As we feel our way into this new post-election reality, when things seem bleak, and all feels lost – progress, justice, hope for better – it felt like the right time to finish reading The Road. It’s a book of questions.
*How old is the boy?
*Where is his mother?
*Why are these two still alive?
*Why are they the only ones? There are others, of course: frightening aberrations in the distance; lightning struck man; man with a bow; bandits; pregnant woman crossing a bridge;
*Who are the good guys and who are the bad? What’s the difference, and how can you tell?
*And of course: what happened?
Questions without answers, mostly. And pure poetry that only a child, McCarthy’s son, and all the dust of West Texas could have inspired.
It’s a hard book to read. It is achingly beautiful. My brother gave it to me as a gift for Christmas many years ago. He’s not a reader, so when I opened the present and he said it was the best thing he had ever read, I sat up a bit at that. Still, it took me years to get around to it. I love few things more than starting a new book, but every time I found myself standing in front of the bookshelves I would see The Road sitting there, alongside other things I haven’t read yet, waiting. And I never brought it down. Or I did, and I re-read the jacket flap I’ve read a hundred times, felt the weight of it in my hands, and then put it back. I wasn’t ever ready. I didn’t have the energy for something so hopeless. That’s what I thought. It’s what I told myself.
But as we move into a world where President-elect Trump are words, real words, it suddenly felt like the right time. And what it’s left me thinking – having finally finished it after all these years, on the eve of an inauguration that will see an unqualified xenophobic megalomaniac installed in the most powerful post on the planet, an impending reality that is already showing evidence to cause grave concern, appointments of men – and they are all men – to positions of great authority and power who may surely put us on a path that could lead in very real ways to a reality not dissimilar from what Papa and the Boy encounter in The Road – what it’s left me thinking, because it seems like there is almost no other choice, is about the ability of language to transcend suffering, darkness, hopelessness, and despair.
I was teaching in Paris the morning after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June, and as we sat down the following morning to begin class one of our students, near tears, asked if we could talk about what had happened. And we did. We set aside our lesson and spent a quarter hour hearing what people had to say, comforting one another, finding strength in our community. And then we got back to work. We turned back to the task at hand. We acknowledged how important it was not to ignore what had happened, but also how important it was – more important than ever, it seemed – to focus on our work, to do our job, and do it well.
The week before we’d met with Claire Verlet, who programs the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris. She spoke about France’s national focus on art and culture as being a direct, deliberate response to the destruction of the Second World War, how having big cultural festivals that brought people together around art, theatre, music, performance, and dance helped them heal – as individuals and as a nation. (And now, according to a 2014 article, art and culture contribute seven times more to the national GDP than does the automobile industry.) Claire talked about how renovations to the Italianate building in 1968 – itself a complicated year – helped democratize the theatre, ensuring that there are no bad seats, no hierarchies, no impediments. There is no dress code and prices are reasonable; the building opens right onto the street.
When we think about what’s happening here today, in this country, about facing an uncertain future that is frightening, dangerous, and cruel (or at least a president-elect who is) – about who we just elected president – I think about what Claire said to us that day in June. “The theatre has to be more open,” she told us. “It’s the only way to fight the brutality.” Or as National Book Award winner Colson Whitehead put it recently, “Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power.” And art is not just the theatre, of course. We have to keep reading, writing, studying, painting, composing, marching, and debating. We have to keep creating, keep finding what’s beautiful, even in – especially in – the dust of these next years.
Which brings me back to The Road, and the poetry of a decimated humanity, a world wretched with ash. “He knew that he was placing hopes where he’d no reason to,” we read. “He hoped it would be brighter where for all he knew the world grew darker daily.” “They left the cart in the woods and he checked the rotation of the rounds in the cylinder. The wooden and the true.” Papa and the boy, whose grim reality now seems relatable in a way many of us hadn’t imagined a few weeks ago, our safety in question, our rights threatened, our very humanity under attack. Maybe we’re not without hope, but unsure, angry, frightened and, for me mostly, sad. It is that same book where we also read that Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.