Re-Reading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’

I’m re-reading Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road in preparation for discussing it with my students next week. It has been an interesting experience.

First, I am struck by how new the book seems on this second reading. I read it first a year ago, and yet, its prose seems just as pristine. There is some familiarity in the narrative, in the landscape the Man and the Boy traverse, and the central tragedy of their impoverished and stark existence, but the words are read anew all over again. They have not lost–in the slightest–their power to evoke wonder, pity, fear, and sorrow. Indeed, I’m struck by how much more I notice on my second journey through this bitter, desolate land (beginning with the dream on page one of “the great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake” on whose “far shore” is a “creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders.”)

Second, my first reading occurred after I had already seen John Hillcoat‘s cinematic adaptation. Then, my appreciation of the novel’s imagery had been significantly impacted by that of the movie; I could not but help invoke the movie in my mind’s eye as I read the book. It made for an often jarring experience. Now, a year or so has passed since I last saw the movie, and the novel stands on its own. And I dare say its brilliance is even more acutely on display. I’m more aware of the poetic sparseness and harshness of its language, its deployment of wondrous words and sentences (“lozenges of stone veined and striped”), and the interiority of the Man, his bitter railings and his love and anger. Then, I had read the novel to see what the movie was based on; now, as I read the novel there is nothing else in mind. My attention is commanded entirely by the novel; its spells are ever more efficacious.

Third,  I am not reading alone. My students are reading it with me, even if they are not physically present at the moment. Because I’m reading the book in preparation for a classroom discussion, I’m actively and aggressively marking up passages to bring up in class.  I am looking, keenly, for its suggestions and symbolisms and allegories;  I am thinking anew about the meanings of even the briefest dialogues. I’m anticipating my students’ reactions to each passage, wondering whether one of them will comment on the same line I have marked up in the margins, whether they will be horrified, saddened, and enthralled as I was a year ago, and as I am now. Because I will be bringing my reading of the book to them, and hope they will do the same, my reading is tinged with a sense of foreboding: yet another encounter with it awaits me. Who knows what my students’ backgrounds and lives will produce in their meetings with the text? And perhaps our joint discussion will throw up ever newer meanings and interpretations.

Truly, the classics pay rich dividends for our persistent devotions.

One thought on “Re-Reading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’

  1. I didn’t quite read this in one sitting, but not far off it. I have Asperger’s, so I find a lot of fiction difficult, but this was captivating. On the movie version, I knew it would be difficult to convey the sparseness of McCarthy’s prose to film, but it was as good a movie as you could make with such an unusual piece of fiction – I left the theatre relieved that it had not been an ‘Angela’s Ashes’ turnout.

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