Books – The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road coverI’m a little behind the herd when it comes to Cormac McCarthy‘s work. Despite watching and loving “No Country For Old Men“, I was totally oblivious to the fact that it wasn’t a Coen Brothers original until a few days later. Though I’ve heard stories about his mythical, apparently perfect novel “The Road“, I have to admit that the main reason I picked it up is because I heard about the imminent film of the book.

I’ve a standing rule that where possible, I’ll watch the film version of a story before I’ll read the book that it’s based on. Most of the time the, book is the original – and as such the intended, definitive – version, and generally this makes the book the purer, smarter version of the story. Or at least it’s difficult not to see it that way, if you encounter them in chronological order.

However, I think that a film can be a good example of its medium and still be a disappointing adaptation of a book. Knowing this isn’t enough, though – it’s really difficult to seperate the two in your head as you go. Even if you know that intellectually you should enjoy each on its merits, reading is a much more active mental and emotional process than watching a film, and after living a novel for the amount of time it takes to read it, it’s impossible not to have expectations when taking that experience into a cinema.

My feeling is that the effort to process all this while watching a movie is more hassle than it’s worth, so I reason that if I watch the film first, I’ll get to enjoy both. You have to be a certain sort of lunatic to retroactively dis-enjoy a film if when you eventually read the book you find it’s different – why would you do that to yourself? – and as I’m almost immune to plot-twists, it isn’t as if having a plot laid out for me in film is going to ruin my enjoyment of it in text.

The Road - Movie image(To clarify, I don’t mean that I’m immune to plot-twists because I work them out – I have never understood the desire to outsmart a story that so many people seem to have – it’s a story, people – it’s not a destination, it’s a ride. The way my mind works, it’s constantly ticking over possible places the story can go as I enjoy it, so a film falling in line with one of the vague thoughts I had about it is a pleasant buzz, not a groundbreaker.)

It’s one of hundreds of little tricks I use to make living among your species bearable – this way round, trying to work out why they made certain changes during the adaptation process can be an enjoyable exercise, rather than the disappointment spiral it can become if I’ve already got an emotional relationship with the original when I get to the copy.

So, anyway, that’s why I wasn’t going to read “The Road” before the film came out, but I’d heard so much about it that I put it on my birthday wish-list anyway, because I half expected not to get it till much later anyway.

When it turned up unexpectedly, my resolve held – it sat on the side with “No Country For Old Men” and “Let The Right One In”, waiting till some time in the distant future.

The next book I was going to read was David Baddiel’s “The Secret Purposes” – it’s a heady book that has been sitting on the pile for ages, now, and a recent reference on a “Numb3rs” episode to the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg problem prompted me to tackle it. However, I over-read a conversation on Twitter about things that make people cry, and Baddiel himself mentioned “The Road”, prompting another wave of love for the novel that got me curious again.

I’m now fairly convinced that all of the people who contributed to that conversation were part of a conspiracy specifically designed to break my spirit and further diminish my ability to cope with the world around me, because that book… that book is beautiful, but it’s the sort of beauty that makes you just so, so sad.

Following an undefined man and boy through an American wasteland that has fallen to an unspecified apocalypse, the whole novel operates almost bereft of all context – you don’t know how the world ended, you don’t know where the man and boy are going, you only have the dimmest sense of where they came from. The world is vague and vast and hazy, while at the same time the resources and hope available to them is diminishing.

Half the book passes giving the impression that the man and boy are all alone in the world, but wary of predators. But then you hit a tipping point, where McCarthy shows us that this isn’t necessarily the case. Though there are encounters with people turned feral and cannibalistic by the future, there is also the pervasive feeling, every time they reach a new, desolate settlement, that there actually are other survivors, subsisting in the ruins, but caution wins out over need for community, and the man persistently pulls them away from any potential encounters.

As time passes, you begin to realise that even if there is some sanctuary of civilised individuals somewhere on the road ahead of them, some hope, they may have come far too far for too long to be able to recognise it any more.

Tonally, the book is basically like that bit in “I Am Legend” with the dog, but the whole way through, and without the relief provided by the Shrek thing and the Will Smith noodling. If you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, I’m not going to recount it here – not because I’m worried about spoilers, or because the film wasn’t great, but because I really don’t need to relive that moment ever again.

It’s an incredible book. It’s written in a spare, contemporary and often almost deliberately obtuse way, that in the beginning requires patience at the same time as it’s impressing with moments of literary flair and inventive mood-writing. I’m pretty sure some of the words are just plain made up! It isn’t the most accessible of novels, being both relentlessly sad and awkwardly, unapologetically poetic rather than literal, and while this isn’t a proper criticism, it does make it difficult to recommend unreservedly – I don’t think I could blame someone for giving up a couple of dozen pages in.

But in making a point of avoiding reader gratification, it makes for an immensely rewarding read in the end. I’m actually almost dreading the film, because this isn’t a book that wants to appeal to everyone, but almost by accident makes anyone that likes it actually love it, and those books are the ones that make for the patchiest, most confused adaptation.

“The Road” is available for £2.99 here, or $7.99 here.

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