I finally finished The Road over the Easter weekend. It was hard going; a thankless treck across the bleakest territory imaginable. The writing is beautiful, lyrical in places, but the story is utterly and deliberately unrewarding. Some have described it as redemptive, but only in the sense that these survivors - who envy the dead - survive once more. Survival itself is both a compulsion and a curse in this ashen world where nothing grows and you can't see the sun. There is no hope except the next meal and the next evasion of violent death. Though they follow their road through vast tracts of post-apocalyptic America, their lives are as cramped and circumscribed as those of prisoners. They “carry the fire” but they don't know where nor for how long nor who else might be warmed by it. Their journey, like the road, and like the book itself, has no beginning and no end. No meaning except that given by the rare moments of pathos or ease in an otherwise unrelieved struggle. In this sense the book is an allegory of human life.
Listen to the first sentence of Cormac McCarthy's Pullitzer prize-winning The Road:
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”
Wow. This is like beat poetry. I haven't got very far with this one yet, but I can tell it's going to require concentration. This is a good thing. I think too few modern writers pay attention to prosody - the music and rhythm of their writing, the way it sounds in your head and feels in your mouth when you read it.
This also got me thinking about great first lines. Moby Dick's “Call me Ishmael” comes to mind, and of course Dickens' Tale of Two Cities opener. I know I harp on Henry James, but how exquisite is this from Portrait of a Lady:
“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
I also like the one-word openers. Bleak House begins with “London.” Unbeatably, Beowulf begins with “So.”
And how can you go past Genesis? When you think about it, it's a spine-tingling way to begin a book:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”