The Road

November 9, 2009 | 76 comments
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In two weeks, The Road will open in US theaters. Based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, this is a film that I have been looking forward to with a mix of hope and trepidation. Hope that it will be true to the book, trepidation that it might actually put the images in my mind onto the big screen in all of their horrific glory.

This was a book that I read before the Pulitzer, before Oprah put her stamp of approval on it (I hate that I am so snotty that I have to offer those disclaimers, but there you go). It’s also a book that I had to read in small chunks, pausing to set it aside and go hug – hold, really – my son, Zachary.

Viggo Mortensen in The Road

Viggo Mortensen in The Road

Zach is the son that I thought of as I read the novel. He is the son old enough to walk with me on the road, the one young enough to be innocent and trusting. As I followed the father through this journey, Zach is the son I watched along the way, exposing my fears, eliciting tears.

The Road is heavy. It is a book of visceral, lyrical prose that forces us to contemplate questions we don’t want to ask. It reaches deep into the darkest fears of a father and calls upon the strongest of protective instincts. I still feel an oppressive sense of dread and panic as I think and remember.

If you haven’t read it, go read it. Now. You have two weeks.

All reports that I have seen indicate that the film is true to the book. That it captures the bleakness and magnifies it to dark and stifling proportions. And yet, still, it captures the hope, the love, the sacrifice. From an early Esquire movie review:

You should see it for the simplest of reasons: Because it is a good story. Not because it may be important. Not because it is unforgettable, unyielding. Not because it horrifies. Not because the score is creepily spiritual. Not because it is littered with small lines of dialogue you will remember later. Not because it contains warnings against our own demise. All of that is so. Don’t see it just because you loved the book. The movie stands alone. Go see it because it’s two small people set against the ugly backdrop of the world undone. A story without guarantees. In every moment — even the last one — you’ll want to know what happens next, even if you can hardly stand to look. Because The Road is a story about the persistence of love between a father and a son, and in that way it’s more like a remake of The Godfather than some echo of I Am Legend.

Only this one is different: You won’t want to see this one twice.

The persistence of love between a father and a son. Our most cherished relationships, our strongest commitments, laid bare in a book and a movie. I’ll be there, opening night.

image: The Road official website

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76 Responses to The Road

  1. Rory Swensen on November 9, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Note: The film is rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language. This is an unlikely candidate for a clean flicks version, so make of that what you will.

    Please do not turn this post into a debate about the R rating. I’d like a discussion about what this story conveys about survival, devotion, duty, and the love of a father.

  2. sfw on November 9, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    I read the book several months ago. I share your concern that the movie will fail to portray the vividness of the book. Nonetheless, the movie looks promising.

  3. Hunter on November 9, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    I’ve tried and tried (twice!) to give this book a chance. But to no avail. Based on your review, I will go give it another try.

  4. Steve Evans on November 9, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Good heavens. The book was horrifying, in a more real and powerful way than anything Stephen King has written. The movie — even sanitized (they have stripped out one of the more harrowing sequences) — will be frightening on levels people may not be able to handle. Ultimately a story of sacrifice and devotion and hope, yes, but not for the faint of heart.

  5. camay on November 9, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    One of the most beautiful heartwrenching books I have read. The language haunts me.

  6. Rory Swensen on November 9, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    @Steve Evans:

    What sequence did they strip out?

  7. Steve Evans on November 9, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Baby.

  8. gst on November 9, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I read this book. I think Steve Evans sent me his copy, which I then sent to DKL. I can only describe it as a delightful romp through the Old West.

  9. jjohnsen on November 9, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    I bought this when it was released because I’ve been a fan of McCarthy’s other books. This one quickly became my favorite thing he’s written, and I can’t wait to see the movie. Even though both characters are male in the book, I kept unconsciously substituting my oldest daughter’s face for the child, which made the whole thing that much more terrifying.

    I keep recommending the book to others, and so far most people either aren’t interested after reading the synopsis, or give up because they don’t like the style.

  10. warno on November 9, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    This is a powerful book that, much like stated in the OP, touched me as a father in an almost spiritual way. Some of the images are horrifying but it almost takes those images, full of desolation and despair, to adequately create the context for the relationship between father and son.

