Sunday, February 1, 2009

Apocalyptic jungles: the heart of darkness

I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy's, The Road. I was moved, terrified, and humbled by this powerful masterpiece. But more importantly, I was given an insight into the heart of man...apart from God...a heart of darkness.

The images you see are pre-released from the movie based on the book. They do well to capture the grizzly landscape of an America, post nuclear fallout, where hope and "the good guys" are dying.

The story is told from a father and son bound to each other by love. In this bleak new America, they travel south towards Mexico, running from the great freezing nuclear winter, seeking warmth, and food. Nothing grows any longer. All animals are dead. Only a scattered few humans roam the towns and the roadways, on a continual search for food scraps that have survived in abandoned houses. But these are almost gone

The human heart laid bare:

Who are we, really? The question of man's integrity and goodness has been posited this way: "The real us is who we are when nobody is looking."

However, having read The Road, a revelation struck me. The above phrase doesn't go far enough in all cases. The phrase only works in a civilized setting.

But strip civilization away, and one comes to a new, deeper, darker truth about man: "The real us is who we are when we've been stripped of food, shelter, safety; forced to compete with a struggling few survivors for the scraps of food sources that are increasingly being exhausted; and then we wake up to find that some men are eating each other to survive, and we ask ourselves, who am I truly...who am I willing to become to live another day?"

Americans would not fare very well in such a setting. Much of our goodness and goodwill comes from the fact that we ARE satisfied. That we HAVE comforts. We can lose our house, our job; people close to us may pass away, but we still have civilization to fall back upon. How much of our apparent goodness comes from the fact we have every real need met. TV, toilets, showers, those aren't true needs. Food and water for our stomachs, clothing to keep us alive in the cold, Shelter to keep out the rain and the snow and a freeze that reaches deeper than layers of clothing. These are true needs.

How many Americans have their hope in things that can be destroyed?

"Who are we really?" Ultimately, that comes down to this: "What do I believe about existence?" "What do I believe in?"

In such a desolate scenario as posited in The Road, the answer to those questions determines who you will become.

Will you live for yourself, and keep yourself alive at any cost? Or will you cling to decency and goodness, even if it means you starve to death.

Only a belief in something greater than oneself could lead one to give up his or her life.

Is good subjective? Is it really something that exists beyond the human imagination.

In The Road, the father struggles with this. He is willing to resort to nearly any means to keep his son alive. This is love, a supernatural thing that defies nature. He lives for his son. But ultimately, his love for his son, and his will to keep him alive can lead him to do heinous things.

Throughout the novel however, the boy holds his father to goodness. To a higher law. And it is the sons radical adherence to this law, and a belief in God that keeps in check his father's blind devotion.

This powerful work of art does what all good art does. It makes one think. Evaluate. What if one day one's own heart was laid bare? The mask of civilization gone. No self-deception. Only his raw self staring transparent before himself.

We can look even now. Who would we become if such a devastating scenario should take place? The answer to that question is this...

Who we would become; that is apart of who we are now.

And who we are now, and who we can become are wrapped up in the question of existence. Why do I exist? Do I have a purpose? Did I come from nothing, or was I made?

The answers to these questions make us monsters or saints when all is stripped away and laid bare.

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"
-Jeremiah 17: 9

"I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways; according the fruit of his doings."
-Jeremiah 17: 10


Anonymous said...

The Road is my all time favourite book, okay, well it's tied with Anna Karenina. You did a great review of it. I'm almost afraid to see the movie I loved the book that much.

Glad you commented on my blog, now I have yours! Cheers!

Brandon Barr said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for stopping by. I agree, I may not see the movie because it can never match up to the book.

logankstewart said...

I read the Road about a year or so ago, and it had the same affect on me as it did you. I remember finishing the book and just sitting there, thinking about it and the possibilities it offered. The unconditional love between the father and the son were wonderfully portrayed, and the faith and trust the son had in his father was humbling. I really, really enjoyed the book, and I'm glad it won the awards it did. The movie looks promising, too.

Seeing you like Christian fantasy & science-fiction, have you read Ted Dekker's Circle trilogy?

Brandon Barr said...

Hi Logan,
I have "black" sitting on my book shelf, waiting to be read along with 500 other books I've accrued over the years...(I'm a bit of a book hound).

However, it's on the top of my massive pile (which is neatly displayed by genre and alphabatized in two large book cases).

The road was just so powerful...I've been having a hard time choosing my next book in its wake.

Sailor Matt said...

What a fantastic concept. I'll have to check this book out before the movie's release. Thanks for the review.

