Cormac McCarthy is with good reason widely considered to be among the finest living American writers. The literary scene has appreciated his work for some time; the general public (including myself, though I do a lot of reading) was first exposed to his work in the uncommonly faithful film adaptation of No Country for Old Men.
Success breeds success in Hollywood, and McCarthy’s most recent book The Road is being filmed.
It’s an unforgivingly grim and brutal book. A father and son are trying to survive in post-apocalyptic America. It’s an uglier post-apocalypse than most. More or less everything is dead and covered in ash. Other than the occasional uniformly horrifying humans they encounter (we’re talking cannibalism, rape, and murder… in that order), there’s essentially no remaining plant or animal life anywhere along the journey. I assume there’s some kind of photosynthetic life somewhere, as the atmosphere is obviously still breathable. Sea algae, maybe.
McCarthy’s work is nothing if not spare and meditative, and essentially no detail about the catastrophe is given. We’re told nothing about the condition of the rest of the world apart from the small slice of the eastern US in which the father and son travel. Here’s all we’re directly told, in flashback (stylistic idiosyncrasies as written):
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went to the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull glow rose in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is is? she said. What is happening?
I dont know.
Why are you taking a bath?
The question of the day is what happened, assuming we’re looking for a realistic answer consistent with the evidence in the text? The two obvious possibilities are comet or asteroid strike and nuclear war. The latter seems unlikely – there’s no sign of radioactivity and the scale of the environmental destruction a decade later is overwhelming even by nuclear standards. But the comet theory has its own holes. How has it managed to kill everything but leave a breathable atmosphere? How didn’t it kill the man and his wife immediately if they were close enough to see the light from the impact and it was powerful enough to cause a mass extinction event?
It’s a pickle. And of course as a novelist McCarthy is not trying a technical manual, he’s interested in the story. But I think we can have fun trying to figure out both. Thoughts?