“Style is the substance of the subject called unceasingly to the surface.” ~ Victor Hugo
Before picking up The Road, I’d never read any of Cormac McCarthy’s work and had no idea of what to expect. A few chapters in, I paused to orient myself to the world he evokes: set in a post-apocalyptic future, a father and his young son travel through civilization’s ruins while remaining true to a moral code. This is good stuff, but it’s McCarthy’s writing style, the sparse, fragmented prose of this novel, which made me into an ardent fan. Of course, style doesn’t matter if the story fails. So first, I’m going to touch on a few narrative nuts and bolts to see why it succeeds, and then I’ll fling some superlatives around regarding style.
The story’s success is remarkable given the plot’s limitations: it’s the day-to-day survival of a father and son adrift in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Keeping to major roads, they travel south toward an unknown destination; and because roads act a lot like like rivers, they attract desperate groups of people, many of whom enslave and eat other people.
Okay, more happens than that, but my point is the daily task of surviving in a bleak environment could’ve been oppressively tedious. But McCarthy makes it work by paying careful attention to the rate of revelation: scraps of information about the apocalypse are bundled with the father’s back story and doled out regularly in between crises. This backstory delivery system saves the novel from becoming a repetitive slog as the plot’s structure depends on simplistic conflict resolution: the characters need food, the characters find food, and the characters avoid/run away from cannibals, rinse & repeat. (Did I mention that nearly everybody else on the road seems to be a cannibal!? Seriously. Like, lots of scary cannibals.)
This plot structure is, of course, germane to a survival narrative, but McCarthy deserves credit for sticking to realistic speculation regarding day-to-day issues and not allowing the story to become something more exotic or cliché: like, a detour where the duo overthrow a cannibal kingdom or found a colony intended to be humanity’s last, best hope. Instead, the author stays focused to a much more ambitious story about a man determined to raise his son to be a principled human being in a desperate wasteland. The stakes are high as two individuals struggle to maintain their moral and ethical cores in an environment where principles are regarded as either liabilities or quaint relics of the past. That these characters struggle to do the right thing in the face of a hopeless future makes individual choice a central theme.
That The Road foregrounds individuality marks it as a distinctly American novel. Additionally, there are number of moments that have a Western-genre feel to them. Does it get any more American than the Western? You could easily place these two characters in a day-to-day struggle to survive Montana Badlands of the 19th century, replete with bushwacking outlaws and painted-Indian war parties, and gotten a similar story. Don’t get me wrong, the tone of Western-genre fiction doesn’t detract from the work; it’s just another aspect of the novel’s style.
Ah yes, style: we’ve finally arrived at the subject causing all the chatter. Cormac McCarthy makes some brilliant choices in regards to syntax. That is to say, I found them brilliant. There are plenty of grammarians who hate this novel because he breaks so many rules. Specifically interesting to me – McCarthy declines to adhere to an important grammatical marker: the sentence boundary. Instead, the author deploys both the logic and organization of cumulative sentences while refusing to play by the rules dictating where they pause or end. This unconventional approach is used to good effect when working to evoke a broken world. Here’s an example:
“The kitchen door stood open and he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway. Cheap plywood paneling curling with damp. Collapsing into the room. A red formica table” (119).
Okay, so McCarthy ignores commas and uses periods instead? Yep. But also notice there are plenty of transitional words missing as well. Thinking things through, it becomes obvious one could revise this example to become a single cumulative sentence which delivers the same information with an entirely different effect. Like so:
“The kitchen standing open, he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway, observing the cheap-plywood paneling that curled with damp and collapsed into the room, a room with a red-formica table.”
Of course, there’s a ton of different ways one could rewrite the sentence. You might need to read a longer section to get a real feeling for the style, but the example above makes my point. And while I find McCarthy’s style effective, I can see why choices like this might put someone off; because when periods are used in place of commas, sentences no longer reliably exist as propositions. Instead, the period becomes a moment of pause – a crack to step over – while the reader is left to determine where the next clause fits in.
The novel would be a failure If this approach didn’t work. But it does.
By breaking down the cumulative form into discrete units, the author achieves a similar effect of evoking a detailed image. However, the choice of abandoning conventional syntax has a significant, secondary effect because the combination of sparse language and busted-up syntax clearly enhances this description of a world that’s bleak and broken. – That he made this choice is a big part of what makes this novel great.
In fiction, the difference between a good use of style and great use of style is as follows: a good use of style makes for enjoyable reading and marks a writer’s work as being unique. A great use of style fulfills all aforementioned requirements but also reflects, informs, and enhances a central theme of the work.
It’s that simple. The choice to ‘break’ the prose when evoking a broken world is ambitious: successfully pulling it off is fucking genius. So after reading The Road, I developed high expectations for McCarthy’s work, and, so far, he’s yet to disappoint. That said, I get why many readers dislike this novel. Many who attack it have ample ammunition that’s well-reasoned. But the bottom line for me is the author took a gamble, and it paid off big time. This book has a lot of popular appeal, and it’s easy to see why. Despite radical linguistic choices, The Road manages to hold a reader’s attention with an adventure while putting some heavy topics in play. That is to say, McCarthy treads the fine line between writing gratuitous fiction and writing great fiction. That he pulls it off makes this novel worth a read.