aesthetics of exhaustion, mccarthy years later

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.[1]

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 States. 

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.[2]

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.[3] 

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.[4]
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 Globalization. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

[1] Cormac McCarthy, The Road (New York: Vintage P, 2006), 3.
[2] The boy is discovered by a nuclear family in John Hillcoat’s film The Road (2009).
[3] See Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital (London: Verso, 2009), 208-9; Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981); and, Imre Szeman and Eric Cazdyn, After Globalization (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).
[4] For relation of strangers within a national contexts see Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 2006), 6.

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