The Street? (no) The Avenue? (still not right) The ROAD!October 9, 2009
Here’s a little back story on how I got to this book. My friend Chris and I were talking about movies coming up we’d like to see and he mentioned seeing a trailer for “The Road.” You can view the trailer HERE. The trailer looks pretty damn good, I can say that I’m genuinely excited to see it. So probably a few months go by from when I saw the trailer until I decided to pick up the book to read. I had just finished reading Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” which was an amazing book, highly recommend it, and I decided to pick up “The Road” afterwards in anticipation of the movie. I will tell you now that this is one of the most poorly written books I have ever read in my life. I mean really, I don’t know how this guy has written so many award winning books. Actually I’m assuming they win awards I don’t know for sure, at least two of his books have been made into movies, No Country For Old Men being the other one that I’m aware of. The writing style of this book is something akin to a 3rd grader dumping his thoughts out onto a piece of paper for a book report, and then going back over it with a thesaurus and changing every possible word they can to something that sounds intelligent and will likely not be known by a person of above average intelligence (which I consider myself to be.) My favorite thing to say about this book when people ask me about is that “The author should be charged with reckless use of a thesaurus in an attempt to sound intelligent and magnanimous.”
Before I tear into this reading experience, I will say some things that I did like about it. The story itself despite how it was put down into a physical manifestation is actually really intriguing. It centers on a man and his son traveling from some point in what is assumed to be the midwest towards what is assumed to be the east coast. At least that’s the direction I viewed them as going, it’s never really explained what their origin and destination are, simply that where they are they could not survive another winter and they want to get to the coast. One thing that is interesting is what is left out of the story. The names of the man and his son are never given, they are simply “the man” and “the boy.” You never know why the world has come to be in the state it is in. There is the constant reminder of everything being covered in ash but there is no allusion as to why.
I really enjoy post-apocalyptic stories. I like to think that were such events to occur it will give me an idea of how to survive. There is little in this book that is fantastical or sensational, this also adds to the story I think. There are no amazing series of events that any one would be completely improbable, let alone all of them happening to the characters, you get the sense of being with the man and the boy on the road with nothing around, wondering when and where your next meal may be.
Now, let’s get down to the problems…
The first thing that struck me as odd was that when the man and the boy spoke, there were no quotation marks to signify this. I thought maybe for the first chapter it was some sort of dream sequence, or an imagination, something that might want to be put off and made to make the reader feel uneasy by not having quotations. Yeah, no. There is not a single quotation mark anywhere in the book. McCarthy doesn’t even adhere to starting dialogue on a new line at all times either. Sometimes the man or the boy will speak mid paragraph, and I find myself rereading the sentence several times trying to make sense of it until I would go past and see that one of them had said that. As if this wasn’t confusing enough, the dialogue is very fragmented and often repeated. Trying to keep up with who is saying what I would often have to reread entire conversations saying to myself “Boy. Man. Boy. Man.” with each line to keep track of who is saying what. Most of the dialogue is them repeating each other and often say the words “Okay” and “I don’t know.” These phrases are said easily 150 times throughout the book.
The next big issue I have with this book is that there are no chapters… sort of. You won’t find any numbered or titled chapters in the book, but there are these random and sparse break points that are marked by an ellipses of sorts between paragraphs. There is not rhyme or reason to where they go, it almost feels like a form of written tourette’s the way they are placed. Let me give you an example from the book below:
This is one of the many times when they man and the boy wake up in the morning after having camped in the cold hidden from the road so as not to be discovered by anyone else.
… They stood listening in the utter silence. Then they set out along the road through the gray sluch, the boy at his side with his hands in his pockets.
They trudged all day, the boy in silence. By afternoon the slush had melted off the road and by evening it was dry…
From one paragraph they start their journey in the morning, and then it jumps to where you would logically start a new chapter as it lumps the entire day into a couple of sentences and then it’s night time and they are making camp. We’re talking like a good 12 – 14 hours of the story just missing and it’s straight to the next paragraph.
Now let’s do an example of those weird ass break points:
At this point, the boy and the man have found a house far off the road that they almost missed but the boy caught a hazy outline of it. They walk to the house and here is how it’s written:
He held the boy’s hand and they crossed the porch. Chattel slaves had once trod those boards bearing food and drink on silver trays. They went to the window and looked in.
What if there’s someone here, Papa?
There’s no one here.
We should go, Papa.
We’ve got to find something to eat. We have no choice.
We could find something somewhere else.
It’s going to be all right. Come on
. . . <– Those are those weird dot break things that show up randomly
He took the pistol from his belt and tried the door. It swung slowly in on it’s great brass hinges…
SEE?! WTF is that?! In the first example, an entire day has passed with them walking and it’s just the next paragraph. In the second, it’s a matter of seconds and there is this obvious marking placed between the two paragraphs that one would only assume to mean that there is some sort of drastic change in setting or time. You can also get an idea of how the dialogue works from the second example too.
The next problem is the overuse and abuse of “big” words and what a 3rd grader would consider to be an eloquent writing style. From the first page of the book:
In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost amond the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the house and the days of it and the years with cease.
This is a pretty mild example simply because I’m too tired to want to actually dig through and find some really brain cramping lines. The whole book is written like this. I’ve had easier reads through Shakespeare than some parts of this book. Sure it’s all comprehensible but it’s pointless, it’s like showing off. Another annoying thing is that McCarthy seems to have something against the word “on.” He repeatedly replaces it with the word “in.” Like there will be lines such as “As the boy lay in the floor, the man watched over him.” Ummmm… so is the boy laying on the floor or did he somehow manage to meld with it and get into it? If so how did he get out? Sometimes you’ll see things like “He set the jar in the table and searched the kitchen for something to pry it with.” Again, he set the jar “in” the table?
I think this is going to be one of those rare examples of where the movie greatly outshines the book it is based upon. The only other example I can think of a movie doing this is Fight Club. That might be a biased statement though as I had seen Fight Club numerous times long before I tried to read the book. I say tried because I only got maybe a quarter of the way through before I felt like I was being talked down to by a small child with a learning disability. In the movie the big twist with Tyler isn’t really even something you begin to notice until long into the movie. In the book, it’s as if you’re being beat over the head with it to the point that if you only started to think about the big twist at the same point in the book as you did in the movie, you’d feel like you were mentally handicapped. Maybe that will be another post but let’s get back on topic.
When I first picked up The Road is when I found out that the same author had written No Country for Old Men. I figured I would read that right after finishing The Road because I loved the movie. At this point I’m glad I didn’t just buy the book at the same time, because I have no intention nor desire to ever read anything written by McCarthy again. I’d sooner commission my 9 year old niece to write me a story than pick up another one of his books. I couldn’t fathom how this guys writing could be turned into such an amazing movie as No Country turned out to be. Expressing this to my friend Dan earlier today he said “It’s easy, their names are Ethan and Joel (Coen.)” And that’s true, just about everything the Coen brothers have made is pure genius.
So I have high hopes for the movie adaptation of The Road, but I would strongly suggest you take my rant/review into consideration before trying to read The Road.