    I am hopeful for the film but it will be tough to live up to the book.

  11. mpb on November 9, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    GST, that description pretty much suits all of McCarthy’s work. Except, of course, his handful of novels that are set in the East (of which the Road is thought to be one).

    Anecdotally, my experience tells me that 80% of Mormons who set out to read the Road come away hating it. I can’t imagine the movie will fare much better.

  12. Geoff B on November 9, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    As Steve says, this book is not for the faint of heart. Just so people know, there is an extensive amount of cannibalism, violence and just plain evil in this book. I know a lot of people who would be absolutely horrified reading this book.

    Having said that, there are also themes that will ring true with Latter-day Saints. The father’s sense of sacrifice is truly admirable, and I think I can say I am not spoiling the ending by saying it ends on a hopeful note.

    I’d be curious to get others’ thoughts on why the father does not stay with his son in the underground shelter longer. That seemed nonsensical to me — perhaps I missed something.

  13. Geoff B on November 9, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Regarding #11, the geography is not at all specifici, but I thought the book was based in the West and that he ends up along the coastline of Mexico. But I could be wrong.

  14. Julie M. Smith on November 9, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    This movie was filmed in Austin. At the time, my kids were in a musical and the director got the casting call notice and passed it on to me because she thought my son would be perfect for the role of the son. I nearly fainted. Needless to say, he did not audition.

  15. Julie M. Smith on November 9, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Clarifying: she got an email when they were doing a casting call here; I think it was actually filmed in Pennsylvania.

  16. Christopher Bigelow on November 9, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    #12: Maybe the father’s last act of sacrifice was to spare his son from his (the father’s) final death throes.

    If not the most powerful novel I’ve ever read—and it well could be—it’s definitely in the top three. Years later, it still affects how I view fatherhood.

    But I don’t approve of the leaving out of apostrophes…

  17. Adam on November 9, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    #12

    That was incredibly frustrating to me as well.

    #13

    I thought it was taking place in the West for the first half of the book, but something mid-way tipped me off that they were traveling to the East Coast. Don’t remember what it was right away, but the map they are viewing in the trailer confirms that they’re going East.

  18. mpb on November 9, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    #13, #17

    In the opening chapters there is mention of a billboard or farm roof advertising a visit to “Rocky Top”, I believe. If you’ve ever been to Tennessee, you know what I’m talking about. At any rate, I read a short piece once on the theory that the novel originates in the Knoxville area, travels through the smokies, then to the coast one one of the Carolinas.

    Of course, for the life of me I can’t find that link right now…

    I’m not sure the geography matters all that much, except to the extent that possibly it conjures up imagery that parallels the Civil War. Other than that, I think McCarthy was simply making a nod to his Tennessee roots and having some fun in the process.

  19. mpb on November 9, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    FWIW:

    http://web.utk.edu/~wmorgan/TR/route.htm

    (also, the sign reads “See Rock City”, which itself located in Chattanooga, and you see the signs traveling all up and down I-75 between there and Knoxville)

  20. Ardis Parshall on November 9, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    In case nobody else is willing to admit to being a wimp, I’ll volunteer: There’s no way I could read this book or watch this movie. I felt ill just reading a synopsis a few minutes ago.

    There. Now nobody else has to think she’s the only one.

  21. Derek Lines on November 9, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    I read the book in one day, from 11 AM after I got it from the library until 1AM (pausing for meals and childcare). Just a warning to all you potential readers–there are no chapter breaks! I’m a little OCD in that I usually can’t stop until an end of the chapter.

    Curse you Cormac McCarthy for not putting in chapters, which forced me to walk “the Road” for 14 mesmerizing, agonizing hours! I ended the book, exhausted and feeling bleak. McCarthy is a brilliant author that sets you right down on the road and refuses to let you look away from the darkness. Do I really need that much gloom and depravity (no matter how well written) to appreciate the small glimmers of light, love, and devotion? Not this reader.

    Count me out for the movie. When it comes to wasted-world, post-apocalyptic movies mixed with love and devotion I’ll look to a far better movie–Wall-E.

