“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

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In terms of plot, this short novel avoids complication. It is the story of a man and his son, who remain unnamed for the duration of the narrative, as they traipse through a barren, desolate landscape heading along The Road to the east-coast in order to avoid the deathly chill of winter. What has happened to this post-apocalyptic world is never explicitly revealed, but the torrid effects of what seems to be a type of deflagration are laid bare by McCarthy. Firstly there is the monochromatic grey landscape; the land’s produce is torched and withered, completely dead, and the air is polluted by the abundance of ash which clogs the lungs of the Man and leaves him coughing in the cold, dark nights. This heavy murk also covers the sun, a view of which seems to be rare if not impossible. At one point the Boy asks:

 

“If you were a crow could you fly up high enough to see the sun?

 

Yes. You could.

 

I thought so. That would be really neat.

 

Yes it would. Are you ready?”

 

The old landscape which, along with the absent sun, once fed and nourished life, is a mythical idea here, and instead the land is destructive and treacherous. The species of life that the Man and the Boy encounter on their journey along the road is suspicious, fearsome and almost unrecognisable. In a world where humanity survives on tinned and powdered goods, man has turned to cannibalism for survival. This forces the novel’s protagonist to take an understandably hostile approach towards strangers, one which is, at times, heart-breaking for the Boy.  Throughout the novel, he yearns for human contact, for goodness, for love. But The Road is a world defined by the stoicism and grit of the Man, and a glum acceptance the slight flicker of the flame of love and goodness only remains in this world because of these two characters.

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I found McCarthy’s prose to be fantastically simple, highly effective and emotive, but I was a bit stumped by his iconoclastic style. He seems (perhaps like a lot of us) to dislike grammar and his paragraphs are all very fragmented and spaced out across the page. This spacing of the paragraphs, I think, forces the reader to dwell on the sharp poignancy of the language and allows you to really feel the emotional weight of the plot. I wonder whether the collapse of the world as we know it is being mirrored by McCarthy’s prose in The Road, with the absence of particularly hyphens and apostrophes. Nevertheless, stylistically it certainly works and I thought McCarthy’s original and experimental approach to style and grammar was both interesting and refreshing and it is something I would love to see in more contemporary fiction.

 

 

Thematically, The Road is extremely rich and is a springboard for discussion on an abundant array of topics. I thought the portrayal of the Boy, a character who has grown up in this post-apocalyptic world, was extremely well done and one of the main strengths of the novel. The attention to detail that McCarthy pays to how a child would psychologically and physically mature in this dystopia pays its dues and gives us a genuinely realistic character who draws out our empathy. This is seen, for example, in the son’s incapacity to imagine the pre-dystopian, seemingly mythical world of green splendour, love and life that his father describes to him through stories. And again when the boy uses expressions and clichés gleaned from his father, “long term goals” and “warm at last” are memorable examples, and his father reacts with a mixture of confusion and pleasure at his son’s development. Glints of humanity such as these are charming, pleasant but also heart-wrenching and depressing when facing the bleak reality of their fate. McCarthy is able to imitate the repetition of routine of their day-to-day life without the novel ever feeling tedious or repetitive. He does this by recounting in meticulous detail the minutiae of their lives, and this style reminds us that although we might have a samey, tedious weekly routine, no day is ever the same and we should not take this for granted, especially in the wake of The Road. Another final point of interest is that the novel contains nearly no woman at all, and the women that do appear just pass by as part of a group. The Man and the Boy do skirt around the subject of the Boy’s mother, but in relatively short time. The absence of women, for me, coincides with the absence of life, love and goodness in this novel. In fact, you could read this novel as a depiction of what would happen if men were in charge of weapons of mass destruction that could realise McCarthy’s dystopia (Hmmm…).

 

There’s so many more facets to this novel that I have not even touched upon and for this reason I it would be a wonderful novel for a book club to explore or for a student to write about for a dystopian-based essay. If you haven’t read this novel, I urge you to go out and grab it and Pan MacMillan have a wonderfully designed edition (see below) designed by David Pearson that you can pick up online from Foyles here (or in any good local independent bookshop on your high-street!), an edition whose cover is supremely more tasteful that my own!

