‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy is the most scaring novel I’ve read in years. Although regarded by most critics as a ‘post-apocalyptic’ piece – there are brief hints that bombs have gone off – it’s hard not to see this particular apocalypse as an effect of climate change rather than nuclear holocaust. The landscape through which a father and his young son trudge is unremittingly ashen and whenever forests, buildings, cars, a train, even people, are encountered, they have been burned to a crisp. The original catastrophe is several years in the past when the book opens and no plants or animals have survived. What is probably a very small number of desperately dilapidated survivors roams the freezing continent searching for food in houses and shops that were thoroughly looted ages ago. Sometimes the wanderers shoot and eat each other.
Throughout my reading of the book I assumed that the fictional holocaust was modelled on the almost annual Californian brush fires – dramatically chronicled by Mike Davis here (plus a review (1998) of his prophetic ‘Ecology of Fear’ here) and extended to a situation in which climate change had created ‘perfect fire’ conditions across at least the whole of North America. This may, on reflection, have been an excitable reading at odds with the evidence produced by the author. But the timing, the tone and the terror resonate compellingly with all that I am concluding about the climatic climax to our days.
Echoes of other ‘post-apocalyptic’ works abound in the book. ‘The Road’ conjures up any number of recollections of its genre predecessors: a less well known one, perhaps, would be Stanley Kramer’s ‘On the Beach’ (1959), a Cold War gloomer in which Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins deal with a world in which only Australia is left habitable.
A submarine, submerged when the bombs went off, docks in a deserted New York, drawn by an erratic Morse code message the crew is picking up from somewhere in the city. After tense search scenes, the sailors burst into a room whence the message is being transmitted. With a mixture of regret and relief they find that the cord of a window blind, flapping by an open window, has become caught around a toppled Coca-Cola bottle and is bouncing it up and down on the key of a Morse device.
While certain inevitable associations will insinuate themselves, mostly from genre forms (with the exception of ‘Robinson Crusoe’), one of the remarkable things about the book is that its proximity to genre only serves to emphasise that it is not a genre work. Closest, in these terms, to science fiction, it describes, albeit speculatively, a horizon that was once a fictionalised place of titillating adventure and character-building survivalism and is now simply the future. I think it’s the only book I’ve read that made me, towards its dreadful conclusion, suddenly break down and weep.