  22. Wm Morris on November 9, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    The Road is what happens when someone writes post-apocalyptic fiction without a serious grounding in real speculative fiction. It’s a harrowing reading experience to be sure, but it falls to pieces upon closer examination and is clumsy in its effect — which then means it doesn’t really deserve or rather earn the horrors it inflicts.

    It barely works as a horror novel. It doesn’t work at all as a post-apocalyptic novel. And it only really works as a literary novel if one reads it more as metaphysical allegory and if that’s the case then it is undone by its own attempts at precision and gritty detail without a base of world building. It’s all mood and no substance.

  23. Geoff B on November 9, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    mpb, that paper seems a pretty good discussion of the geographical situation and makes the case that the novel took place in the East. It may or may not be relevant that apparently McCarthy got the idea to write the novel while in El Paso.

  24. Rory Swensen on November 9, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    @#22 Wm Morris

    Ok. But did you like it?

  25. Kristine on November 9, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Ardis, I’m completely with you on this one. (And you thought we’d never agree on anything! :))

  26. Jettboy on November 9, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    What WM Morris said – and its chloroform in print boring. I tried reading it twice and still couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters. My suggestion is if this is the first book of this kind you have ever read, then go read “A Canticle for Leibowits” or “Alas Babylon” or even Orson Scott Card’s “The Folk of the Fringe” story collection.

  27. Wm Morris on November 9, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    Rory:

    Define like. I found it a gripping read — but I tend to be an indulgent reader. But the further I got into it, the more it pissed me off. I finished it because I wanted to see how McCarthy ended it. The ending was one of those rare instances where my reaction had a doubling to it — it was rather akin, in fact, to watching a church movie or some other piece of sentimental fare where you tear up a bit even as the exact same time you are aware that you are being manipulated.

    I did want him to earn the intensity and the poetics. I personally don’t think he does.

    Michael Chabon’s essay on The Road in his book Maps and Legends (and originally printed in the New York Review of Books) comes the closest to redeeming the novel for me with its reading of it as a horror novel.

  28. Ben Pratt on November 9, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    I may be as big a wimp as Ardis claims to be, but Wm.’s words will keep me away from this better than the darkness. I can’t stand stories in which the world-building stops right at the edge of the narrative, if even there. Give me a rich world!

  29. Ryan Bell on November 9, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    “This was a book that I read before the Pulitzer, before Oprah put her stamp of approval on it (I hate that I am so snotty that I have to offer those disclaimers, but there you go).”

    Yeah, that is pretty snotty.

    I loved the book. I love the themes that you highlight. Wm. is making me think hard about why, though.

  30. ZD Eve on November 9, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    Ardis (#2), I’m so right there with you.

    I first head about the book from a professor I was TAing for. He, I, and the other TA had met to compare our final grades. I had given birth to my daughter about six weeks before, and I was deep in postpartum depression (the fact that it was December and perpetually overcast didn’t help anything).

    The very last thing I needed to hear was the vivid and horrifying descriptions the professor and the other TA inadvertently inflicted on me in their discussion of the book. The images stayed with me for weeks.

    I have no doubt that the book is a literary masterpiece.

    I will never read it.

  31. Ardis Parshall on November 9, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Eve, I still haven’t been able to rid my mind of the images formed when I read quickly through Altman’s Tongue to know whether I wanted to send Brian Evenson some historical information he asked for — and that’s been years. I don’t know how and why some people seem to escape the effect, even benefit in some way as people are claiming for The Road, but I can’t.

  32. Rory Swensen on November 9, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    #31 Ardis

    I don’t know how and why some people seem to escape the effect, even benefit in some way as people are claiming for The Road, but I can’t.

    I’ll give this a shot, but I will likely fumble with the words.

    I find it difficult to be inspired by lofty or idealized works, and by labeling them lofty or idealized I immediately reveal my bias. Somehow, my nature thrives on the earthy, gritty world, and I am inspired when I witness normal people experience the difficulties of this world and yet show grace and love, duty and commitment.

    This can be as simple as witnessing the people around me, working through these difficult economic times. But in works like The Road, those temporal elements are magnified, the grittiness palpable, and the experience tangible. I leave a work like that changed, and while I can certainly understand your preference not to engage it because of the negative effects you experience, those elements somehow make the witnessing of the honorable and beautiful so much more exquisite and lasting for me.

