In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, a man and his son walk through an ash-covered, post-apocalyptic country. They slowly head towards the coast, making their way past derelict houses and through abandoned cities and towns inhabited only by the mummified dead. Each day is a fearful struggle against starvation and their fellow survivors, who have been driven through desperation to sickening levels of savagery.
The burning question for the reader is, of course: what caused such a catastrophe? McCarthy describes the event with subtlety and ambiguity:
The clocks stopped at 1.17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? She said. He didn’t answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the light switch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the window-glass.
It is up to readers to use their imagination to fill in the gaps, but even at the novel’s conclusion the events have an obscurity about them, part of its unsettling force.
And yet it is becoming annoyingly clear that The Road — both the book and its forthcoming movie adaptation — is being promoted solely as a prophetic tale about global warming. The trailer for the film opens with scenes of environmental chaos (tidal waves, tornadoes, ice caps melting), while the climate change doom merchant George Monbiot has called the novel “the most important environmental book ever written”.
This verdict is over-hasty. McCarthy gives no reason for the reader to think that the novel is a warning about our future if we fail to tackle global warming. The thought never crossed my mind when reading it, and in fact it’s easier to assume that The Road is set in America after a nuclear holocaust, though your assumptions would be just as presumptuous.
When the man and the boy meet a fellow traveller on the road who claims to have foreseen the disaster, our curiosity is at a peak — what have we done to ourselves this time? It’s chilling that there are so many ways in which men can do harm to one another, and that’s the point. Make it a simple allegory about the dangers of climate change and you not only take away the novel’s timelessness, but you make it appear less sophisticated than it actually is. It may be an inconvenient truth for some, but Cormac McCarthy is a lot more than the thinking person’s Al Gore.