Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as an Early Metamodernist Novel
At the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, the boy is left with two choices. He can stay with his dead father and die. Or he can join the man who shows up on the road. Not much is known about this man other than the fact that he is accompanied by his family (wife, son, and daughter) and that they don’t eat people (McCarthy 283-285). The boy does not have much of a choice but to join them. Certainly, he could have done worse. The presence of children is a positive sign. In addition the man–with his ski parka, shotgun, ammunition, and scarred cheek (McCarthy 281-282)–is described in a way that exudes the following characteristics: health, protection, and toughness. McCarthy is careful not to provide details that would make the reader suspicious of the man. Consider the difference between the thief that smelled of “stinking rags” (257) and whose right hand’s fingers had been cut off like a “fleshy spatula” (256).
The Road ends with the boy joining this family, giving the sense of a tentative hope. It is unclear how the family survives or if there are others in this group. But what we do learn is that the woman believes in God. She talked to the boy “sometimes about God” and said that “the breath of God was his breath yet it pass from man to man through all of time” (McCarthy 286). This creates the implication that faith in God is aligned with “not eating people” and “being the good guys.”
Thus it appears that McCarthy’s solution on how to live in a post-apocalyptic world is to double down on faith and Christian morality despite the reality. It is precisely this idea–in its unflinching earnestness–that makes The Road an early blueprint for the metamodernist novel.
Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker (2010) describe metamodernism as “at once modern and postmodern and neither of them.” The metaphor of a pendulum is used, specifically how it swings from one extreme to the other. It is important to note that this is not about balance. Instead metamodernism is about oscillations “between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.”
The transition from the postmodern to the metamodern is influenced by “financial crises, geopolitical instabilities, and climatological uncertainties.” Vermeulen and Akker note, however, that 9/11 is not an influence on the metamodern mindset. “Terrorism neither infused doubt about the supposed superiority of neoliberalism, nor did it inspire reflection about the basic assumptions of Western economics, politics, and culture.”
This makes sense. After 9/11, Americans turned to the government for support and protection. In contrast, the Great Recession solidified a new lack of trust in the government. Many people’s lives were altered due to the downturn in the economy and they learned that the government could not bail them out.
Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is a good encapsulation of how working-class American lives were affected by the Great Recession. Goldstein’s book spans eight years from 2008-2016. She describes how the shutdown of a General Motors Assembly Plant in the city forced people to adjust their expectations. The $28 an hour jobs assembling cars were no longer a reality. Some workers went back to school to learn new skills. Others accepted much lower-paying jobs or found work in nearby states. Teenagers, once living comfortable middle class childhoods, found themselves accepting charity from teachers and working part-time jobs to help their parents. Social services, such as food pantries and medical clinics, became overwhelmed by demand and budget cuts. What Janesville shows is not a city that gave up, but one where its residents forged on, hoping to improve their situations.
In regards to the expression of metamodernism, there are many competing strategies, such as “Remodernism, Reconstructivism, Renewalism, the New Sincerity, The New Weird Generation, Stuckism, Freak Folk.” Vermeulen and Akker also mention a practice called “performatism,” which is described “as the willful self-deceit to believe in–or identify with, or solve–something in spite of itself.” This is accomplished by creating a specific context for the situation. Now the reader/viewer is forced to understand that character’s actions within the “frame” no matter how unbelievable it is. At the same time, the reader/viewer is still aware of the “particularity of the argument at hand.”
Vermeulen and Akker’s description of performatism appears as if it can be applied to any novel. By reading fiction–especially fantasy and science fiction–the reader is willfully suspending their belief. The key difference is in the awareness of the argument. In postmodernism, especially metafiction, there is a deliberate breaking of the fictional dream. This makes the reader always conscious that they are reading a book. Performatism strives for a mixture of these two extremes.
The Road can be read as a metamodern and performatist novel. McCarthy’s use of the post-apocalyptic genre serves as the frame and context for his argument. In addition, the man and boy are themselves enacting the concept of performatism, thus adding a meta layer that the reader must acknowledge.