    I am cognizant of the counsel not to dull our spirits with negative influences. I can only say that I am not advocating rolling in the mud to excess, only that I believe “excess” varies according to the individual. For me, feeling the grit and loving the imperfect and the ugly of this world – of this temporal experience – seems to honor our experience here. And in those dark times, the occasional transcendent moment allows me to glimpse the face of God.

  33. Rosalynde Welch on November 9, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    (Eve—you have a daughter? I don’t know if this is a recent occurrence, or whether I simply have been under a mistaken impression for lo these many years in the bloggernacle. Either way—it makes me extraordinarily happy to think of you with a daughter. Most heartfelt congratulations!)

  34. Cameron Nielsen on November 9, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    @32 – thanks for your comments Rory. I don’t believe I’ll read this book or watch the movie, but I think I can understand how you feel.

    I’ve watched only a handful of R movies in my life, but Letters from Iwo Jima had some moments that come close to the feelings you describe.

  35. Kaimi Wenger on November 9, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    (It’s recent, Ros, and she’s adorable.)

  36. Clay on November 9, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    I’ve yet to know of a woman (aside from Oprah) who liked The Road. It seems to be moving in a specifically masculine way. There is probably some societal gender conditioning at play there to which we are all patsies.

    I consumed it as an audiobook, so the unusual writing style didn’t touch me directly. I just double-checked and it is the unabridged version. I had to check because I am surprised by the claims of deep horror and disturbance at specific imagery. I remember three scenes which could be pretty bad, but really, not *that* bad. When I saw an older IMDB listing for it, which listed it as rated R for (among other things) “infanticide”, I was a little worried that the filmmaker might amplify a particular scene… making it more graphic than the book, for shock value.

    I felt McCarthy’s sharpest weapon was not graphic depiction at all, because to me there was very little. It was allusions and fear of terrible things. Things you knew were going on. You didn’t see them, but you knew they were happening, at some point in time.

    For me the book was haunting because of what it didn’t “show”, and I’m hoping the movie will exercise artistic restraint.

  37. Norbert on November 10, 2009 at 12:14 am

    I really liked it, and oddly enough I cannot recall the horror of it. I disagree completely with WM Morris. The claustrophobia of limited knowledge adds to the psychological realism of the book rather than detracts from it.

    It definitely affected me as a father more than anything else.

    Having said that, I don’t think it’s perfect. It would have been better if 50 pages shorter … but that’s true of most novels.

    I doubt I’ll see the movie. I’m nervous about a big studio treatment of anything I care about.

  38. camay on November 10, 2009 at 12:18 am

    I am a woman and loved the book. Some of the most beautiful restrained language I’ve read. “The Book Thief” and “The Road” make my top 10.

  39. RT on November 10, 2009 at 10:38 am

    This book did not work for me, at all. While I’m normally ok with a spartan writing style, this one was just too much. I found it hard to follow, and harder still to stay engaged with. I got incredibly bored with it about halfway through, which suprised me given the acclaim the book had already gotten (unlike Rory, I got to it post-Pulitzer). I ultimately pushed through it for no other reason than just to see how it ended.

    As for the story itself, the father/son relationship was incredibly powerful. I also thought the questions posed by the mother’s, umm, alternate choice were really thought-provoking.

    But for me, the good that came from those two themes was far outweighed by the bad in this book. This book is full of incredibly horrific images, and there are some particular moments that I really, really wish I could unsee.

    All in all, I thought the limited good that came from thinking about the father/son relationship in this light was far outweighed by the darkness that permeated everything else. I really wish I had not read this book.

  40. mpb on November 10, 2009 at 11:16 am

    I have to say that I am endlessly fascinated by the contrast in sensibilities like those manifested by Rory (#32) and RT (#38). I tend to end up where Rory does most of the time. That’s why I love McCarthy. He digs down to that place of deep despair and hopelessness that I have felt many times, and often only gives you a small glimmer of the domination of the human condition, but it is always just enough. For example, I felt a hundred times more inspired by the last paragraphs of No Country For Old Men than I did, say, Forrest Gump.

