I don't like dystopian novels or end-of-the-world scenarios much. I don't like allegories either. My reason is that the novel is an art work that works best exploring particularity, not in reducing everything to to an idea or a warning. I often find these dystopian (or utopian for that matter), or allegorical novels predictable once you grasp the concept they're working out. The "how" has to be awfully good for me to be happy finishing a novel that's predictable.
That said what saved The Road
for me (which I still liked least of the three McCarthy novels I've read) was the "how" and style and tone are a big part of that. McCarthy's style is always spare and understated with a bleak view of human experience. There's always a narrator who sees violence close to the surface of the action. The controlled and understated style—
and the narrator, experienced with the worst humans are capable of, behind that style—
is what always raises a McCarthy novel above the crowd. That was true in Blood Meridian, his best novel in my opinion, and in All the Pretty Horses, the only other one I've read.
I think the key to tone and style in The Road
is that McCarthy assumes the particulars of what happened. As readers we're supposed to know because it's the reality of anyone who's still alive to read a book. There's no preaching, no warning about how to avoid this end, only the tiniest hints even of what really happened—
images of cities burning, etc. There's no account of "where the man was when it happened" (the way we all know where we were when we heard of Kennedy's death or of 9/11). We know practically nothing of the man's past. We don't know how long it's been—
though we can guess since we know the boy was born just after the catastrophe. But who was the man? Where did he live (somewhere in the southeast, maybe Tennessee, is where he was from since he shows it to the boy)? What was his occupation? What did he like to do? We know the bare bones of the boy's birth and the mother's suicide, but we don't even know how old the boy is or when the mother left or if the boy actually remembers his mother.
The style tells us right away that we're never going to know all those details that we're curious about—
that this particular narrator is not going to get angry about what happened or suddenly double back and fill us in on all the details of the catastrophe, or blame someone. What I generally hate about dystopian novels is all the focus on ideas and processes—
understanding what happened and why (presumably as a lesson).
It's important, by the way, to remember that there is a narrator, one who never reveals himself (I assume a he) but gets into the head of both the man and the boy. The narrator's story-telling style—
spare, understated, but enormously empathetic—
focuses on one man and his son and almost exclusively on their present, absolutely ignoring the reader's curiosity. No speculating about the future either. This narrator wants the reader to put himself or herself on that road, in those circumstances, to see and feel and taste what the man and the boy do, to force the reader to come to terms with the reality of that road, as the man has had to do in order to live himself and keep the boy not only alive but human. It's that spare but lyrical style that communicates the "lesson" of the novel—
that survival depends on accepting the present reality and that you also have to do more than that—
you have to maintain your humanity and pass your values on to the next generation, even if there's no hint of a viable future for that generation.
I admit I'd not have read this one had it not been chosen for a book group where I'm the moderator. I don't like this kind of book. But since I did read it, I have to admit that it's far superior to any other novel of this type that I have read and it's the narrative voice and the style that redeems it for me. McCarthy refuses to hit the reader over the head with the lessons of the post-catastrophe world. Like the good novelist he is, he forces you to pull any lessons out of the particulars of the novel's characters and their situation.