Friday, April 30, 2010

The Critical Essay: The Road

In the same MFA application aforementioned, I was also asked to write a critical essay about some aspect of craft. This rather open-ended question made me tear my hair out in tiny tufts, which I then superglued to my miniature troll, who now sports Chinese dreds. Just kidding. Or am I?

In fiction, setting and character are typically defined with specific attributes that are either fictional or real. People and places have names and readers adjust their mindset based on the data provided by the author, such as “heavyset, middle-aged Caucasian, Bob Goldfarb, living in Beijing in the year 1985.” However, when authors choose to cloak their settings and characters in anonymity, a different relationship is created between the reader and the work. In this essay, I will explore how Cormac McCarthy’s use of anonymity in setting and character has a notable impact on the reader’s experience of his 2006 novel, The Road.

In The Road, McCarthy presents a post-apocalyptic journey of a man and his son struggling to survive in a barren and unforgiving world. From the beginning of the novel, the reader enters a world where time and place are not revealed. The titular “road” and its environs are described in detail, but where the road lies is never disclosed. The two main characters are referred to only as “the man” and “the boy” or “the child” throughout the novel. Suspended in a world sans bearings, the reader is plunged into an environment similar to the man’s own as described on page 11: “Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief.” The breath that sustains the reader through the novel’s uncoupled world is the voice of the man, as the novel’s third person limited point of view is based on his perspective.

McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world is full of gruesome details, but the unidentified locations described in a matter-of-fact tone creates distance between the reader and the macabre:
The city was mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. (12)
Had McCarthy identified the city as an actual city, e.g. Los Angeles, the reader’s reaction would be fraught with his own feelings and associations with Los Angeles. Imagining Los Angeles “mostly burned” evokes visceral sentiments, while the desolation of an unnamed city feels remote. The reader remains as untethered as the man and the boy as the story moves from one nameless place to the next.

The nondescript leathery corpse in the quote above also garners little sympathy from the reader. Throughout the novel, the dead are part of the setting and described as objects rather than people:
They passed a metal trashdump where someone had once tried to burn bodies. The charred meat and bones under the damp ash might have been anonymous save for the shapes of the skulls. No longer any smell. (150)
This removed approach to the dead not only provides distance for the reader, but also illustrates how de-sensitized the man has become, since he is the one relating the grisly details around him. By creating an impersonal world of devastation, McCarthy channels the reader’s sympathy away from the surroundings and towards the main characters instead.

The people are just as anonymous as the places in The Road. Not only do the man and the boy remain nameless, but their physical descriptions are vague as well. In a rare instance when the man comments on the boy’s appearance, he describes how the environment has affected his son rather than pointing out distinguishing features: “The boy was so thin. [The man] watched him as he slept. Taut face and hollow eyes. A strange beauty.” This perspective is starkly realistic, since a father would hardly describe the color of his own child’s hair and eyes to himself. Without providing defining characteristics, McCarthy lets the reader fill in the details himself. However, the anonymity of the characters does not evoke detachment, but a sense of closeness and universality. The man and the boy could be anyone, including someone the reader knows or even the reader himself.

Without set identities, the distance between the reader and the man narrows as the narrative delves deeper into the man’s perspective. McCarthy reinforces this by jumping into second person at key moments, such as when the man considers shooting the boy to save him from torture at the hands of the enemy:
Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if it doesn’t fire? It has to fire. What if it doesn’t fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? (114)
The reader imagines himself in the same circumstances, facing the same heartbreaking decisions as this “any man”, anywhere. The universality of the man’s struggle becomes even more apparent against this backdrop of anonymity.

McCarthy’s use of anonymity in The Road has a dual effect on the reader. On the one hand, it distances the reader from the horror of a post-apocalyptic world, while on the other, it draws the reader close to the man and the boy. The macabre does not take over the story and the focus stays on the internal struggles of the characters. By means of indeterminate settings and faceless characters, The Road’s underlying humanity shines in its rawest form.

Work cited:
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage International, 2006. Print.

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