  41. SLO Sapo on November 10, 2009 at 11:21 am

    As a lesson in enduring to the end, The Road is hands down superior to anything I’ve heard over the pulpit or in a Sunday School/priesthood lesson.

  42. gst on November 10, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    I have a question about cannibals keeping slaves for their food value, which, if I recall correctly, is portrayed in the book. Don’t our protagonists stumble upon a dungeon of prisoners being kept alive for future consumption? A living person might have some food value, but isn’t he an inefficient storage mechanism for the calories? That is, doesn’t he cost more calories to keep alive than he is worth nutritionally? So I think McCarthy erred here.

    By the way, this is the kind of stuff you have to think about if you read this book, so caveat lector.

  43. gst on November 10, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    By the way, the Mormon solution occurs to me: canning!

  44. Geoff B on November 10, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Comments 41 and 42: Yuck!

  45. bfwebster on November 10, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    I enjoyed “The Road” and found it well-written and powerful, but I do agree with the comments above that both McCarthy himself and many of those praising the originality and uncompromising harshness of his work appear to have read little of the extensive post-apocalyptic literature of the past 60 years.

    McCarthy’s contribution lies largely in his writing style and in his unremitting bleakness (though see “On the Beach” by Nevil Shute [1957] and “Triumph” by Philip Wylie [1963]). It is a great addition to the PA literature, but it is neither new nor unique. ..bruce..

  46. ZD Eve on November 10, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    (Thanks for your kind words, Rosalynde and Kaimi. Our daughter, who was a completely unexpected and delightful surprise, was born last November. She just turned one.)

  47. RT on November 10, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    mpb wrote “I have to say that I am endlessly fascinated by the contrast in sensibilities like those manifested by Rory (#32) and RT (#38). I tend to end up where Rory does most of the time.”

    I actually do, too. Just not here.

  48. ECS on November 10, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    I liked The Road (yay for me and Oprah!). I liked McCarthy’s terse, evocative writing style. Very moving. The storyline seems quietly familiar, yet shockingly distinct from our soft version of reality that includes central heating, indoor plumbing, and well-stocked grocery stores.

    I didn’t like, however, McCarthy’s gratuitous emotional manipulation (SPOILER!) he evokes by the clumsy and contrived image of an infant human baby roasting on a stick over an open fire. Could have done without that image in my brain, Cormac.

    I may or may not see the movie, I’m worried it could degenerate into a melodramatic, non-campy version of Mad Max (circa 1979). Although Viggo Mortenson is an excellent, excellent choice for the lead.

  49. jdub on November 10, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    #35: Fwiw, I am a woman, and I loved The Road. As did my sister (who recommended it to me) and my mother and other women to whom I have since recommended the book.

    I have read the last 10 pages or so over again countless times and still get teary-eyed. I found it incredibly moving for many of the same reasons others have described. The persistence of hope in the darkest circumstances is miraculous and beautiful and heartwrenching.

  50. Davis Bell on November 10, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    I saw this movie as part of a test audience. I am sorry to say that it doesn’t come close to doing justice to the book.

  51. Chelsea on November 10, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    This book gripped me to the point that I read the entire thing in less than 24 hours (ironically neglecting my son in the process). It is truly a powerful, life-changing work.

    That said, I’m not sure I ever want to read it again. It was that intense an experience for me. I will probably see the movie though.

  52. Utahn in CT on November 10, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    I like very much what Rory Swenson (esp. #32) writes on McCarthy. If you really want to prepare for _The Road_, first read his _All the Pretty Horses_. This will prepare you for his use of language. You might also try his masterpiece (or, greatest book, if you like), _Blood Meridian_, though this is, if anything, more violent than _The Road_. McCarthy is one of the greatest living American writers (which among other things means that he doesn’t need to read other writers’ speculative, post-apocalyptic fiction to write _The Road_, and it also means he can leave the apostrophes out if he damn well chooses to).

    Our modern Western societies have created physical and moral infernos not all that unlike what McCarthy describes– think of our world wars and holocausts. That’s enough for any sane person to reject the possibility of meaning inhering in this world. McCarthy helps us find meaning, when our reason would cause us to doubt its possibility. As Rory writes (editing his words slightly), McCarthy helps us to “feel the grit and love the imperfect and the ugly of this world – of this temporal experience – [thus helping us] to honor our experience here. And in those dark times, the occasional transcendent moment allows [us] to glimpse the face of God.” If you are a Mormon agnostic or a Mormon atheist (rejecting the Mormon God but loving the “thiswordliness” of Mormonism — or even if you can imagine yourself feeling this way, say at certain times in your life — then I think McCarthy has a lot that you will find appealing.

