It is hard to review a book that has so many extant reviews, so many of which are so positive. The Road is my second Cormac McCarthy book; I have recently read No Country for Old Men, which I found interesting, gripping, a page turner, with hints of wider themes and interests. Like The Road, my edition of No Country for Old Men had many flyleaves that contained glowing extracts from glowing reviews extolling the virtues of the book. And though I enjoyed the book, I found that I had not discovered those virtues.
When I finished The Road, and returned to re-read the many glowing extracts from glowing reviews on its flyleaves, I found myself rather at a loss. I had enjoyed the novel, and its spare language and short, well-spaced paragraphs had made it a quick read, gripping enough to keep me turning the pages. Yet, I found nothing new or extraordinary in the book, nor in its language. The language was spare, certainly, and repetitive at times. Yet, The Road belongs to a genre — the post-apocalyptic novel. Of course, the post-apocalyptic novel has mainly been the reserve of science fiction authors, and I couldn’t help wondering if any of the reviewers who had written the glowing extracts from the glowing reviews had read J G Ballard, or Harlan Ellison, or Samuel R Delany or Walter M Miller or many others.
The post-apocalyptic novel has an honourable tradition in science fiction; The Road offered no new shocks and no new horrors, no departures from that tradition. What “new” horrors there were, over and above earlier entries in the genre, were more because of where we are, as readers and writers, in what we allow and what we accept, than in anything extraordinarily outre. Earlier authors, such as Delaney in Dhalgren had experimented with form; Ballard had been elliptical and distant in his series of ‘disaster’ novels, The Crystal World, The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, and, of course, The Drought; in Damnation Alley, Zelazny’s hero has to drive a truck along a post-apocalyptic road.
Of course, in a Cold War world in which everybody was mentally prepared for nuclear disaster, the post-apocalyptic science fiction narrative thrived. Such was the currency of apocalytics and disaster in New Wave science fiction, the title of Michael Moorcock‘s collection of Jerry Cornelius stories, The New Nature of the Catastrophe, made perfect sense while being an ironic dig at a tradition he had helped foster.
This then, was my problem: The Road was a worthy entry into the tradition; but it carried with it nothing more than previous (mainly science fiction) authors had provided; and I would rather have The Drought, or A Boy And His Dog, or A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker on my desert island.