Another of the three books my friend Dana lent me was The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
The Road tells the story of a man and his son, neither of which are named. The country in which they live (perhaps America), and perhaps the world, has been ravaged by an unnamed holocaust. Society has decayed, and the land has been picked over by refugees that have wandered since the disaster. Little remains except trash and the people ruthless enough to survive in such a wasteland. Fall is fading, and the man and his son do not have the resources to survive another winter. They must set out for the coast, a warmer place in which they will hopefully be able to create a new home for themselves.
The style of this book caught me off guard at first. It is written as if the finer points of English grammar and punctuation don't matter. Sentence fragments are common, apostrophes are nonexistent, and speech is not quoted. I found this off-putting at first, but rationalized it as mimicking the fundamentally broken, post-apocalyptic world in which the story is set.
The story itself had a profound effect on me. The picture it paints is bleak and horrible, the man and his son continually pushed to the edge of survival, slowly starving, overcome with fear of everyone they meet, only getting by through caution, ingenuity, and luck. There were times as I read this book that I had to set it down. One such scene involved the duo's exploration of house containing a locked basement full of naked people, wasted by hunger, and kept imprisoned as a sick sort of livestock. Of course, the homeowners return and the situation intensifies. Although the slave owners are barely described, they seem so alien, so evil . . . and yet, making their terrible choices to survive. A recurring dialog between the man and his son amounts to, "Are we going to become like them? How far will we go to survive?" It is scary, depressing, and a burden, especially when you attempt to identify with it.
Now, reading the above, you might say, "Why would I read such a depressing book?" I described The Road to my friends Jamie and Rachel over dinner a few weeks back, and that was the question they asked (after giving me the "We're not going to read it" go-ahead to drop spoilers for further discussion). I don't doubt that they will never read it, and that's understandable. This book is certainly not for everyone. But I find the question interesting: Why would a person read a depressing book?
I thought about this for a while. I think that there is an obvious category of books that you should not read: bad books. Depressing books with nihilistic messages fall into this category for me. Why would I want to read a book with a primary message of, "life is worthless," "people are evil," etc? However, I find some depressing books can be worthwhile to read. A worthwhile book needs to have an idea, a theme, a character--something--that grabs hold and keeps my attention despite the waterfall of terrible events pouring over me. And I have to admit that there's a part of me that enjoys some melancholy on occasion. Unlike a real-life tragedy, it's a caress of the sadness nerve clusters that I can put away with the book, and escape back into real life (reverse escapism?).
At first glance, The Road may seem like it fits into the "bad message" category, but there is definitely more there. There are themes dealing with fatherhood, perseverance, and the nature of good and evil in a hostile world. There are also pieces that are wide open for literary interpretation, if you like that (which I do). For those willing to wade through its darkness, I'd say there's a good chance you will find The Road worthwhile, too.
P. S. -- I have some theories about the ending that I won't put here due to spoilers, but I'd be happy to discuss them in the comments (with appropriate spoiler warnings of course).
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