    As for finding a God (the son in _The Road_ is a sort of stand-in for God for the father in the novel, a belief in the ultimate transcendence of the human race, or at least a refusal not to lose faith in this future), well, some would say this is McCarthy going a bit soft in his old age after he had a son of his own in a late marriage. The utterly godless world of _Blood Meridian_ might arguably be more “authentic McCarthy.”

  53. Michael Umphrey on November 11, 2009 at 1:11 am

    I find that fact that some people found the book gripping and memorable to be more interesting than the book itself, which I found to be pretentious and dull.

  54. Jon Ogden on November 11, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Perhaps the most memorable novel I’ve ever read. I read it nearly two years ago, but I still think about it daily.

  55. Velska on November 11, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I’m a fairly voracious reader, and seem to have a fairly original imagination that sees things different than others much of the time. That is why the imagery of movies often disappoints me.

    And that was partially why Peter Jackson’s LOTR worked for me so well — it didn’t go anywhere near what I had imagined.

    The only book I’ve been unable to finish so far has been American Psycho. I was curious about the book, because of what people were saying. Then at a certain point I just said, “okay, this guy is psycho, point taken,” and put down the book. I got through Oliver Twist with sheer tenacity (19th-century literature is mostly very dull for me), and then liked Pickwick Papers. And was lately surprised by myself liking Jane Austen. I like McCarthy. I probably won’t want to have the imagery of this book trampled on by the movie…

  56. Wm Morris on November 11, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    I still find McCarthy’s minimalism troubling (and kinda lame) for many reasons, but I appreciate the continued responses and Steve Evans has convinced me to read _Blood Meridian_ and Utahn in CT has reinforced that decision.

  57. Wm Morris on November 11, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    (although I still think that _The Road_ is Tuesdays with Morrie but with cannibals)

  58. ZD Eve on November 11, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    William, that delightful description gives me two very compelling reasons never to crack the book!

  59. Ardis Parshall on November 11, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    32: I’m late getting back to this, but thank you, Rory, for addressing my question.

    I’m just built differently, I suppose. I can take real horror and go to very dark real places — I’m thinking of some of the best Vietnam POW memoirs — precisely because of the hope that comes through (I wouldn’t last long with a memoir of someone who abandoned his humanity). But I can’t take fictional ones. Maybe it’s because I know at some level that some spark of humanity triumphed in the actual history, but I can’t trust a fictional author not to leave me in those dark places just because he can. That’s one reason I despise Evenson’s depraved writing.

  60. Joseph West on November 11, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    What I have to say has been said, more or less by others. So for what it’s worth. . .

    My opinion is that in cultural perspective, The Road is best analyzed alongside the zombie survivalist genre (the cannibals are basically zombies). These films are a communal exploration of dark fantasies that result from a sense of impending apocalyptic disaster. So basically, cultural production of this kind is to our community what dark fantasies of death and destruction — resulting from what Freud described as the “death drive” — are to individuals. There is a collective sense of impending danger and death and to deal with it, we fantasize about it, even embrace it at times. There is a certain power that results from facing dark fears and embracing them. Amor Fati, as Nietzsche would say.

    Some argue that this kind of fantasizing is immoral because it may encourage us to accept pending disaster instead of actively seeking to circumvent that disaster. There is some merit to that, I think. But I also think that the fear that results from never confronting the dark fantasy is just as dangerous and as potentially debilitating.

    Related to this is this emerging cultural practice of zombie walks, along with the whole Max Brooks, World War Z, zombie survival guide stuff. People get WAY into the whole zombie thing. You can find escape plans for every major city in the United States for when the zombies attack. Very fascinating, and in my opinion, very much a sign of the times. It’s a mythology that resonates quite deeply.

    Seriously though, will you be ready when the zombies attack?

