This is, just like Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book I studied in depth last year for English. I hadn’t heard about the book before reading it, and it was a strange experience. The book, written by Cormac McCarthy (author of No Country for Old Men) has won a Pulitzer prize (making it only the second Pulitzer prize winning book I have read, the other being To Kill a Mockingbird), as well as being featured on Oprah (not sure which achievement is greater…). It has great literary acclaim, and for once, despite it being literature, I didn’t mind it!
This book is bleak. It’s a step up in bleakness from Nineteen Eighty-Four which was also pretty depressive (so it makes sense I compared the two books on the theme of hope right!). And McCarthy’s writing most certainly adds to the very depressive mood. First, the two main characters who are father and son, are never named. Not once. I cannot think of another book with nameless protagonists (if you can, feel free to name them below). And yet, their names are inconsequential. I really feel, having names would have only detracted from the story. (Though it did make trying to talk about them in an essay challenging, all I could say was ‘the man’, ‘the boy’, ‘the father’, ‘the son’.)
Two, there are very few characters in this book. There’s the man, his son, his wife (though she died a while ago and is only seen briefly), a number of cannibals/vagrants, an old man on the road, a thief, and a good man. None of them actually is given a proper name, and all except the man and boy, aren’t in the story for very long. Which makes you feel very isolated as a reader. You start to feel just like the two characters who are all alone.
Three, the world itself is super bleak. There has been something like a nuclear disaster or cataclysmic volcanic event, so the sky is always grey, there’s no sunlight so all plant life is essentially dead, it’s bitterly cold, the world has collapsed. Which brings in the theme of environmentalism, as McCarthy said he pictured this as the potential future 50-100 years down the track.
Four, there are no chapters. Now this doesn’t sound like a big thing, after all The Book Thief, The Casual Vacancy, and a number of other books I have read haven’t had chapters. But this book has no division whatsoever. No parts, no breaks into chapters without chapter names or numbering, no subsections, nothing. There are breaks, sometimes they are after a one paragraph, others they don’t happen for pages. I don’t know whether it is just me, but, it makes it very draining to read. And I think that adds to the mood of the book. In a way it completely removes the little sense of achievement you get when you finish a chapter, and it means that there is no ‘good spot’ to finish. It feels almost like you just have to keep reading, that the book is never ending. It’s quite disparaging, but maybe that’s just me.
Fifth, there is so little dialogue. The father and son hardly talk, and when they do it’s largely one word responses. Now, I’m not surprised because in their situation I don’t know what there would be to talk about, and you wouldn’t be that enthusiastic and joyful to want to strike up dialogue. But it certainly makes things more bleak for readers. And not only that the dialogue is left unmarked (no quotations, no italics). I’m not sure what it is about literary writers but they seem to think that they can get away with lack of grammar. It’s not just the lack of quotations it’s the fact that sometimes he wouldn’t capitalise i, and sometimes would leave off an apostrophe to show contraction, like dont instead of don’t. Maybe that wasn’t done on his part but the publishers, but even so, this is supposed to be literature, so why don’t they follow convention. Which is probably the whole point, it’s literature so it’s breaking the rules and throwing convention out the window. But it’s just annoying. And it makes reading it so much more difficult than it needs to be.
Of course the whole book isn’t bleak, there are moments of pure joy, and some really beautiful moments. The book wonderfully illustrative, and captures the emotions and relationship of the father and son perfectly. But overall the book felt draining to me, which doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it take a lot of effort to read. It really is a great book, and it does make you think about what you would do in their situation, and what you would do to try to survive. Could you keep your humanity and compassion in amidst all the violence, heartless and hopelessness? Would you be on of the good guys, or one of the bad?