A Survey of Related Papers
Much of the scholarly work about The Road discuss how the novel defies postmodern conventions. No one, however, has specifically described McCarthy’s choices as metamodernist. One reason is that The Road was ahead of its time in offering a solution to the postmodern mindset. The other reason is that metamodernism is still a fledgling concept. It may or may not fully describe the changes in attitude in the last decade.
Alan Noble (2011) describes how reading “the novel in light of Kierkegaard’s treatment of Abraham and Isaac allow us to fully accept the nihilism of the novel without in anyway diminishing hope” (107). This state of nihilism co-existing with hope is a metamodern concept. Consider the metaphor of the pendulum again. Consider the contextual frame of pragmatism. It is true, logically, that it is absurd to be hopeful in a world that has no purpose or meaning. But in reality it is still possible to think this way. And even if hope defies logic, it does not make this mindset wrong. Nor does it make it right. It may simply be one solution from a limited set of alternatives. McCarthy in his post-apocalyptic world also offers suicide and cannibalism as options.
Matthew Mullins (2011) investigates The Road’s return to “a certain brand of humanism” (77), which he believes is an alternative response to the “malaises of modernity” (77) with modernism and postmodernism being previous solutions. Mullins suggests that The Road’s standard of humanity is one that transcends the individual (85). This then implies that suicide and cannibalism are the opposite of humanity due to the potentially selfish motivations of both acts. This idea of humanism certainly manifests in the boy’s desire to help Ely (McCarthy 164-165) and the thief who stole their cart (McCarthy 259). In both cases, the boy is willing to share material things to help others despite their scarcity. It is this trust and altruism that could potentially lead to the revival of a broken down society. Mullins makes the point that “postmodernism seems unable to account for a morality that values all humans as humans” (91). This is why The Road’s “adaption of modernism” (Mullins 79) is important. However I disagree with Mullins that the novel rejects postmodernism. Instead I would argue that the post-apocalyptic world is itself a postmodern environment, a place that the man and boy must navigate. The truth of this world cannot be fully ignored.
Markus Wierschem (2013) writes about “the scientific McCarthy.” He makes a case for the influence of thermodynamics and information theory in The Road, specifically how McCarthy, being a “scientifically savvy” (6) writer would apply these concepts with a “certain care” (6). Wierschem’s argument is not fully convincing. His close reading fails to distinguish different definitions of entropy in classical and statistical thermodynamics. In addition, he chooses to discuss the loss of “meaning” in the world of The Road in relation to information theory. This is problematic since “information in the Mathematical Theory of Communication [MTC] has nothing to do with “meaning,” i.e. the semantic dimension of information” (Wierschem 7).
I would argue that apocalyptic narratives are also inherently conducive to the idea of entropy, though this definition may be distorted or simplified within mainstream culture. And I would argue that what is important is not the scientific accuracy, but the multiway exchange of ideas between science, culture, literature, and other modes of thought. Thus, whether McCarthy is being scientifically accurate and whether he is consciously applying these concepts is a moot point. For instance, McCarthy at the end of the novel writes, “Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again” (287). This has echoes of the Second Law of Thermodynamics–specifically the irreversibility of entropy as it increases in a closed system. However, there is enough ambiguity in this passage to allow for alternative interpretations.
By the end of the article, Wierschem concludes that “the choice between apocalypse and entropy, between secularism and religious belief, turns out to be a non-issue. The Road supports both readings, even unites them to create a narrative more powerful than either of them” (17). Here I agree with Wierschem. This acknowledgement and interplay of secular and religious ideas is what matters.
Ali Taghizadeh and Ali Ghaderi (2016) focus on the relationship of reason and faith in The Road by showing how Ely, the man, and the boy each navigate these conflicting ideas in different ways. They conclude that “faith and subjectivity are both inconsistent and unreliable” (183). This seems to imply the characters of The Road are in conflict with the reality of the post-apocalyptic world and their faith. At times, they have more hope, such as when the man finds the bomb shelter with its abundance of food.
Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs. Paper towels, toiletpaper, paper plates (McCarthy 138).
Upon this discovery, the man cannot wait to show his son. He says, “I found everything. Everything. Wait till you see. He led him down the stairs and picked up the bottle and held the flame aloft. Can you see? he said. Can you see?” (McCarthy 139). Conversely, consider the man’s thoughts prior to finding the bomb shelter, wherein he is sick and starving.
