Choose Your Own Advent, Day 19: The Road

The Road, Cormac McCarthyChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006

We’ve reached a stage in which video games are just about accepted as the art that they actually are. Not all of them, of course; it’s the medium that has artistic possibility, and just like any medium the individual artists will embrace or squander that opportunity as they see fit.

But I think it says something about how far the medium has come when a very impressive work of literature–say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–puts me in mind of a certain video game, and the comparison is all around favorable. Neither the book nor the game look poorer when evaluated next to the other.

The Road made me think of Fallout 3. The Road came first, but I didn’t read it until later. When I did, I was reminded of that great game, and I saw how both works of art rendered their post-apocalyptic wastelands with masterful bleakness. Neither world, strictly speaking, had to be without hope, but it sure was difficult to trudge through either of them and keep hope alive.

They did a great job of thrusting us into a world that was both recognizable and long past death. We witness humanity in its final throes. We see what passes for civilization. We see how unwelcome (and unwise) selflessness is. We see people we respect turned to monsters, and the monsters we already feared grow even more monstrous by the day. We see what people have to resort to just to buy themselves another hour.

And for what?

Both Fallout 3 and The Road raise that last question. Neither seems especially optimistic about the answer.

Later, I played a video game that reminded me of The Road. That game was The Last of Us, which had an even stronger tie to McCarthy’s themes. Like the unnamed protagonist in the novel, The Last of Us focused on a man without any expectation of a brighter tomorrow, shepherding a child through the ruins of a world he used to know.

I don’t mean to draw connections where there aren’t any. Imagining the aftermath of societal collapse has been fueling media as long as there’s been media to fuel. There are dozens of ways to approach the topic (at least), and between those there are shades of difference, of intent, of morality, of tone…

In short, it’s a story that can be told a limitless number of ways, yes, but there’s also bound to be some overlap, especially as the genre remains as popular as it does.

The subject matter is also quite affecting. Even in its more humorous incarnations, the apocalypse is, by default, still dark comedy. When it’s more overtly tragic, like much of The Road, it can feel oppressively so, just because we know that nobody else, anywhere, is having any easier a time than our characters are.

Post-apocalyptic fiction has always intrigued me, even if I haven’t read all that much of it. Complete social collapse is the sort of thing that automatically sparks the imagination. I suppose it’s because we each have our own personal ideas of how and where the pieces would fall. We each have our suspicions as to which aspects of humanity would survive (spoiler: they seem to be the negative ones), and which would never be seen again. We each have our own theories as to how–and where, and to what extent–civilization might rebuild.

But the one thing we all agree on is the fact that it won’t be pretty. It won’t be easy. It may not even be worth pushing through to see the next sunrise.

So, then, what’s the appeal? Is it just misery? Do we, in some way, like to believe that we won’t be here forever? That, yes, we will lose a lot of the great things that humanity has accomplished, but with it we’ll sweep away the pettiness, the greed, the idiocy?

I think it’s just the fact that a post-apocalyptic context gives an artist a fairly unique opportunity to explore what humanity is. Someone like Cormac McCarthy never held himself back from probing the darkness inside of men, from seeing how far they could be pushed and still keep their souls, but working in an unexpected genre gave him a chance to boil his characters down even further.

Strip away their names, their histories. Rob them of even basic goals. Oppress them so that they may not even desire survival. Ensure that no day is brighter than the last. Construct for them not only a situation they can’t win, but a situation nobody can win.

And then see what you’ve got.

That’s mankind.

Whatever is left when everything else is gone. Everything. Yes, even that, and that, and anything else you can think of.

Everything that we turn to in order to help us understand our world. Every scale by which we gauge ourselves and our behavior. Everything that made life on this Earth–whatever life, wherever on this Earth–what we know it to be.

Take it all away.

See what you’re left with.

That is mankind.

The Road is haunting. Devastating. Harrowing. But it’s also unforgettable, simply for how remorseless it is. McCarthy doesn’t pretend that there is anything left. Whatever might, at some point, have been worth fighting for…well, we chose to pick a different battle.

And now it’s gone.

All of it is gone.

But what’s left?

Every artist would answer that a different way, and I think that’s why the concept endures. We will see the world crumble again and again. To invaders from outer space. To disease. To nuclear war. To–often–no definable cause at all.

I’m not surprised that the apocalypse brought out the best in video games. It brought out the best in our great authors, too.

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