On the Road

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Ni­cholas Sum­mer­field

When I was ten I thought there was go­ing to be a nu­clear war. I was quite look­ing for­ward to it. That it re­ally was go­ing to hap­pen was a com­mon­place at the time: there were pop songs about nu­clear war, TV com­edy sketches about nu­clear war. No-one re­ally ex­pressed any doubt about it. The part I was look­ing for­ward to most was not the at­tack it­self, ob­vi­ously – no, it was the af­ter­math. Ev­ery­body knew that dur­ing the blast all you had to do was hide un­der­ground some­where. Then af­ter­wards I and my ju­nior school class­mates would wan­der out com­pletely un­scathed into a world just as it had been be­fore, only now with­out any teach­ers or other adults to spoil things for us. With an­other part of my brain, so to speak, I would worry that ev­ery­one I knew was go­ing to die one night just like that but, be­ing the kind of child I was, I didn’t let that de­tain me too much.

I would tell peo­ple all this by way of a light-hearted anec­dote from my late teens, when the Cold War was com­ing to an end, all the way up to my mid-thir­ties. Then I read The Road by Cor­mac McCarthy. Post-apoc­a­lyp­tic nov­els had be­come rather a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of mine dur­ing those years, but The Road was the stark­est thing I had ever read. Be­cause noth­ing would grow in the nu­clear win­ter it de­picted, there was no food: all the hor­rors that were to come fol­lowed on from this premise, start­ing with the for­est full of dead trees where a Man and a Boy (their names never to be re­vealed) slept rough in the open­ing scene, and swiftly be­com­ing more in­tense. They were not safe if they could be seen from the road, it said in the open­ing pages, and had to be ready to make a run at any minute – though from whom, when the land­scape was ‘bar­ren, si­lent, god­less’? A rare glimpse of some other hu­man be­ings gave the an­swer. The band of sur­vivors they es­pied had some wag­ons which, it was men­tioned al­most in pass­ing, were pushed along by slaves they had taken. Given how the Man and the Boy scrab­bled round for food it seemed only log­i­cal, more­over, when it tran­spired that since the catas­tro­phe peo­ple had re­sorted to can­ni­bal­ism. In case the Boy

were hunted down the Man showed him how to fire a gun, but it was in or­der to shoot not his pur­suers, but him­self.

Mulling over The Road I would ad­mon­ish my­self, even though I’d been a child, for will­ing on a nu­clear holo­caust with quite such brio. It wasn’t as though I had not thought on the re­al­ity of nu­clear war as an adult – on the con­trary – but read­ing The Road had an un­usu­ally sober­ing ef­fect. A few years ear­lier I’d read Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. It had been a fas­ci­nat­ing book, but for all its ar­gu­ments it had never made me be­lieve that the war of ev­ery man against ev­ery man ac­tu­ally could take place. Yet now here it was, right in front of me. If the sur­vivors wanted to take slaves, and the gov­ern­ment had been wiped out with the rest of so­ci­ety, then what was to stop them? If no food would grow, what would any­one eat ex­cept hu­man flesh? The Man and the Boy al­most starved to death try­ing to main­tain the last of their in­tegrity and not de­scend into can­ni­bal­ism, but even they could not af­ford to be al­tru­is­tic: when the Boy sug­gested they stop and help an­other strag­gler, he got short shrift. ‘He’s go­ing to die. If we share what we have, we’ll die too.’ There was noth­ing to say back. This came af­ter they had watched the fel­low sim­ply sit down where he was and give up. They had ended up just walk­ing past him. It was bleak but, again, it was im­pos­si­ble to ar­gue with. Some post-nu­clear nov­els had asked for a sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief at castes of mu­tants or even at psy­chic pow­ers brought on by ra­di­a­tion. The Road was so cred­i­ble pre­cisely be­cause it asked me to be­lieve so lit­tle that, deep down, I didn’t al­ready know to be true.

And in writ­ing it McCarthy had not made things easy for him­self. The Road be­gan in me­dias res but in truth he had given him­self barely any res to write about: no con­ve­nient pock­ets of civil­i­sa­tion where a story might play out, pre­cious few char­ac­ters, lit­tle hu­man in­ter­ac­tion. Yet it was so com­pelling that while I was read­ing it I never even thought about this. Early on came the Man’s first flash­back to his former life – a mem­ory of tak­ing fire­wood across a lake with his un­cle, very sim­ple but beau­ti­fully ren­dered – then, when the fo­cus re­turned to the des­o­late present, all I could do was re­flect on how the world must have gone from the one state to the other, and won­der

