dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.
Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) describes
a journey from one place to another, a passage through an inhospitable
landscape in elegant sparseness, stripped down dialogue, and with luminous
descriptions of the devastated countryside. The
Road is a story about a man and a
boy who travel down the presumably post-nuclear, U.S. East coast in search of
warmer climes. McCarthy consistently draws attention to the precarious nature
of their survival. In the novel, the man and the boy have been left behind by
the boy’s mother who opted to take her own life rather than face the ravages of
cannibal gangs or the devastation of life in this unrecognizable United
The novel presents us with an impasse—the totality
within the narrative provides empirical examples of only a few logical ways to
live collectively: struggling as the man and the boy do, surviving in a
cannibalistic gang (a mode the novel cautions that should be strictly avoided),
or living in the seemingly benevolent family group that emerges at the end of
the novel. The Road seems to have
already moved beyond the problem of the family, but still returns to it as a
fundamental question. What remains at stake is the way The Road simultaneously and on a different register engages
historical structures and processes that have marked it both visibly and invisibly.
From the very start, The Road
insists on the characters’ inability to locate themselves–socially,
geographically, politically or even in a more physical sense. On the opening
page, vision is figured as a rapidly dwindling facility: “Nights dark beyond
darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the
onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world” (3). The destination of the travels remains unclear and clouded not only for the reader, but for the man and the boy themselves.
The novel comes closest to making its inner logic visible when
the boy describes a toy he had in a dream: “this penguin that you wound up and
it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used
to live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was
really scary” (36). After his father reassures him, the boy concedes one final
detail—the key on the penguin was not turning. No one was responsible for
winding the penguin, yet it moved of its own accord. Here, the boy expects
windup toys to operate in accordance with a particular logic—the key should
move along with the toy and require someone, a boy for instance, to wind it
before the mechanism could release this stored up kinetic energy. What the boy
finds “really scary” is as much the ostensibly magical dance of the penguin as
the logical breakdown of his own relation to the external world, a world that
the novel registers as entirely unplottable. The dream not only records the demise
of the expected order, but also registers an unintentional truth: these
unpredictable objects mark the novel’s inability to posit a future where the
boy could be in control at all. This is a fact only reinforced by the novel’s
close where, at the very moment the boy is alone, he is discovered by a
friendly group and any chance he has of developing a new mode of survival or
belonging in the world is severed.
The dream is frightening for the boy
not because it is reminiscent of the end, but because the toy continues to move without his input: the
penguin’s mobility is a signature of the invisible dynamic guiding the
frighteningly autonomous-seeming object, the motivating force behind the
apparently free figure, what Louis Althusser called the absent cause, which has
been understood both as the logic of History, along the lines of Althusser and Fredric Jameson, or as that of capital itself, following Eric Cazdyn and Imre Szeman,
and outlines the invisible core of the novel.
The novel imagines this absence in terms of social responsibility or collective
support. What keeps the two nameless protagonists from interacting with others
is the fear of death, rather than the preference of solitude or something like
racial or social prejudice. The novel posits the problematic on a political
register as the loss of the social contract. The boy’s fear of the dancing
penguin, however, underscores the breakdown of a far larger set of relations,
namely capitalist social relations as such. His horror gestures to a
contradiction behind the sign of the magically dancing object, behind the veil
of the political, namely an economic contradiction of production and scarcity.
The novel attempts to resolve an economic problem on the level of political
social organization – the relation of strangers within a national context and
the relation of individuals within a familial one.
What generates the nation and the
family, however, is the economic necessity of production in terms of national
competition and state organization, and also the regulation and social
reproduction of the working class family and the reserve army of the proletariat,
things that, in reality, have long been irrelevant as residual forms of the
ideology of an earlier organization of production, ones which have since been
sublated and exported beyond U.S. borders in the global or better yet
transnational configuration of capital. At its conclusion the novel puts these
contradictions on the table, but does not attempt to sort through them: put
another way, The Road ends with an
insistence on the family as the dominant social form, an aporia it fails to
read as a contradiction, or at the least a ‘dead end’ that cannot be resolved
within the novel form which raised it in the first place. My argument about
post-apocalyptic fiction cannot stop here, however; and, perhaps, tying a number of
these failures together under the category of genre may serve to paint a better
picture of the particular failure of the novel apparatus in The Road to offer resolutions to the
problems it emplots.
Althusser, Louis and Étienne Balibar. Reading Capital. London: Verso, 2009.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 2006.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage P, 2006.
Szeman, Imre and Eric Cazdyn. After .
Labels: contemporary fiction, exhaustion, post-apocalypse, The Road