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Thanks for reading, let me know what you thought of The Road and if I have missed any interesting angles.

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“Dark Avenues” by Ivan Bunin

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Ivan Bunin’s Dark Avenues has been on my bookshelf since I requested it as a Christmas present last year. Why I had asked for it, where I’d heard about Bunin and what I’d heard about Bunin are questions that slip merrily through the sieve of my memory. We undoubtedly all have these forgotten books on our shelves – I know I have many more! – and it was intriguing to pluck Dark Avenues out and read these marvellous stories, wondering where the bloody hell I had found out about this great author. I guess I’ll never know, but I am thankful to my former self for putting Bunin on my bookshelf.

 

A collection of 38 stories plus additional material, notes and appendices, Dark Avenues, I think, gives you a good grounding on what Bunin is all about as a writer. His tales can be sporadic and the collection takes you across the continent, through a dark, sprawling Russia onto neighbouring Ukraine, onwards towards Austria, Italy, Paris, the South of France and as far west as Madrid. They say variety is the spice of life, but I’d say that the spice of Dark Avenues is in what remains constant. The beauty of Bunin’s prose, for me, lies in his attention to detail, his ability to evoke landscapes, characters, emotions, actions, all of which he does with an astounding efficiency and charm. Each story is a microcosm contained within itself which sucks the reader in. There were so many times I got to the end of a story and felt like I knew the characters fairly well, I empathised with them, I had breathed the air of their landscape. But then I’d flick back to the beginning and realise that the story was only 1, 2 or 3 pages long. Bunin has this magical way of writing with such clarity, purpose and efficiency that he is able to portray so much information in a scarily short amount of space. If you are engaged in the narrative you might not really notice it, but once I’d cottoned on to his terseness I begin to look more meticulously at the mechanics of his language. And it is often at the beginning of his stories where a lot of the magic comes to life. In one or two paragraphs Bunin (and credit to the translator here for translating this quality into English!) will set the scene, the characters, and their backgrounds, only including information that the reader will need at some point in the story. He will never use too many characters, describe something in too much detail or indeed describe something at all if it is unnecessary.

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I particularly enjoyed Bunin’s characters, who are typically peculiar, mysterious but essentially interesting to read about. He has a deep fascination with youth and young love, one of the unifying motifs of Dark Avenues. Several of his stories depict the first seeds of a relationship, or a love encounter between two characters. They are often physical, sensual passages and it is the universality of this theme that will allow Bunin’s stories appeal to a large audience. I think we all remember our first kiss, our first sexual encounter, our first relationship with a certain affection, often as defining moments in our young adult lives, and you can understand why Bunin may be interested by this period in his characters’ lives. In fact, many YA and indeed adult authors write about these periods in their characters’ lives as they develop from naïve adolescents into adults. Think Harry Potter, The Fault in our Stars, Twilight or many more YA hits that have been piled high in bookshops in recent years. Before this all goes a bit pear-shaped, I am not trying to categorise Ivan Bunin as a YA author alongside Stephanie Meyer and John Green, but it is fascinating to consider how this early 20th century Russian Nobel Prize for Literature winning master was drawing on his characters’ younger years to engage his reader just as many YA authors do today.

 

Another aspect of Dark Avenues I adored was its insight into Russian culture. Proceed through the stories, you are given a flavour of the period and the culture with the samovars, the dark, expansive, brooding landscape, the strange-sounding soups, inevitable vodka, the old carriage trains and chilling Eastern climate. The beauty of young Russian ladies is frequently apparent, with Bunin often conveying the almost ‘translucent’ paleness of their skin juxtaposed with the smooth, shining black darkness of their eyebrows and hair. In fact, Nabokov famously called Bunin a ‘connoisseur of colours’ and it is true that Bunin frequently draws on colour in his stories with aplomb, another feature which gives his work its vivid, ‘colourful’ aspect. Bunin is a masterful writer who works with the precision of a poet, and I would urge every writer, and especially short story writers, to study the mechanics of Bunin’s stories as a model for how to write a successful, purposeful short story. I will certainly be revisiting this collection in the past and look forward to exploring his other works. If you would recommend any, I would love to hear from you!

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