the road: Kerouac shifts to a post-Road life illuminated by memories of the road; McCarthy shifts to a vision of Nature in decay—the fish covered with wormy (vermiculate) patterns that are “maps of the world in its becoming.” It’s a harrowing vision much bleaker than Kerouac’s and probably more profound and more profoundly imaginal, because in The Road everything we witness simply is, while in On the Road everything we witness is colored by the narrator, Sal(vatore) Paradise. Kerouac insists on transcendence while McCarthy insists on being. Which may be why we get “spontaneous bop prosody” in Kerouac and in McCarthy a language that’s classical, stripped down like Sophocles in the first Oedipus play (not the last, where he transforms from McCarthy into Kerouac!). Lot of blather here, inchoate stuff I’m afraid, but worth further thought, maybe.

    Keep up the good blog work! Now I’ll click “submit” and see if my HTML codes produced the italics I was after….

  2. I’m really glad you compared The Road to On the Road. I actually adjust my title, as I prefer to use “on” as a short for “I’m writing on…”. But On The Road is so ambiguous. I’m glad you shared your connections between the two, because I’m really not familiar with Kerouac. We’ve talked about reading for pleasure and enjoyment, and Kerouac doesn’t do it for me. But now I may have to push through it!

    12:43 am? I hope you had some good coffee!

    I like the idea that the road just is. Besides the father, son, and overall destruction, it is the only other constant (however battered and destroyed) in a world where constancy doesn’t matter anymore (except for the son).

  3. Well, Mr. J, since you know me personally and we’ve discussed this before, I don’t have much more to say than what I already have previously. I can say that I think I disagree with you on the concept that its poetic quality hinges only on the ending. If I had the book in front of me right now, I think I could quote you some passages that do heighten that imaginality, like you talked about, and thus do make it a work of epic poetry. I guess I felt that the entire work was a piece of poetry almost from page one, because of certain scenes described in a certain way, and other techniques that McCarthy employs. Now, I would say that the ending is still essential to the work anyways. If he had finished his story any other way, I don’t think it would have been as fulfilled by the end. But that has nothing to do with this whole epic prose poetry concept. So never mind.

  4. You’re absolutely right that the book’s poetic quality doesn’t hinge on the ending. Prose can be poetic–good prose is. 🙂 And yes, there are several episodes that have great poetic value. But I can’t call the novel a prose poem (or even close) without the ending. To me, the ending shifts the novel from poetic to poem.

    Why am I not surprised that you don’t agree with me? 😉

  5. I read _The Road_ when it first appeared and have always thought of it as a sequence of prose poems. I don’t have the energy to go into the ineffable poetics of defining the prose poem, but can use a much simpler criteria: if I can find a way to cut the book into segments and most or all of those segments would be right at home as a prose poem in various journals that publish such chimeras, then the book is a series of prose poems.

    And so _The Road_ is. The ending is gravy (though I actually go back and forth on 1] how to take the ending and 2] whether I actually like it or not).

  6. Hey little brother!

    So, I picked up a copy and read it after you recommended it and I’m not gonna lie – I hated it at first. I found the lack of punctuation markings irritating and pretentious, but as I read more, I realized that it was a tool that the author was using to set the mood & tone of the book.

    It’s interesting to me the comments here emphasizing the journey and the all-encompassing importance of the present tense to the book – the way my mind works, it struck me that I didn’t get to find out the “why” behind all the devastation – it just was. This was something I just had to get over – being who I am and doing what I do, I am always thinking in terms of strategy, conflict and grand geo-political issues…

    But it also led me down the mental path (after reading the conclusion) that there really is no hope at all: That last paragraph, combined with the fact that nowhere in the book is there any evidence that anybody is producing anything anymore, led me to conclude that even the boy only had a few months/years left to live anyway. Thus, even the man’s best efforts had been little more than to postpone the inevitable for a few weeks/months. The characters are so temporary that they aren’t even given names. Very post-modern.

    After reading your post and the other comments, I can appreciate the book a little more for the artistry, but as you know, poetry just isn’t my thing unless it goes with some raging guitars! 🙂

    I’ll give you a call later on this week so you can mock me and my concrete head!

  7. I have mixed feelings about the end… the Christian imagery is strong, leading me to think there may be more hope (speaking abstractly, as a non-Christian) than it might otherwise appear…

  8. Good thoughts. I too thought there was no hope in the entire story. The father hopes to find the good guys, to provide for his son, to meet an end worth living for. Chris, I agree that there is a lot of Christian imagery. These two characters “carry the fire.” The son repeatedly wants to make sure that they are the good guys. I’ve had conversations with a few people who think the son is a Christ figure. I originally really struggled with this, but the more I sit on it the more I think I agree.

    The boy is the only one in the novel (until the shotgun guy at the end) who desires to help people–whether they are about to die or not. I think there are enough clues to realize that the apocalypse has passed and we are watching the post-game show in the losing locker room. The father seems to ask on several occasions why his faith wasn’t good enough. He doesn’t directly ask, but I get that impression when he remembers his wife saying her goodbyes.

    But overall, Ted, you’re right–this novel is completely hopeless without the father, son, their purpose, and their relationship. For what ever reason, I think of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Abraham argues with God about sparing the city if there’s just one righteous person. A couple of things could be derived from this. If the son is a Christ figure, what does McCarthy suggest about the character of God, providing yet another chance for people to accept His gift of grace? What does this novel suggest about the character of God when he follows through with his promise to destroy sin? Going back to that last paragraph, what does the novel say about the mystery of God and His will? And finally, does all of this align with the God presented in the Bible?

    And yes, while post-modernism (or post-post modernism?) permeates the novel, but I sense that in all the meaninglessness, there’s still something mysterious and meaningful swimming in that pond.

  9. Two more cents here! I don’t find Christianity per se reflected in the text, though I do see spiritual (as opposed to religious) aspects, specifically in the penultimate paragraph:

    The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

    The last sentence clearly alludes to Genesis 2:7: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” But McCarthy pointedly shows us that for the boy, God is a remote figure, as opposed to the father, whose “afterlife” he creates by talking to him, by not forgetting. The woman’s view that “the breath of God was his breath” is a view the boy may one day grow into, but McCarthy doesn’t seem to insist on it. We find out why in the last paragraph, where we see that the woman’s view is significant not because it derives from the Bible, but because it honors our creaturely condition—one we humans share with the brook trout and all the other things in the “deep glens” that are “older than man.” It’s a vision of man in an evolutionary context, if you will; man not as separate from Nature but as just one expression of it. The mystery McCarthy ends his book with was there before man and will certainly be there after man.

    I don’t see how this can be construed as Christian, or even religious (in the sense of a codified believe system). After all, all four of the religions with Biblical roots—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism—argue that the intentions and desires of God have been revealed to human beings, even though there are aspects of God we can’t comprehend. McCarthy’s view seems more primal, almost pantheistic: the universe as a manifestation of God, but a God that is not a being but a process of creation and destruction which doesn’t care about the details of either result. Trout and human beings are among the details, and the care takes place among the details. There is no point in talking to God, who doesn’t love us after all; the point is to love and care for one another—across the boundaries of nation, tribe, family, and species. The profound hopefulness of the book, for me, is that McCarthy shows that against all odds such love and care is possible.

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