if there would be an­other flash­back to the blasts that had set it all in train. It would be less than fifty pages un­til I found out but, with the un­cer­tainty only build­ing in the mean­time and the blasts’ con­se­quences un­fold­ing one af­ter an­other, I was caught up by a mix of an­tic­i­pa­tion and dread. What gave still more im­pe­tus to the book was hunger. The Man and the Boy’s need to eat was too pri­mal and too se­ri­ous to let my at­ten­tion stray. There would be mo­ments that seemed to of­fer a lit­tle re­lief, and the odd episode of hu­man con­tact, but un­derneath it all was al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity that the one thing that was sus­tain­ing them might give out. With a whole novel to fash­ion out of such sparse sub­ject mat­ter, and em­ploy­ing such la­conic prose, McCarthy might have al­lowed him­self a page of com­men­tary or ex­po­si­tion here and there – in fact, though, he seemed to do the op­po­site. At one point the Man and the Boy came across a smashed-up vend­ing ma­chine with no-one around for miles. All the cans had been taken from it, all the money had been left. McCarthy did not go on to ex­pound upon disor­der erupt­ing, food sup­plies break­ing down, so­ci­ety it­self col­laps­ing, but he did not need to, be­cause he had al­ready evoked it all in that one im­age. At the open­ing of the book the Man had only two bul­lets in his gun, and at first read­ing this seemed like a rather ob­vi­ous de­vice: in the straits he was in, why didn’t he arm him­self to the teeth? McCarthy gave not a word in ex­pla­na­tion. Only while ru­mi­nat­ing on it af­ter­wards did I re­alise that, some time be­fore the book be­gan, the Man must have got all the am­mu­ni­tion he could amass, but since then he had been forced to use it up de­fend­ing him­self and his son. The point was not how few bul­lets he had, but how few he had left. In that it evoked whole trains of thought like this whilst need­ing to state so lit­tle, The Road was a po­etic novel.

And not in that sense only. McCarthy’s book was har­row­ing, ter­ri­fy­ing – and full of beau­ti­ful im­agery. A snowflake fell ‘like the last host of Chris­ten­dom’. Nights were ‘dark to hurt your ears with lis­ten­ing’. The Earth and the sun cir­cled round now ‘like a griev­ing mother with a lamp’. It could be funny too even amidst the bleak­ness: when they scouted out a build­ing for dan­ger, the Man and the Boy looked ‘like scep­ti­cal house­buy­ers’.

Re­con­noitring one’s sur­round­ings like this was one of the ac­tions which

I found my­self not­ing down men­tally – per­haps, in spite of ev­ery­thing, I couldn’t re­sist imag­in­ing sur­viv­ing a nu­clear war. If it ever did come to it, though, would I re­ally fare any bet­ter for hav­ing read The Road? True, it had taught me the first thing to do when a nu­clear bomb goes off (run a bath­ful of wa­ter, if you’re in­ter­ested). But the Man’s sur­vival skills also in­cluded trick­ier ones like re­pair­ing a su­per­mar­ket trol­ley wheel, and, since I was not ob­ses­sive enough or time-rich enough to fol­low the meth­ods McCarthy de­scribed, read­ing The Road did not in­spire me to join the ranks of dooms­day sur­vival­ists (though I can re­spect them enough not to join in the guf­faw­ing when peo­ple start dis­cussing episodes of Prep­pers UK). The ef­fect it did have, per­haps sur­pris­ingly for such a pes­simistic novel, was to bring about a richer ap­pre­ci­a­tion of ev­ery­thing around me. I still delec­tate over ev­ery meal, even the most down­mar­ket ones. Not long af­ter I fin­ished read­ing it, I re­mem­ber watch­ing from a bus as the com­muters poured out of Can­non Street sta­tion and feel­ing grat­i­tude and – at the risk of sound­ing hip­py­ish – some­thing like love to­wards them all, just for still be­ing alive. But even in that mo­ment I had to won­der what I might wit­ness from the same in­di­vid­u­als if no food had been de­liv­ered to London for a fort­night.

As I write this I can only hope we’re not any nearer to find­ing out, what with two car­toon char­ac­ter pres­i­dents threat­en­ing a nu­clear ex­change in the Pa­cific. Usu­ally I’m de­lighted if some­thing I’ve writ­ten ac­quires a bit of top­i­cal in­ter­est – in this case, per­haps a lit­tle less so. Noth­ing I say here can pos­si­bly change the sit­u­a­tion, but surely some­one some­where can speak a few words of san­ity into the right ear, and then ev­ery­body’s lives will just carry on the way they al­ways have. Surely?

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