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe (McCarthy 130).
Here the man’s thoughts shift toward the rational and objective, toward a sober reality of the situation. This uncertainty between modes of thought can be read as the continuous swing of metamodernism’s pendulum. Though one could also argue that the man’s reactions are natural given the circumstances. In other words, the man is not being as rational or objective as he appears. Instead it is the starvation that affects his bleak state of mind.
Geoff Hamilton (2017) analyzes the Beckettian influences on The Road, specifically McCarthy’s “rejection of what his precursor’s work is assumed to convey” (55). Hamilton suggests that McCarthy’s use of myth is an alternative to Beckett’s “interminable bleakness, religious skepticism, and anti-progressive attitude” (55). It should be made clear that McCarthy does not reject all Beckettian ideas. Certainly the world that the man and the boy inhabit, this world endlessly described as “cold”, “gray,” “black,” “dark,” and “silent,” could be the set of a Beckett play. The key difference is how The Road’s protagonists react to their environment. The man “will continue on not because there is nothing else to be done (until death)–as those in Beckett’s works typically do–but because he has discovered, and cannot deny, an authentic and sustaining wellspring of the divine.” (Hamilton 59).
If we consider Beckett a postmodern writer and McCarthy’s deployment of myth as a modernist technique, then it could be argued that the result is metamodern. The Road acknowledges the postmodern, but also reminds readers how myth can aid in the development of society.
The “Frame” of The Road
If we are to read The Road under the guise of pragmatism, we first need to consider the “frame” of the novel, the post-apocalyptic environment for which we must understand the man and the boy.
The setting of The Road is both future and past. But it is also neither. Taghizadeh and Ghaderi interpret this world as one where “all simulated commodities and ideologies have already lost their meaning. For example, in this novel, charms and fascinations of the postmodern era like shopping malls, brands of clothes, and so forth, are destroyed” (173). This description encapsulates the duality of future and past. On one hand we have a loss of meaning that can be read as the final trajectory of postmodernism. Conversely we also have the destruction of physical commodities, which sets human society backwards in regards to technology. The environment becomes reminiscent of pre-modern times, though this hunter-gatherer lifestyle is fused with the remnants of modernity. Instead of hunting animals or picking fruit, they scavenge for canned goods, such as what they find in the bomb shelter. “Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams” (McCarthy 138).
At the same time, the world of the The Road is neither future nor past for the simple fact that the book is a work of fiction and thus sits outside of history. Rationally, we can think of the story as a carefully constructed hypothetical or philosophical argument wherein McCarthy is implicitly asking the reader: “What would you do in this situation?”
Cannibalism and Suicide
The Road presents cannibalism and suicide as two alternative choices for living in McCarthy’s carefully constructed post-apocalyptic world. The most critical fact of this world is that the majority of animal life and vegetation has died off. More than the loss of technology, this lack of regenerative food sources is what leads to the bleakness of the situation.
Cannibalism has negative connotations and McCarthy does nothing to alter those beliefs. Consider the description of the prisoners that the man and boy find while exploring a house. “Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and females, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous” (McCarthy 111). This description of the naked people huddled together is reminiscent of World War II concentration camps and thus creates a relation between genocide and cannibalism. This is a false equivalency, but contextual that is the effect of this passage.
The Road’s stance on cannibalism is further solidified when the man and boy encounter the dead baby. “What the boy had seen was a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit” (McCarthy 198). In “civilized” society, children are to be protected at all costs. We expect loving relationships like the one between the man and the boy. This image strengthens the book’s stance against cannibalism. It also serves to make the reader more sympathetic toward the hardships of the man and the boy, which plays into McCarthy’s points about the value of Christian morality.
If we ignore the novel’s bias against cannibalism, is it possible that a rational cannibalism could lead to the rebirth of society? Theoretical it could be possible. For one, cannibalism is not necessarily a selfish and desperate act. This largely depends on context. Organized cannibalism is a possibility. The closest depiction of this is when the man and the boy encounter the large group of cannibals marching in the road. There is clear organization in how the men with pipes walk in front and are then followed by men with spears and lances (McCarthy 91). In addition, unity is expressed in how they all wear “red scarves at their necks” (McCarthy 91). The warriors are followed by “wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dog collars and yoked to each other” (McCarthy 92). The man tells the boy that these are the bad guys. Is the man right?
