Apocalypse, Authority, Book review., Books, Calvinism, Captivity, Children, Christian, Christianity, Cormac McCarthy, Crime, Education, Emma Donoghue, Father, Feminism, Financial Meltdown, God, Horror, Imprisonment, Joseph Fritzl, Literary criticism, Mother, Patriarchy, Poverty, Predestination, Room, The Devil, The Road, The Wandering Jew
[The following contains plot spoilers.]
When reflecting upon the making of her Booker Prize nominated bestseller Room (2010) for the Columbus Dispatch, Emma Donoghue revealed that “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road  was just as influential as the Fritzl case.” Whilst Room’s account of a young woman’s abduction and long-term captivity cannot fail to owe a debt to Joseph Fritzl, I have yet to encounter a good comparison of Room and The Road, which is curious given that everything about Donoghue’s novel, down to its very title, seems to deliberately and quite neatly complement The Road. It is even more curious that these two innovative and greatly successful contemporary novels both portray nameless “single parents” who are struggling to protect and educate their children in the teeth of horrific deprivation. One would like to think that the popularity of both novels is a reaction to their regard for the creative potential of the novel itself. Yet on a less civilised level, and in the murky realm of instinct and magnetism which affirms the good, true literary horrors, then it seems significant that both books haunt and tantalise a recession-battered readership with the same spectre of desperate material want.
After Jack’s Ma is released from the captivity of an eleven foot squared garden shed, in which her abductor has imprisoned her for five years, her lawyer suggests that, “you’ve a lot to teach the world. The whole living-on-less thing, it couldn’t be more zeitgeisty.” As Tychy has previously noted, the novel’s heart is not wholly in this satire, not least because Jack and Ma’s captivity provides a more formal and unpolluted version of the natural mother-and-child relationship. In The Road, a father and his son trek across a gigantic ashtray which was once America, and with his civilisation reduced to a handful of dust, the father’s entire world is now his son. The father is told that, “the boy was all that stood between him and death.” Jack’s Ma had similarly lost everything, but, with the birth of her son, she gained a new life in more ways than one. In an elemental sense, both novels insist that everyday materialism pales before the enormity of a parent’s love for their child, and anything further to these books can be construed as an elaboration upon this underlying message, or as a more scenic route on the same journey.
As Benjamin Whitmer observes in a review for The Modern Word, “few authors are as dedicated to the art of pastiche as McCarthy,” and Whitmer remarks of McCarthy’s literary borrowings that it is “as if these rags of meaning are all that remain to cover the naked desolation of the world he’s created.” In Room, however, McCarthy finds himself being observed by a quizzical, contrary offspring, who dresses very differently to her father, and as so typically occurs between warring generations, the sticking point is over God. In a world in which God has died or lost his mind, should those made in His image continue to uphold His patriarchal authority?
It is uncertain whether The Road and Room arrive at different answers, or merely approach the question from different angles, but the most conspicuous difference between the two novels lies in the nature of their respective narratives. The Road is so Biblically portentous that it would be more fitting to have the novel inscribed on tablets of stone, whilst Room is effectively written in crayon, in being narrated by the five year old Jack. Yet Jack has at least mastered punctuation, whereas McCarthy enacts the modernists’ last stand against this tyranny (in the conversation between the father and his roadster adversary, question marks are randomly affixed to about two thirds of the sentences that require them.) The Road is so stark and profound that one can imagine a future people quoting it to great effect as we do with the Old Testament, whereas Room is too attached to a contemporary fascination with the Fritz case, and too buzzing with references to popular culture, to last for thousands of years.
The Road is at pains to emphasise that its two heroes are created in God’s image and that they speak with His voice. It is said of the “boy” that, “If he is not the word of God God never spoke,” whilst the boy is told that he can pray to his dead father rather than God because “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” At one point, the father gets the wrong end of the stick and he angrily demands whether the deity reflects his own image: “Are you there?… Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.” Yet the apparent paradox of the novel – that “there is no God and we are his prophets” – is only resolvable with resort to a doctrine of predestination, in which God’s authority is invested in an entirely predetermined narrative, and one which is so predetermined that it allows the deity to be absent or even dead, because there is no need for Him to remain.
The end of the world is thus as old as the world. The technical reason for the apocalypse is never specified, and McCarthy seems to discourage any interest in an environmental interpretation of the novel, because humanity was never accorded any power to avert the catastrophe in the first place. Nature seems to have been simply turned off with a switch. The novel permits itself to joke about predestination when the father and son meet a version of the Wandering Jew, who is still ordained to walk the Earth even after the world has ended. This character explains that, “I was always on the road… I just keep going,” and he grumbles that, “I might wish I had died. When you’re alive you’ve always got that ahead of you.” The boy is likewise destined to simply survive, regardless of whatever befalls him and his father on the Road. The father can see that, “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God.”
