How can a difficult read be an easy one? It can be easy because the difficulty is compelling and seductive, because ‘difficult’ does not mean ‘obscure’, because difficult can be worthy of admiration.
A few days ago, when I saw John Hillcoat‘s The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy‘s novel of the same name, I had not yet read it. Today I did so. It was an unputdownable book that pulled me into its grasp and didn’t let go till I was done, its pages all turned and marked ‘read.’ It was an easy read for the reasons mentioned above; McCarthy is a virtuosic writer, a master of the spare and savage prose he deploys to bring alive a chilling, gray, slowly sickening and dying world; you read because are compelled to. And The Road is a difficult book because of its central subject: the possibility and desirability of hope in a world without one.
Why live if there is nothing to live for? This is not an easy question to answer. Is continued existence a worthy enough objective to warrant endless self-privation and misery, the killing of others, and acts of deliberate cruelty? In ‘normal life’ we may excuse seeming exceptions to the moral order we dimly glimpse because we are convinced by some calculus of consequences that a ‘better world’ will be realized because of our actions. But what if the only outcomes to our actions are ignoble and base, narrowly conceived and realized? In a world where existence never rises above the level of mere non-death, and is destined to never get better, why persist? The inhabitants of a world like the one through which the Man and the Boy journey resemble nothing quite as much as terminally ill patients. The contours of the ethical debate surrounding their demise will be similar to those engaged in by those who, like the Man and the Boy, persist and persevere in order to stay alive. For their death is foretold; discomfort and despair is their only lot.
The Man’s wife sensed that there would be no survival if stronger reasons than wanting to preserve one’s own life are not found:
The one thing I can tell you is that you won’t survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with some words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body.
And for The Man, the existence of the boy will be all the reason he needs to go living before, eventually, his body and mind give way and he lays himself down to sleep. In the end, all the cruelty and privation of the world he left behind cannot disguise the fact that though ‘love’ is not a word that is uttered too often in it, it was always present when the Man and the Boy were together.