This is hard to say. It all depends on context. Certainly this scene is shocking to contemporary morality. Here we have people as slaves, women treated as objects or in child-bearing roles, and chained up homosexuals. But at the same time, there is a measure of society here, primitive and backwards as it may be. There is a clear hierarchy, one where straight men who can fight have the power. It is not difficult to see the logical end to this arrangement. The women give birth to children, some of whom are considered food and some of whom take other roles in this fledgling society. On an emotional level, this scheme sounds horrible with its echoes of eugenics, a vision of rationality gone wrong. But what options do these survivors realistically have? Human flesh is the only source of food that appears reproducible. Is rational cannibalism a means to an end? What is the end?
The other option that The Road presents is suicide through the woman. Her choice appears to be based on pure rationality. She reasons that the cannibals are “going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant” (McCarthy 56). Even if they do not get eaten, they still face many hardships, such as starvation and extreme cold. This world stripped of nearly everything except the relationship of the man and boy, asks the reader: “What is the point of life? What is its meaning?” The Road’s depiction of the postmodern world’s descent into madness and hopelessness seems to say that it is, on a rational level, meaningless.
The text does not provide much information about the woman, but what the reader gets is unfavorable. She abandons not only her husband, but also her son. In addition her choice may not be as rational as it appears. She says, “My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born, so dont ask for sorrow now” (McCarthy 57). The implication here seems to be an unplanned pregnancy followed by guilt. There is a sense that she blames the man for this as well as herself. Were she a completely rational character, she would have committed suicide long ago instead of only talking about death, about doing it.
Erik J. Wielenberg (2010) makes a similar point about the woman. He says that “she has lost her connection with the man and the child” (13). One of the paper’s central points is that the “absence of connections with others is the real threat to meaning and value; the source of meaning and value is love” (14). I agree with this conclusion. McCarthy illustrates this idea in an interesting way. He first relates silence to the dying world and then juxtaposes that to the boy’s refusal to speak.
The are many instances of the man listening for sounds. But often he is met with silence (McCarthy 3, 11, 17, 62, 69, 82, 105, 117, 260, 261). This silence can represent humanity’s lost connection with the natural world, which has resulted in a dying planet. Now we can connect this to the man and the boy and the fluctuations of their relationship. As Wielenberg points out, there are many moments where the boy refuses to speak to the father (17). This is usually after the boy has seen something horrific or when the man has done something unethical. There is the scene when the man shoots the roadrat and the boy gets covered with gore and is “mute as a stone” (McCarthy 66). And then there is the discovery of the dead baby on the spit that makes the man wonder if the boy would ever speak again (McCarthy 199). This loving relationship between the man and the boy provides a contrast, an alternative to the woman’s decision, which is difficult in this context not to interpret as selfish. As with cannibalism, the book does not present suicide as a viable option.
Faith and Christian Morality
The post-apocalyptic world of The Road is representative of the postmodern idea that life is meaningless. Nature does not care whether you are a good guy or a bad guy. Humanity’s central (biological) drive is to survive and reproduce. There is nothing more. Cannibalism and suicide are both irrational and rational responses given this assertion. The text argues that these two choices are inferior to faith and Christian morality, specifically a return to these principles.
Will a return to faith and Christian morality help reconstruct human society? The text does not answer this question, but the implication is the world of The Road is doomed. The boy’s goodness is futile. Consider the last paragraph, specifically: “Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and hummed of mystery” (287). This implies that it is too late for humanity. The natural world will live on without us, as it always has.
The importance of returning to faith and Christian morality, then is not about reconstructing society in a post-apocalyptic world, but doing so in the present. The book serves as warning against descending into the madness of subjectivity fractured a trillion ways, of a Christian morality deconstructed. McCarthy seems to suggest that if human civilization continues on its current trajectory of moral collapse (represented by cannibalism and suicide in the text), that we will find ourselves in a world much like what is depicted in The Road, and that it will be too late to fix things.
