Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600

Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road, has been named by critics as one of the best books of the decade; it currently ranks number eight on Metacritic’s list of highest scoring books of all time.McCarthy himself is consistently named as one of the top writers of his generation, which puts him in the company of such skilled authors as Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth. His prose style is often described as "Faulknerian," and he is praised for his ability to raise genre fiction like the western and the gothic to literary and artistic heights. McCarthy was awarded the National Book Award for his 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses, and The Road earned him the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 2007, the same year the film adaptation of his novel No Country for Old Men won multiple Academy Awards.

Critics find much to love about McCarthy's version of apocalyptic literature. Here, the gritty surroundings of No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian have reached their inevitable conclusion, but rather than waste time detailing how the world ends, McCarthy chooses instead to start the book after the destruction has ensued and explore what life might be like for survivors. This choice transforms the plot from sensationalist pulp to moving allegory. Without much backstory, without even character names, the father and son become archetypes of themselves. In a review for The Observer, Adam Mars-Jones compares McCarthy's plot structure to "a thought and feeling experiment, bleak, exhilarating (in fact endurable), only because of its integrity, its wholeness of seeing." Other critics echo this sentiment: McCarthy, they say, has written a new kind of myth for the twenty-first century.

Contributing to the myth-like quality of the book, McCarthy's poetic style is also highly praised by critics. His minimalist use of punctuation and proper names is countered by a use of language that, in Mars-Jones's words, "reverts to a poetic register." Ron Charles's review in the Washington Post describes McCarthy's prose as a collection of "several hundred isolated moments…remarkable passages, like a succession of prose poems." Other critics routinely compare McCarthy's writing in The Road to Yeats and Beckett. They all seem to be in agreement that this poetic quality serves to temper the scenes of extreme violence and horror, corpses and cannibals.

Many critics believe it is McCarthy's skillful balancing act which transforms the book from a gritty end-of-the-world story—literary science-fiction—to a piece of literature that is simultaneously a warning to and a celebration of humanity. Writing for the New York Times, Janet Maslin says, "His use of language is as exultant as his imaginings are hellish, a hint that The Road will ultimately be more radiant than it is punishing." While this type of book could easily become desperately bleak or frustratingly pedantic, McCarthy uses careful artistic choices to imbue it with light, hope, and faith despite the darkness of its setting.

Despite the fact that the novel was critically very well received, some negative issues were raised. McCarthy's female characters are notoriously underdeveloped, and The Road does nothing to change that. The boy's mother, the only female character with any kind of development, is little more than a ghost. The sentimentality of some passages is extensive, and finally, the Beckett-like dialogue is sometimes frustratingly oblique. However, despite these criticisms, The Road was universally applauded.

In addition to impressing the critics and Pulitzer judges, The Road has been a commercial success as well, mostly due to its inclusion in Oprah's book club. The movie adaptation, which opened in theaters during the fall of 2009, was itself a box-office success.

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Critical Evaluation