Robert Treskillard said...


The interesting thing is that this very scenario of "what will I do to keep on living" is being asked of most Americans today at the ballot box.

For instance, in Missouri, we had a vote to allow the creation of cloned embryos for the purpose of experimenting on them (i.e. killing them) to create cures for sick people.

To me, this is essentially the same as The Road scenario. Are we willing to kill others so that we (or our family members) might live a little longer?

Sadly, the vote passed.

God help us all!

gzusfreek said...

Wow, Robert! I had not heard - you'd think that that would be on my nightly news instead of that cute cat story or the 5K this weekend. . .

How to follow Robert Treskillard? hee hee

Brandon if this book is as thought provoking as your post, well then, I'm all over it.
A recipe for a masterpiece: Post nuclear, the human spirit and a the relationship you described between a man and his son.
I think I have to pick up before the movie comes out!

Brandon Barr said...

Hi Sailer Matt,
Glad you stopped by. I recommend few books as highly as this one.

That's a really good comparison. In "The Road" many parents ate their children, but in a civilized (immoral) wasteland, we use science and technology to turn our children into body parts. (we also kill our baby's in the name of convenience, almost the opposite problem of cannibalism)
Different needs for different times, but we are the same person as the cannibal in essence. We do what we do to survive a little longer. We'll turn a little human into a body part to keep us alive. It can't say no, right? Neither could the baby's in "The Road".
And this shows who humans really are inside...the untamed potential for heinous acts, all in the name of self preservation.

Brandon Barr said...

Hi gzusfreek :)
Yeah, I can't recommend the book enough. No other fictional book has as eloquently displayed the latent potential of humanity's sin nature.
And the relationship between father and son amidst this setting is unforgettable.

TommyB said...


Nice review and thanks for your comment. Try them they are worth the $2.00. I read The Road simultaneously with my oldest son who was off at college. I liked your observations. You have put words to my thoughts and like you I am not sure I want to see the movie. I am curious though about your conclusion that the duo was headed to Mexico. My son and I could never figure out which way they were heading. One of us thought southeast to Florida and one thought southwest to California.

Andra M. said...

You sold me on the book as well.

I make a habit of always reading the book before I see the movie. A movie can't portray everything that goes on inside a character's mind, and can't show every scene due to time constraints.

I often think of the lengths I would go to protect my own child, and I fear I would be much like the father here. I hope it's a situation I never have to face, or if I do, someone will keep my morality - and faith - in check.

Brandon Barr said...

Hi TommyB,
Thanks for stopping by and I'm pleased I was able to help put words to your thoughts!
As to which way the father and son were heading, there were two major clues for me. Later on in the story, the spots in a field several arrowheads as well as a "Spanish coin".
And then secondly, the boat that the father swims to in search of food and supplies...the father makes a few observations about writing in "Spanish". That's how I concluded they came to be in Mexico...but I couldn't say I'm 100% sure.
Cormac McCarthy's writing style made one feel just as lost as the father and son, which was a nice touch. He just gave little clues.

Hi Andra :)
I'm glad I sold you on the book! Beware, its grim and dark, but I believe rightly so due to the setting and theme.
You make a good point. In the story, it was the young son who helped keep his father in check.

Anonymous said...

Brandon, very nice review. I haven't read the book, but I really got a sense of what it is about.


Brandon Barr said...

Thanks Mike,
Go buy a copy!

Just a Philomath said...

Nice review, Brandon, and well written. I will definately pick this book up.

I love books that ask you questions about yourself. This question - 'is man basically good or basically evil?' is one we must come to terms with. It defines from whence we came and shows us our future.

I also like Thr3e, by Ted Dekker because it asks the question 'Is every man capable of ultimate evil?'

Thanks for posting. Looking forward to more.

Brandon Barr said...

Hi Philomath,
Thanks for your comments. I just started Dekker's "Obsessed".

Crista said...

Wow, that does sound like a cool book. Now I have to read it.

Brandon Barr said...

Hi Crista :)
I'd be interested in hearing what you think of it, you always have thoughtful, well articulated insights.

Jonathan said...

Hey Brandon, Jonathan here.
The Road is one of my all time favorite books. Great review. Very thought provoking. I will probably see the movie and complain all the way through it how it doesn't match up to the book. The images portrayed in the book are still with me as I write this, and I read the book almost 3 years ago! That is some powerful writing. An instant classic in my book.

Brandon Barr said...

Hi Jonathan,
Wow, I was going to recommend it to you the next time I talked....guess I don't have to. Thanks for stopping by.