This return to faith and Christian morality in the face of a post-apocalyptic world that has disapproved the existence of God is what makes The Road a metamodern novel. McCarthy does not suggest that God exists. What matters are the stories of the Bible, which serve as way to pass along moral concepts from generation to generation. Or we could say that “the breath of God was his breath yet through it pass from man to man through all of time” (McCarthy 286). There is the implication that these moral guidelines have fostered the growth and stability of civilization for thousands of years. Why disregard them for no reason? Can this morality be separated from a Christianity ridiculed by postmodern irony? In the world of The Road, the answer appears to be no, judging by the cannibal communes who are presented as having no morals (56, 91, 198).
Because the stories of the past have been destroyed, the man tells the boy new stories that reinforce the morals he wants to instill in his son. He told old “stories of courage and justice as he remembered them” (McCarthy 41). What is important is that these stories do not need to be true. In a discussion about the veracity of fiction, the boy says: “But in the stories we’re always helping people and we dont help people” (McCarthy 268). Even though the stories are not true, the man has already instilled this idea of helping people in the boy (McCarthy 50, 127, 164 259).
These stories also prevent the boy from descending into nihilism and suicide. Near the end, the man and the boy have a conversation on the beach. The boy asks the man how many people he thinks are still alive. And he asks if there are people living on other planets. Initially the man answers truthfully. He says, “I dont think so. They couldnt live anyplace else” (McCarthy 244). The boy then shakes his head and says “I dont know we’re doing” (McCarthy 244), which prompts the man’s response. “He started to answer. But he didnt. After a while he said: There are people. There are people and we’ll find them, You’ll see.” (McCarthy 244). Clearly the man does not believe this. Hence the hesitation.
Several pages earlier, the man says to himself. “Every day is a lie, he said. But you are dying. That is not lie” (McCarthy 239). This echoes the meaningless of life from a rational perspective. It is true. Everyone dies. However his statement that “Every day is a lie” is a more ambiguous. It is both a lie and it is not. It can interpreted as both rational and irrational. What matters though is what the man believes. This is his struggle. And it is the boy who keeps him from descending into nihilism. The boy is the enactment of the man’s fictions, which become tentative truths. There is goodness. There is meaning to life. Perhaps, then, every day is not a complete lie?
On a metafictional level, the story of The Road serves the same purpose as the man’s stories. What McCarthy has done is employ metafiction to reinforce his message. This is an example of the metamodern pendulum, how it does not deny postmodernism outright. This self-consciousness can also be seen as an aspect of pragmatism, the acknowledgement of the real argument within the fiction.
In other words, this sincere and loving relationship between the man and the boy and their insistence on goodness in the face of extreme circumstances can teach readers that they should not give up on life, no matter how dire. And if the message of The Road can influence people, then the world can be changed. Then a real truth may come forth from what are lies.
Goldstein, Amy. Janesville: An American Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Print.
Hamilton, Geoff. “Something to Be Done: The Road, Beckett, and American Autonomy.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 47 no. 1, 2017, pp. 54-75. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/652234.
Matthew Mullins. “Hunger and the Apocalypse of Modernity in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” Symplokē, vol. 19, no. 1-2, 2011, pp. 75–93. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5250/symploke.19.1-2.0075.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage International, 2006. Print.
Noble, Alan. “The Absurdity of Hope in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road.’” South Atlantic Review, vol. 76, no. 3, 2011, pp. 93–109. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43739125.
Taghizadeh, Ali and Ali Ghaderi. “Faith and Reason in the Mad Subjectivity: Cormac Mccarthy’s Post-Apocalyptic Narrative the Road.” GEMA Online Journal of Language Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, June 2016, pp. 173-185. EBSCOhost, libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=116434946&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker. “Notes on metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 2, no. 1, 2010, https://doi.org/10.3402/jac.v2i0.5677.
Wielenberg, Erik J. “God, Morality, and Meaning in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road.’” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1–19. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42909407.
Wierschem, Markus. “The Other End of ‘The Road’: Re-Reading McCarthy in Light of Thermodynamics and Information Theory.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1–22. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42909447.