Readers of The Road often carp about the novel’s ending because, as with the fortuitous discovery of a bunker which is filled with food, it seems that this deliverance is disappointingly easy. McCarthy almost brazenly flaunts the unlikely new family – there are a whole four of them, they remain aloof from the dirty business of cannibalism (which is sinful precisely because men are eating the image of God), and the novel ends before it can find the chance to explain how they have survived. On the novel’s own terms, the family’s survival is impossible and, rather paradoxically, the only rational inference is that they must be angels. The family may have been following the father and son throughout the novel, for at one point, in an oddly isolated incident, the boy spots another “boy, about his age” watching him from behind a house. The angel who addresses the boy mentions, almost with a wink to the readers, that, “There was some discussion about whether to even come after you at all.”
In The Road, God is both dead and completely in control of every detail of man’s fate, but Room evokes a God who is neither dead nor in control. If the father and son in The Road discover a homemade room in a suburban garden, which is filled with stockpiles of tinned food, it seems that the apocalypse has transformed the sort of room in which Jack was held captive into an Edenic oasis of plenty. There was a little of Eden to the Room already, with its snake under the bed, but the God of Donoghue’s novel is an impostor known as “Old Nick,” who has established a cramped, miserable Eden, with an analogue television as the “tree of knowledge” and the equivalent of eating from the tree presumably being to believe that the rubbish broadcast on the television is “Real.” Jack is this God’s “son,” and, as with the original story, his is apparently a virgin birth, with his mother telling the world that, “Jack’s nobody’s son but mine.” This little boy may seem similarly Messianic in stature to McCarthy’s young hero, in sacrificing himself and “dying” temporarily in order to free his mother from captivity, but he equally suggests the figure of the fallen angel, in rebelling against his father and overthrowing his authority. Jack is thus a mixture of Adam, Jesus, and Satan, and his father does not stand a chance.
The Road is set in a world which appears to have outlived motherhood: the “banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp” and the grimmest image of the novel is of a pregnant zombie-cannibal mother whose newborn child will be roasted on a spit. The boy’s own mother is remorselessly practical – a “creation perfectly evolved to meet its own end” – and to her mind, the father is soft for enduring. In a conflating of parental love and religious faith, if the boy was not born then they would have had to invent him: “A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body.” Yet she can equally perceive the cruelty of bringing a real child into such an unfeeling and unresponsive world: “My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now.” Stifling any maternal instinct, she is a frustrated philosopher, weighing up the pros and cons of living, and finding no answer. “As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.”
McCarthy is often described as a “masculinist” writer, who is entitled to take his place within American literature’s posse of hard men alongside Faulkner and Hemingway, and Donoghue conceivably dissents from him on a question of mere taste, in preferring motherhood to patriarchy. Donoghue insists that a mother can be just as strong, loving, and protective as the father in McCarthy‘s novel. Although Jack’s Ma would not last very long on the Road, unlike with the boy’s mother her strengths emerge within a confined domestic sphere, and amidst the defeat and humiliation of captivity. Maintaining that she was “alive again” and that she “mattered” after Jack’s birth, Ma matches an obvious maternal love with the coldly practical belief that a son will sustain her own life, as well as the robust practicality of the father from McCarthy’s novel. And whilst motherhood has expired along with the flora and fauna in The Road, Ma emerges from the Room to a world in which patriarchy is now obsolete. Her adoptive father has abandoned his family and when he finally materialises, he is so pitiful that he cannot even look at Jack. The only paternalistic figure who appears in the novel is Steppa, who has no children himself and who is only accepted as Grandma’s assistant because he is easygoing, non-aggressive, and essentially a sort of big hairy mother. Patriarchy is so discredited that at no point in the novel does it occur to Jack to ask who his own father is.
Unless the boy has really fallen into the hands of cannibals at the end of McCarthy’s novel, he will surely go on to lead a tribe out of the desert, upholding the word of God in a world which He has forsaken or forgotten. One may take greater heart from the conclusion of Room, in which motherhood entails sacrifice and Ma dies temporarily, just as Jack did for her, so that upon her return he has achieved a sort of independence, in being no longer able to drink from the breast and losing the tooth which he had sucked as a substitute nipple. Jack believes only in a “baby” Jesus. Thriving despite the lamentable failures of patriarchy, he is beyond the Gods.