The Narrative of Objects and Dreams in The Road
Cormac McCarthy has lived most of his life in Tennessee, Texas and New Mexico. Like many Southern writers who explore the themes unique in the American South, regional settings play an important role in his fiction. He is best known for his literary Western fiction set in the Southwest and Mexico. Many critics have pointed out similarities in themes between the novels of William Faulkner and McCarthy, but unlike Faulkner, McCarthy writes visual narratives. His novel, No Country for Old Men, seems to be specifically written for film; multiple points of views are used as in a screenplay. His other novel, All the Pretty Horses, was also made into a film.
In No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and The Road, all the main characters are fleeing from their current home or environment whether their motivation is greed for money, adventure, or survival. There are clear narrative drives in the first two novels. In All the Pretty Horses, John Grady and Rawlins, the main characters, move across the border to Mexico, and in No Country for Old Men, Llewelyn Moss, the central character, takes off with drug money he ran into and is chased by a hit man named Anton Chigurh. In both novels, action and human drama drive the narrative forward, and there is a clear narrative arc from beginning to middle to end.
Landscapes and objects, always important in McCarthy's fictional world, serve as the backdrop of these novels and rarely assert themselves as they do in The Road, where the conventional narrative relationship of objects and characters is inverted: objects are foregrounded while characters are backgrounded as they remain in shadows. I am not sure if that was McCarthy's intention. It may be more accurate to say that the reader gets such an impression since there doesn't seem to be a clear overall narrative arc in the novel. Some might say it's episodic, but I think there's something else working on a deeper level of the narrative. I have read many engaging picaresque novels, including Don Quixote. There are several other episodic road narratives such as Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Neil Gaiman's American Gods.
One common element for the success of these road narratives is strong character development usually established at the beginning of a novel so that the reader can care about the main characters and follow them to the end of the narrative. Such characterization expected early in a road narrative is missing in The Road, but I'm not implying that it is a flawed novel, since it employs a different narrative strategy. I will rather say that The Road works as a narrative of 'things' rather than a road narrative.
Writers or narrators of visual narrative are often quite familiar with the setting and objects they describe. They usually have a personal relationship with the objects in their fiction. When a man leaves for a certain destination as the narrator does in The Road, he has certain expectations and attitudes toward objects he encounters, but, things are unfamiliar in the novel. The narrator looks as if he is lost in a foreign land. He doesn't seem to know his whereabouts well, and he himself admits: "We're the walking dead in a horror film" (55); "to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed" (153).
McCarthy's descriptions of abandoned houses and things of the destroyed world are often poetic but they fail to evoke emotions, for example, nostalgia. Soon a repetitive narrative pattern is established: the narrator walks on the road and finds a deserted house and searches it. As I followed him along the road, I often felt as if I saw through a fog or often felt like watching a fuzzy movie. Many scenes, even the most violent scenes in the novel, did not strongly register in my mind. I wondered why the text kept giving me blurry pictures and came up with a few reasons. First, unlike other road narratives, the narrator is not grounded in reality, that is, in a specific time and location, in a physical world we care about. It looks as if the narrator is dropped on Robinson Crusoe's island where a man stops existing as a social being. No names are provided for any characters in the novel. The narrator tells us that he's heading south to avoid the cold winter, but we don't know when it is and where he is, what really happened in the past, where his friends and relatives are... The reader keeps asking these questions to ground him in our rational world, but almost nothing is told other than the fact that there has been an earthquake (28). I often wondered why the narrator doesn't even tell us the names of the towns and cities he visits. There must be road signs he sees on the road, but he refuses to read them. It is also clear that he refers to a map he possesses, but the narrator intentionally omits all the geographical signs and leaves the reader in the dark. Second, the readers are rarely allowed insight into the narrator's mind. We don't know much about how the narrator feels and thinks about his surroundings and the bleak future waiting for him. Although dialogue is a major part of the novel, it doesn't reveal much information. Third, there is a long list of narrative signs dropped here and there throughout the novel, but they're not linked to tell a big narrative, not allowing any consistent narrative thread other than they travel on the road. The novel is filled with unrelated events which take place without proper foreshadowing or rising tensions leading to them.