  61. Observer on November 11, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Ardis, Did you end up lending Evenson an historical hand? Do you know what his project at the time was/whether it saw the light of day?

  62. Joseph West on November 11, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Oh, the other thing I meant to say is that there is something distinctly American about certain cultural manifestations of survivalist fantasy. Americans are individualistic and arrogant enough to believe, pretty much across the board, that when the disaster strikes and the zombies attack, that they’ll be one of the few who live to tell about the adventure.

    Truth be told, when the zombies do attack, you better hope that your recommend is current and that you live close to a bunch of Mormons, cause if you think about it, we’re the most prepared people (in terms of social infrastructure as well as temporal preparedness) in all the land.

  63. Utahn in CT on November 11, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Please, please, how to ask this nicely–stop it with the zombie survivalist stuff. The Road should be read not as cult fiction, but as high fiction. McCarthy’s project, in my view, is to assume that the world does not in fact work according to the Enlightenment ideals that we have assumed for the past two hundred plus years that it does. OK, he says, then where is meaning? And he proceeds to give some suggestions. It is not horror for horror’s sake, it is not American Psycho, it is not Altmann’s Tongue. And as for McCarthy’s writing style, well, some people don’t like Melville or Faulkner either.

  64. Rory Swensen on November 11, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    #61 – Joseph West

    I have turned my focus from stockpiling ammunition to stockpiling Twinkies. Spongy, yellow, and delicious.

  65. Rory Swensen on November 11, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    #62: Utahn in CT

    What you said. Thank you for pointing out that this is not horror for horror’s sake.

  66. Joseph West on November 11, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Ok well, sorry to offend your delicate artistic sensibilities with the comparison. :-)

    In case it wasn’t clear, I’m untrained in literary critique and wouldn’t pretend to understand McCarthy’s work from that perspective. My thoughts pertain to the cultural/sociological significance of the widespread cultural consumption of this kind of art. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter what the cultural elites with their pure gaze, and better understanding of “high fiction”, think about the artistic meaning of The Road. What the film, and especially the wide spread (future) consumption of the film, means to us as a society is very much comparable to what zombie survivalist films means. S’all I’m sayin. If you’d like to challenge that point, you’ll need to do more than make an appeal to bourgeois aesthetic sensibilities about what constitutes “high” vs. “low” fiction.

  67. Thomas Parkin on November 11, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    There is a kind of principle of inversion in McCarthy’s novels. That is, the least hopeful the circumstances he creates, the more the book is about hope. So that while the Road is his bleakest book, it is also ultimately his most hopeful. (OTOH, in Cities of the Plain he created a world where you can imagine finding a normal, happy life, but it is his least hopeful book.) (You might have trouble finding the hope in Blood Meridian – if you do, e-mail me and I’ll show it to you very clearly.)

    The Esquire review gave me a lot of hope for this movie.

    I actually finished the novel flying into Salt Lake. I wept openly for a couple minutes. Maybe my seat mate thought I was flying in for a funeral? Was completely devastated by it. Didn’t help that I have a young son who calls me Papa. ~

  68. Ardis Parshall on November 11, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Observer, he was writing about the murder of a prostitute by a grandson of Brigham Young (poke around T&S for my “Murder in the Metropolis” to read about that historical event). But it turned out that Evenson wasn’t at all interested in what really happened, just in being able to throw enough real names and dates into his warped and contrary-to-history narrative to be able to claim it had a factual basis. No, I didn’t waste my material on that.

  69. Utahn in CT on November 11, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    I apologize if I came off too hoity-toity. I just want to defend McCarthy from misunderstandings. Once an author produces a work, he or she can’t control its reception, that is true. As for consumption of the book vs. the film, I believe McCarthy’s work is of Nobel Prize quality (as is that of one or two other American authors), and if this sort of recognition were granted, then I would say that his books would definitely outlast any films made of them. The books will probably last anyway. Blood Meridian certainly has been “canonized” as measured by its being taught in college courses (Yale is only one example). By the way, throughout most of his career McCarthy couldn’t give a fig for how his work was received. He didn’t even give interviews–not a single interview–until the Oprah interview in 2007.

  70. Utahn in CT on November 11, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Thomas Parkin, OK, I’ll bite. Where do you find hope in Blood Meridian? I don’t find hope. Meaning, significance, yes; hope, I’m not sure.

