The gothic model reflects on the present by conjuring up a dead past—often through the figure of the ghost. The Road begets a number of ghosts—dead or alive. McCarthy revisits some national obsessions and “curses” to use William Faulkner’s image, in particular abuses connected to the occupation of the territory and slavery. At one point, the father and the son come across a camping scene: some people have left in a hurry, abandoning the food they were getting ready to eat: “They had taken everything with them except whatever black thing was skewered over the coals. He was standing there checking the perimeter when the boy turned and buried his face against him … What the boy had seen was a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit” (The Road 198).
The scene offers a gruesome rewriting of the pioneer experience and its legacy of violence. In addition, as a Southern writer, McCarthy situates the most horrifying scene of the novel in a Southern mansion, “a once grand house sited on a rise above the road” (The Road 105). The image of the living food pantry functions as a powerful evocation of contemporary forms of enslavement while conjuring up the legacy of slavery: “He held the boy’s hand and they crossed the porch. Chattel slaves had once trod those boards bearing food and drink on silver trays” (The Road 106). Last but not least, McCarthy offers a variation on the thematic importance of the place of the wilderness in the American consciousness by imagining the demise of this key protagonist of the American narrative of success, conquest and achievement—a truly original feature of the narrative. What happens when nature has died? The novel imagines the ensuing wasteland—ecological and moral.
Moreover, the novelistic imagination is haunted by the strange ghosts begotten by images of the “richness of a lost world” which the father tries to recapture and recreate for his son. The only way to retrieve this Eurydice is through books since he can less and less rely on his own memories: “The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever” (The Road 89). Books containing dangerous, transgressive or forbidden information have been part of gothic props. They contain secret knowledge and haunt the current imagination as a potential alternative—the road no longer taken, to use Robert Frost’s image. The gothicization of the book in The Road speaks to the disappearance of the book in our contemporary culture and the problem of transmission. In the novel, the book is a link to the world of the past; it still exists as a physical object, but the knowledge it presents has been rendered powerless or has vanished. The signified that it refers to has disappeared. Yet its content is transgressive in the sense that it provides a counter narrative to the current chaos where human horror prevails. The child indeed often refers to the books and tries to enact in his world what he has read about the other world—in particular the credo about “being the good guys” and “carrying the fire” which he repeats like a mantra to ward off his agonizing terror.
Lastly, The Road reprises an important gothic feature: the failure of reason. Gothic literature began as a challenge to the hegemony of reason during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age; in the same way, The Road undermines the rational certainties of our so-called posthuman era with its hubristic genesis of a super human entity destined to unseat human mortality. The novel issues a warning against unwavering rationalism. Our current Information Age, sometimes also called the “technophilic age,” has revolutionized the way knowledge is processed, stored, and communicated or shared. The imaginary world of The Road shows how such highly organized circuits of information quickly become both unavailable and irrelevant. What has become vital is the knowledge gathered about one’s direct physical environment—the kind of knowledge necessary for the prey to outsmart the predator. The novel dismisses the elaborate networks of knowledge to show how absurd they become in the face of extreme adversity. The survivalist minimalism imagined by The Road dismantles the technological apparatus that has rendered knowledge both so trivial and so necessary by proposing a grotesque replay of the predicament of the ordinary citizen. The paradigm shift proposed by The Road functions as a foil to the current technological and financial teleology; the novel features the intrinsic weakness of the human against the hubris of technocratic achievements.
The question raised by The Road’s gothic handling of eating is: What does it mean to be human in consumer culture? Richard Gray, commenting on Wendell Berry’s 1972 A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural, notes in his book Web of Words: “In terms of the national history, Berry points out, the opposition is one of ‘pioneers’ versus ‘homesteaders.’ On a more fundamental, ontological or theological level, it is one of ‘the road’ versus ‘the wheel.’ The road…posits a linear, progressive notion of life…The embodiment of the linear vision, as far as human practice is concerned, is the ruthlessness, the competitiveness and division of the global trade” (Web of Words 118-119). In the novel, the road might be seen as a visual signifier of the aporia generated by progress, and a critical inquiry into its legacy. Man’s insatiable thirst for knowledge has morphed into plain physical thirst and hunger, and the road has clearly led to a dead end.
With The Road, McCarthy’s artistic expression voices the urgency of fiction to speak for reality. If the novel is to be understood as an “apocalyptic” novel at all, it is only if we understand “apocalypse” the way Romanian writer Krzysztof Michalski proposes to do it—not as an event that lies in the future but, in the words of reviewer Tamsin Shaw, “as a horror that permeates every moment of our lives”—or what some have called “a rolling apocalypse” (Shaw 56). The image of the clock stopped at 1.17 provides another image for this point of no return whose rupture echoes the effect of 9/11 on our consciousness. There is no going back to a sense of normalcy in a world that has been broken asunder, forever divided between a “before” and an “after.” The novel invites to renegotiate curves and turns in the way to knowledge, generating what Michalski sees, as described in the review mentioned above as an “upheaval in our sense of meaning that follows from our awareness of impending destruction.” The Road aims at transforming our globalized reality into a narrative and a poetic project, even indictment and warning.
Finally, McCarthy’s novel thus invites us to consider the impact of globalization on literature. We should consider the importance of McCarthy’s project, along with the work done by other writers such as Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood, and Science Fiction authors, to creating alternative modes of thinking. McCarthy’s novel invites us to consider how the cultural work performed by the Gothic is to transform our “age of innocence” into an age of awareness.
-Gray, Richard. A Web of Words: The Great Dialogue of Southern Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. Print.
-McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage International, 2006. Print.
-Shaw, Tamsin. “Nietzsche: ‘The Lightning Fire.’” New York Review of Books LX.16 (Oct. 24-Nov. 6, 2013): 52-56. Print.