Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On The Road, again

The Toronto International Film Festival gets underway tomorrow, and among the most anticipated titles screening, for me and I think many others, is The Proposition director John Hillcoat's much delayed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen. Below is a review of the novel I wrote for Vue Weekly when it initially came out a few years ago.

* * *

A man and a boy move along a wasted highway and through bush in tattered clothes, a shopping cart holding all their worldly possessions jumbled under a tarp. They carry a revolver with two bullets. They forage for hard-to-find items like food, gas and shoes, and are perpetually concerned with gathering sufficient materials to build a fire.

They head south, toward the Gulf Coast, for fear of not surviving another winter in colder terrain. The landscape they traverse is burned up, cloaked with ash, bereft of sounds of life and nearly all colour. Nights are “dark beyond darkness,” days “more gray than each one that had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”

All around them are dead cars, dead buildings, cadavers, “shriveled and drawn like latter-day bog folk, their faces of boiled sheeting.” Other living beings are few and far between and almost always best avoided at all costs. Despair has made ghouls of most survivors, and the man vows to protect the boy at all costs, believing his life to be of some as yet undetermined but superior, even sacred value. “If he is not the word of God,” the man thinks, “God never spoke.”

This is the story, rendered in a vigorous, austere version of the author’s exalted prose, of a pilgrimage to nowhere, in a forsaken land where art, order and progress have collapsed in their meaning. With the millennium having passed, new, less abstract fears singe the surface of modern life.
The Road (Knopf, $30) offers an apocalyptic vision as demonically inspired as that of Cormac McCarthy’s masterwork Blood Meridian, except that now the apocalypse is complete, ubiquitous and absolute. Perhaps ironically, in this post-world virtually absent of all hope, the goodness of the man and the boy somehow holds fast to the novel’s thread where once, in novels like Blood Meridian, evil toppled everything.

Author Cormac McCarthy

Perhaps it’s a tough sell, this short novel about a future where all is truly lost and only blind faith (such as the father’s) or ignorance (the boy was born into this destroyed world) pushes our protagonists forward into ongoing nothingness and danger. Even the memory of beauty is so painful to maintain (“He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins”) that the man chooses to discard the last photo he carries of his dead wife.
There is no direct mention of what caused the great catastrophe, but it possesses all the signs of a nuclear winter. And the death of nearly everything seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.

Yet, in the ashes of all our collective dreams, McCarthy uncovers surprising reveries of wonder and fragile pleasure: the rediscovery of Coca-Cola, the chemical beauty of a flare exploding over a pallid sea, the smoothness and delicate grace of fine china, the primitive music to be eked from a crudely constructed flute, the underground miracle of a perfectly preserved bomb shelter. And there are the exchanges between the boy and the man, who share many brief, terse but loving dialogues:

That hurt, didn’t it? the boy said.

Yes, It did.

Are you real brave?

Just medium.

McCarthy peppers
The Road with a few brilliant, tense and explosively violent encounters, while in quieter scenes he mines spare poetry from simple activities and bursts of a survivalist’s necessary sense of invention. He also casts a much bigger image of the earth’s destiny that’s shot through with a detached, scientific sort of awe: “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.”

But the splendour of what is lost nonetheless gets the final word, with memories of all the good things we know and take for granted rising to fill the novel’s final paragraph. McCarthy describes the brook trout that once inhabited mountain streams and his description calls the reader to see our world with clearer eyes and to grasp onto the ache of all things cherished that may soon slip away: The trout “smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of things that could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

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