  71. Wm Morris on November 11, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Literary fiction (or the particular brand practiced in the U.S.) thinks it can pick up the tools of genre and do something with it (and has increasingly turned to genre to juice itself up). Sometimes it can. Often it can’t. That’s a defect of literary artists — not of readers or of genre elements.

    And I say this as someone who loves both literary and genre fiction (esp. sf/f) and really loves when the two meet. In particular, I think that McCarthy’s literary realism combined with his minimalism works against him. GST’s example above is one of the most glaring. If _The Road_ had gone a bit further in to allegory or metaphysics then perhaps it would have worked better. But literary artists tend to avoid that or conversely go heavy-handed with it. Both are forms of cowardice, imo.

    Sadly, the other potentially great post-apocalyptic very American work of fiction Stephen King’s Dark Tower series engaged in its own form of cowardice in the latter part of the series with the move towards post-modern play of the author and what looked to me like a move for literary respectability.

    Combine McCarthy and King and you might have a great American epic.

  72. Russell Arben Fox on November 11, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    the other potentially great post-apocalyptic very American work of fiction: Stephen King’s Dark Tower series

    I take exception to this, William; King’s “great post-apocalyptic very American work of fiction” is clearly The Stand. I haven’t been able to wade all the way through the Dark Tower series, and there may be a lot of fine writing there that I’ve missed out on, but whole thing, as you say, just tended too much towards self-reference and an ostentatious sewing together of disparate worlds–completion for completion’s sake, really–to work. But that doesn’t mean King’s effort to create a great American post-apocalyptic epic failed; on the contrary, he’d already finished writing it over a decade before any of the Dark Tower books were published. The Stand is not King’s scariest book, and it’s not a perfect book, but it’s a mighty, mighty post-apocalyptic/religious allegory monument of writing.

  73. Gina on November 11, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    #55 Wm. Morris, I think McCarthy is an absolute genius. I love his Border Trilogy about as much as I could possibly love a book, and I really liked The Road. I couldn’t wait to read Blood Meridian, “greatest work of 20th century fiction”, etc. I have a pretty high tolerance for all sorts of things in fiction; ie I don’t think of The Road as even remotely gratuitously violent or over-the-top disturbing. But you should know before reading Blood Meridian that it is one of the most relentlessly violent books, with so many in-your-face descriptions of things I’ll refrain from mentioning, that I could imagine. As stunning as the writing was, I have to say it’s one of the few things I actually regret reading. I do believe my spirit was dulled by so much gratuitous, awful violence. And I found no redemption or hope in it. Thomas Parkin, I’d be interested.

  74. Wm Morris on November 11, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    Thanks for the warning, Gina. I have read several reviews and pieces of literary criticism relating to McCarthy’s work so I’m going in with eyes open.

    Also: I don’t believe in genius. Well, maybe Shakespeare and Joseph Smith. But I’m not seeing it at all in McCarthy. Perhaps I’ll change my mind after reading more of his work.

    RAF: I agree. But just think if he could have pulled of the Dark Tower series alongside The Stand! (which is probably his non-Dark Tower novel that has the most resonance with the Dark Tower series, although bits and pieces show up from all of his other books, apparently. I’ve only read The Stand and The Dark Tower books).

    I will say that the Dark Tower up until about 65% of the way through the Wolves of Calla and with the original literary minimalism version of The Gunslinger is pretty good.

  75. Utahn in CT on November 12, 2009 at 12:20 am

    Yale’s Harold Bloom, a lover of both Blood Meridian and Joseph Smith, weighs in on the violence in McCarthy’s masterwork here:
    http://www.avclub.com/articles/harold-bloom-on-blood-meridian,29214/

  76. SLO Sapo on November 12, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Speaking of McCarthy, I’m about two thirds of the way through Suttree, and I just ran across this passage:

    “With the change he bought a candy bar and he sat alone on a bench in the empty waiting room in his blanket eating the candy in micesized bites and reading from a black leatherette copy of the Book of Mormon he found in a pamphlet rack. The candy he managed to get down but the words of the book swam off the page eerily and he thought he’d never read a stranger tale.”