The story in The Road starts in medias res. From the beginning, McCarthy often refuses to provide any introductory or background information on what happened in the immediate past. In traditional realistic fiction, such information is often told through narration, but in McCarthy's novel, there are only random hints here and there, signs that careless readers are easy to miss. There is rarely any direct narration. To stay on track, the reader must read the text metonymically, often piecing together any clues or signs the narrator leaves behind. Often these signs are the wreckage or relics of the lost world, objects the narrator sees while on the road or in a confined space he visits: a house, barn, or ship. These objects or things of the past often take the front page of the story.
There are a few layers of objects. First McCarthy provides rough sketches of abandoned cities, towns, and villages. Then he describes the exteriors of buildings and houses the narrator comes upon and then their components and things inside. Often terse and poetic descriptions of the objects inside the houses signify something larger or related, providing a glimpse into the past, and the novel slowly turns into a composite narrative of objects- a collage of objects or signs.
Susan Stewart argues that "The movement from realism to modernism and postmodernism is a movement from the sign as material to the signifying process itself." The Road can be considered as a good example of a modernist text. Stewart distinguishes the modernist use of language from the realist one:
The reflexivity of the modernist use of language calls attention not to the material existence of a world beyond and outside language but to the world-making capacity of language, a capacity which points to the arbitrariness of the sign at the same time that it points to the world as a transient creation of language. (5)
It explains what's going on in McCarthy's novel: the reader is only allowed to see the arbitrary world through the eyes of the narrator, the world filtered through his perceptions of reality, rather than the objective world presented in a realist novel.
Let's look at the way McCarthy presents the material existence of world in the novel:
In the morning they went on. Desolate country. A boarhide nailed to a barndoor. Ratty. Wisp of a tail. Inside the barn three bodies hanging from the rafters, dried and dusty among the wan slats of light. There could be something here, the boy said. There could be some corn or something. Let's go, the man said. (17)
I was struck by the poetic description of objects in the above paragraph. As we will see throughout the novel, McCarthy often uses incomplete sentences or run-on sentences. As in his previous novels, he doesn't use quotation marks for dialogue and often omits possessive apostrophes, commas, or "to be" verbs. McCarthy's concise, Haiku-like poetic descriptions of objects often evoke a lyrical mood, but it doesn't last long as it is often destroyed by obtrusive scenes of violence and stunted dialogues. The narrative voice is so detached that it is hard to know what to make of all the grotesque objects described in the novel. I assume that McCarthy's intention was to signify what happened in the past rather than to evoke horror in the reader's mind, because they often fail to evoke any emotion.
In the above paragraph, the narrator doesn't show any reaction to the chilling postapocalyptic scene of the three dead bodies. His only reaction is that he might find food inside the abandoned house. Throughout the novel we see a similar pattern. Writers of visual narrative often show their emotional reaction by zooming in and out on objects of description, but in The Road, there seems to be only one fixed focalization for descriptions of objects.
Jay Ellis points out that "McCarthy relies more on setting than on plot, or even character" in his fiction (1). This appears to be true in The Road, since descriptions of objects and debris rather than plot and characterization seem to be what drives the narrative forward. Dialogues, a major part of the novel, don't reveal much about the characters and often sound repetitive. Descriptions of the narrator's actions help ease the lack of the narrative's forward momentum.
After the violent confrontation with a stranger whom the narrator kills by shooting him in the head, the narrator and his son move constantly on the road as if they are fleeing from a danger, and we follow their journey to the south, seeing what the narrator sees. McCarthy rarely describes distant landscapes In The Road. The father and son often pass through a city, town, or village. When the narrator sees a city in the distance as they approach it, he can't see it clearly: "the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste" (8); "Sketched upon the pall of soot downstream the outline of a burnt city like a black paper scrim" (159); "The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline" (261). The narrator probably can't see clearly objects in the distance because of the swirls of the ashes floating in the air which make "everything paling away into the murk" (4). He often watches "the ashen daylight congeal over the land" (5). The narrator who once wore a mask at the beginning of the novel explains that the ash air condition after the earthquake is so bad that people wear masks and goggles (28).
