After The Apocalypse

Robert Macfarlane considers the way Cormac McCarthy’s The Road isn’t the usual novel about apocalyptic events:

Until Cormac McCarthy’s novel…apocalypse had always seemed a baroque affair, lavish in its melodramas of asteroid strike, nuclear blast and tidal wave; populated by petrolheads in rabbit-skin loincloths and black leather dog-collars. McCarthy stole apocalypse’s thunder, and produced something far more terrible because more tentative. He saw that apocalypse is about aftermath rather than grand finale. He knew that the one thing more terrifying than dying in a global catastrophe is surviving it. The disaster is over and done with in a single sentence: “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” What follows is the desperate business of endurance.

Why he finds it to be more than a tale of despair:

I have read “The Road” more, probably, than any other book. A tale so fiercely bleak, so cauterised in its vision, is still a page-turner. It has entered my soul as a black version of a possible future, its effects felt bodily first: the steady creep of chill, an urge to hold my children tight. Man and boy plod on, page after page, and I read on, page after page, puzzled at my own persistence.

Hope lurks in both activities. It survives in McCarthy’s language: austerely beautiful, and proving the paradox of apocalyptic art, that to annihilate the world one must also summon it into being. Hope is there, too, in the boy, whom the father strives so hard to protect, and whose presence brings the possibility, however faint, of life after ruin. And hope is there in the father’s memories of the land as it was before: brook trout finning against the current of mountain streams, green-wooded glens humming with life, birds flocking and shoaling in the air. A world, in fact, not wholly unlike our own, in which human relations with nature are not yet irrevocably broken. This great novel is an act of hope because it is a warning, a calmly urgent reminder of what we stand to lose. “You can read me a story, the boy said. Can’t you Papa? Yes, he said. I can.”