Cormac McCarthy is one of the USA's biggest and most important literary novelists, laden with awards and praise throughout his lengthy career. It is almost unnecessary to review The Road, his latest novel, as it has already won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and garnered a major sales-boosting appearance on Oprah Winfrey's US book club, but it was a book of such impressive power I felt compelled to add my thoughts.
Some have already argued that The Road is not really science fiction, since the book features nearly nothing about the holocaust that destroyed civilisation before the book began (there are hints of it being either a nuclear war or an asteroid impact), little about how humanity develops afterwards (aside from the obvious descent into barbarism) and little in the way of an effective plot. The story is instead a series of viginettes that follow the unnamed protagonist ('the man') and his unnamed son ('the boy') as they head south, away from the freezing winter that is consuming the devastated USA, hoping to find a safe haven along the coast. Along the way they occasionally meet other survivors, they loot abandoned shops and homes, and find themselves relying on one another to keep going. However, science fiction is more than just about machines and sociology: it's about people, and how the impact of a future event (such as an atomic holocaust or an meteor strike) effects them and their lives. In this regard, The Road is essential science fiction.
The book is beautifully, starkly written. McCarthy employs a stripped-down prose style with some minor embellishments to keep the story moving. Given that many pages are covered by simple, short sentences as the man and the boy exchange views, the book is actually much shorter than its 300-page count would suggest, and easily readable in a couple of hours. The lack of plot is unnecessary, as this is a stunning atmospheric mood piece with some biting observations on the nature of humanity.
It is difficult to find anything worth criticising about the book. Some may feel there isn't enough plot or backstory or in-depth character history, but that's not the aim of the work. It's about two people and what keeps them going when everything else has been destroyed. In that regard, it works brilliantly. There are some vague similarities to earlier works - this could almost be said to be a road trip (but less revelatory) version of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend - but nothing that is particularly offputting.
The Road (*****) is a haunting novel of impressive power, and well worth reading. The book is published by Vintage Books in the USA and Picador in the United Kingdom. William Lexner has reviewed the book here.