Throughout the novel, the father and son often come upon one abandoned building after another. It can be a house, barn, bunker, a store on the street or a boat on the beach. Here is a long list of buildings the narrator visits and searches: "a roadside gas station" (6); "the farmhouse" with "an old set of limestone steps" (21) ; "a supermarket" (22); "an old frame house with chimneys and gables and a stone wall" (25); "a store" (70); "a foodmarket" (82); "a once grand house" (105); "a house and a barn" (117); "the charred ruins of the houses" (130); "a solitary house" and "a sort of garden shed" (132); "The bunker" (138); "a market" (150); "an oldfashioned drugstore" (183) ; "a house" (202); "a grocery store" (214); "a sailboat (221); "a house" (262) "the last of the sad wooden buildings" (263).
Searching each confined place becomes a narrative pattern. The narrator goes inside each place to check what is left behind. As we follow them inside, we see what the narrator sees: objects such as furniture, clothing, canned food or other household items. The father and son also often find horrifying objects such as human remains: "Dried corpse" (80); "a frieze of human heads" (90); "naked people," "a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt" (110); "A corpse floating in the black water of a basement among the trash and rusting ductwork" (130); "The charred meat and bones under the damp ash" (150); "The bones of dead creatures sprawled in the ashes" (177); "A human head beneath a cakebell at the end of the counter" (184); "Figures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling" (190); "the mummied figures" (191); "a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit" (198); "The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child" (273).
The long list of horrifying objects scattered throughout the novel presents a "tableau of the slain and the devoured" (91). They are also signs from which the reader can infer their metonymic meanings. The human remains function like objects displayed in a Halloween house of horrors or catacombs, but we the readers don't know what happened. We are shown the remains of the horrifying events and left alone to decipher the synecdochic, metonymic, and/or metaphoric meanings of these objects. We are asked to connect the dots; what's left untold is left to our imagination,
Although McCarthy's prose is poetic at times, his descriptions of these objects rarely evoke melancholy or nostalgia, as do objects discussed in Schwenger's essay, "The Melancholy Object of Art." His sentences are not charged with human emotion and often sound like flat statements. Even when he visits his old house where he grew up, his psychological interaction with objects is muted and cut short by his son who insists on leaving, saying he's scared.
...This is where we used to have Christmas when I was a boy. He turned and looked at the waste of the yard. A tangle of dead lilac. The shape of a hedge. On cold winter nights when the electricity was out in a storm we would sit at the fire, me and my sisters, doing our homework. The boy watched him. Watched shapes claiming him he could not see. We should go, Papa, he said. Yes, the man said. But he didn't. (26) (Italics mine)
He stood in the doorway to his room. A small space under the eaves. This is where I used to sleep. My cot was against this wall. In the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child's imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be. He pushed open the closet door half expecting to find his childhood things. Raw cold daylight fell through from the roof. Gray as his heart. (27)
The above scenes are rare moments when the descriptions of objects evoke compounded feelings of nostalgia and dislocation. The narrator rarely projects his feelings onto the objects he finds in other people's houses. I assume it's because he doesn't have any emotional ties to them other than as material objects that he needs for his survival. Thus the language used for their descriptions is not loaded with emotions.
What's at stake in the story is the survival of the father and son. Their survival depends on whether they can find food in abandoned buildings. Thus the objects they find play a more important role in The Road since the socio-economic system has already collapsed along with the whole ecological system. Thus the narrative agents in the novel seem to be objects or debris rather than characters.
In her essay, "Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting," Mieke Bal argues that objects themselves can function as the 'motor' of narrative. "Objects are inserted into the narrative perspective" (111) and serve as signs. "The extension of subjectivity through investment in the series of objects fit to stand in for the absent attribute of the past" (112). According to Bal, "The act of insertion propels the plot forward as it constitutes the development of the narrative" (112).
Rather than telling the reader about what happened in the past through narration McCarthy chooses to show it through descriptions of objects. McCarthy's descriptions of objects function as a series of signifiers. They signify what's left untold in the narrative. Rather than telling the reader about the past events through narration, he chooses to use literary devices such as synecdoche, metonymy, and metaphor to signify what's under the water, that is, the untold story. As Hemingway's iceberg theory of writing tells only the tip of an iceberg, one eighth of a story, leaving the rest under the water, McCarthy adopts a similar narrative strategy.
