Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

Luminous Deceptions: Contingent Community and Aesthetic Form in Cormac McCarthy's the Road

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

Luminous Deceptions: Contingent Community and Aesthetic Form in Cormac McCarthy's the Road

Article excerpt

The final passage of Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road describes a tranquil scene in which a school of trout seems to be in total communion with its environment. These pastoral qualities are out of place in the dystopic context of the novel, and as a result, the passage has been the focus of insightful commentary about the novel's ultimate meaning.1 The passage comes after the father and son have journeyed through a dim and uncompromising landscape in the hopes of finding warmth and shelter,2 and human life seems reduced to mere animalistic survival. At the novel's end, the father has died by the side of the road, the boy has been found by another family who seem better fit to protect him (their gun has more bullets left), and the boy has begun speaking to his dead father as a kind of commemoration of the man's love and faith in the boy's goodness. The final passage then seems to depart from the grim setting, and a somewhat nostalgic but unaffected voice tells us of a world that has since disappeared:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. 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 they hummed of mystery.

Characteristic of McCarthy's third person narrators, this voice does not indulge in what Vereen Bell calls "reassuring thematic commentary" (Bell 1). The scene is apart from the world of the novel, as indicated by the vaguely past tense "once" and "could see." Alongside these grammatical markers, the novel presents a world covered in ash, in which there are likely no brook trout anywhere. Indeed, the novel depicts a world "shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities," which indicates that the ash always floating in the air will eventually be all that remains (83). Thus, we must ask where this narrative voice comes from, and what its apparent survival means about voice and storytelling as indicators of human existence. Because voice is a physical movement of air from mouth to ear, it is subject to this entropic process as well. Even in a metaphorical register, if there are no entities to parse because nothing is distinct from anything else, then a voice would have nothing to say even if it could exist in a disembodied state. If "the sacred idiom" has indeed been "shorn of its referent" as the father says at one point, then the voice could be coming from out of a void, perhaps akin to the divine logos evoking the world into being (83). However, the link between language and materiality suggested by "parsible" forestalls this possibility.3

Furthermore, the objective distance achieved by the voice in this passage does not make the scene presented entirely alien to the bleak world of the novel, or to our own. If the scene's pastoral qualities make it distinct from the terrifying setting of the father and son's journey, the way in which they are evoked remind us of an elemental affinity between the fish and the ash they will become. The parallel comes partly from the ambiguous location of the scene; though a likely setting of the novel suggests the trout might be Appalachian, the specificity of the "amber current" and "the white edges of their fins" is in tension with the subjunctive "could see," mentioned above.4 That the scene exists in the past means that its presentation depends on the speaker's perception filtered through memory. The scene itself calls this temporality to mind; though the details that create it would be empirically verifiable were they frozen in time, the fish are "standing" against a current and eventually they will tire and have to turn into the flow of the water. As the environment in which they live, the flow of the current defines the fish's lives; they cannot transcend it, just as the speaker cannot transcend the flow of time that defines human life. …

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