A Terrible Beauty

Published : Tuesday, November 14, 2006 | Label: Critiques  

I wept at the end of The Road as I’ve never wept over a book, as though I had come the whole hopeless way with a man and his boy, death at every corner and no birds singing, and knew with them that the whole world was over and would never be put right.

Then I went outside and was shocked to find the living world still living on out there, and I wept some more at the beauty and contingency of it—all of it lost in McCarthy’s novel: the sun in the sky, butcherbirds at song, jacarandas in bloom, children at play in the street.

In The Road nature has stopped. The world has gone up in flames; the air is ash; cities stand empty; the earth has lost the gift of life; and one good man and his child are walking through the end of time toward the coast, living off leftovers from the former world and evading cannibals and death squads who haunt the failed earth and travel the road too. There is nothing to hope for, but the man and the boy go on.

So you might not believe me if I tell you I came away from this bleak book as from a cathedral or a canyon or the birth of a child. Clearly, McCarthy is showing us here what he thinks the world may be coming to. And yet this might be his most hopeful novel; in this wrecked world, lyrically evoked around the nameless man and child, goodness carries on. But the novel engenders hope, joy even, for another reason.

The Road is a radical and sustained piece of indirection; what it’s really about is everything that isn’t in it. The miraculous world of women and men and all we create and the rest of the natural world upon which it all depends—this is what, by its profound absence, McCarthy’s astonishing novel celebrates and calls us to defend, with tenderness and ferocity as a father defends his son, against all hope. That is our job; and we must never give it up.

The Road, McCarthy’s twelfth work of fiction, is a very great novel, a Divine Comedy for our times. It is a masterclass in writing, a thing of terrible beauty.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road, Picador, October

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