McCarthy's writing has been known for its lack of narrative intrusion and interior monologue, and in The Road, he keeps narration to a minimum and heavily depends on description. I'm not arguing that what drives the narrative forward is only descriptions of objects, since there are three different types of descriptions, that is, descriptions of what the narrator sees (objects), of what he speaks (dialogue), and of how he acts (action). The man constantly moves on the road, and this road narrative works as the backbone of the narrative while the long list of objects does as narrative fuel for the motor of the narrative. In his essay, "The Dream Narratives of Debris," Peter Schwenger makes a similar argument to Bal's in regard to narrative of objects:
...narrative can be composed out of debris and fall back into it. The debris in question is quite literal, or rather material: we will look at instances where random physical objects elicit a narrative pattern or attach themselves to an already existing one when the figure of debris becomes actual and material in such a pattern...Various physical objects referenced by the text have now been translated into mental debris, a debris, to be sure, that the reader is constantly trying to fit together without being in possession of a master plan. The associations evoked during that attempt often dart into personal memory and beyond into the unconsciousness-processes of reading that are akin to those of dreams. The dream narratives that result, hovering beneath the surface of even the most banal and conventional novel, are marked...by a continual dislocation of desire. This refusal to be fixed in a stable context is curiously seductive, drawing us between the lines, words, and factual matter of any narrative. Narrative order, that is, is a strategy that impels us toward a journey into everything that is not ordered that is inchoate, unconsciousness. (144)
Both characters and objects in The Road are not "fixed in a stable context." The narrator often comes in and out of dreams and his son also occasionally wakes up from dreams. These dream narratives are also used as flashbacks, telling us about the narrator's past life, especially his relationship with his wife who left him and his son. I am interested in Schwenger's association of narrative of debris with dream narrative. Both narratives of debris and dream coexist in The Road, and I wonder if there is a correlation between dreams and objects in The Road. The objects' "refusal to be fixed in a stable context" may cause the narrative to float in uncertainty, blurring the line between reality and dream.
All the objects in the novel are debris left behind after the cataclysm. If Joseph Cornell's artwork discussed in Schwenger's essay represent a personal narrative of debris, McCarthy's novel may represent a collective narrative of debris, since it works in a large scale, dealing with an apocalypse that has affected the entire world and is about to end it. On one level, the novel is about the father and son's relationship, but on another level, it is about the fate of the entire human race.
If the narrative of The Road is compared to Cornell's box frame, the long list of 'things' scattered throughout the novel functions like personal mementos frozen in Cornell's box. That is, the narrative in The Road is mainly composed of a collage of objects such as houses and objects inside. As Joseph Cornell's things are taken out of context from their past life and put together in an arbitrary frame to create a new meaning, the objects in The Road are presented in text in a similar way as if they are a collection of things of the past in a narrative frame called postapocalyptic America.
The characters survive on the debris of the past world such as "Crate upon crate of canned goods" (129) and "Coca Cola" (23, 139)-the symbol of American capitalism. We don't know what really happened, since we are only allowed to see the tip of an iceberg. The narrative is not anchored to reality but float in the murky water. Its "refusal to be fixed in a stable context" may be one of the reasons the narrative acquires a dreamy quality.
The world the narrator used to live in doesn't exist anymore. It only exists in his memory and dream. As the novel progresses, his struggle with hunger wears him out and he drifts into his dreamy world more frequently. He doesn't have any future and seems resigned to his fate, waiting for the "Last day of earth" (250). He has already ceased to exist as a social being: "He hadn't kept calendar for years" (4) and "The days sloughed past uncounted and uncalendared" (273), and the environmental condition after the earthquake creates a more theatrical atmosphere for the postapocalyptic world: "Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some glaucoma dimming away the world" (3). Later in the novel, the narrator starts living in his past, in his dream, as there is not a clear line between dream and reality anymore: "Old dreams encroached upon the waking world" (280). In the end he himself ends up one of "Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzed hearts" (273).
Bal, Mieke. "Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting." The Cultures of Collecting. Eds. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal. London: Reaktion Books, 1994: 97-115.
Ellis, Jay. No Place for Home: Spatial Constraint and Character Flight in the Novels of Cormac McCarthy. New York: Routledge, 2006.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
Schwenger, Peter. "Dream Narratives of Debris." The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006: 143-56
Stewart, Susan. "On Description and the Book." On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993: 3-36.