UK paperback

Like some

We’re on a road to nowhere

So, I finally got around to reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy? It seemed to have wowed the critics when it was published, which is an impressive feat for a book in which roughly one out of every four words is the word gray. Nearly as common is the word some, employed frequently in the place of an indefinite article to create similes of a bewitchingly deliberate imprecision? We get two on the very first page, beginning with:

Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

Yeah, like some cold glaucoma! (Are there hot glaucomas?) And then:

Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast.

Oh, some granitic beast. I know there are many different types of granitic beast? But the exact kind of granitic beast I am talking about is not important right now!

The boy does not escape being the object of similar tropes:

His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian.

Some old world thespian? Which one? David Garrick? Sir Henry Irving? Whatever!

Sometimes the man has dreams, and then he wakes up:

Lying there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth.

I like this some very much. It is almost as if the writer knows that to write a phantom orchard would just sound silly, but the magic word some lends it that extra gravitas. But hang on — wouldn’t phantoms, rather than peaches, properly be the fruit of a phantom orchard? Just saying!

Often the man and boy come across dead bodies:

They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen.

Um, right! This some is quite dismissive, not only of the pilgrims’ “common order” but arguably of the entire laboured simile itself. Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking on my part?

Here the man looks at his tarpaulin, under which the boy is sheltering:

Sited there in the darkness the frail blue shape of it looked like the pitch of some last venture at the edge of the world.

Remember, there are many things you could do as a last venture at the edge of the world. Sitting under a blue tarpaulin is just one of them!

He trudged out through the drifts leaving the boy to sleep under the tree like some hibernating animal.

So here the boy is like a squirrel, or a bat? Or is he more like a massive and ferocious black bear? It’s impossible to tell, and the writer, lethargically wielding his some, doesn’t care! But wait, is “under the tree” really a good place for an animal to hibernate? Any predator could just come along and eat him! Unless what the writer really means here is that the boy is sleeping under the tree in the sense of being completely buried in the earth, among the roots? That’s a better hibernating strategy, at least. But then how is he breathing?

O look, more dead bodies!

Like victims of some ghastly envacuuming.

You probably don’t want to know exactly which of the many fearful kinds of ghastly envacuuming with which we are all so horribly familiar the writer is talking about here, and so by refusing to tell us, he is arguably performing a great mercy on our rain-streaked faces. (I believe that ghastly envacuuming might be the more intense and undesirable cousin of unpleasant buffeting?)

The faintly lit hatchway lay in the dark of the yard like a grave yawning at judgment day in some old apocalyptic painting.

This sentence is clever, because if you just said that the hatchway looked like a grave yawning at judgment day, that would be simply too horror-cheesy, but if you say it’s like that exact same shit but in some painting that is old, the simile is instantly elevated to the level of literary art.

At any rate, by this point in the book, I knew precisely how that grave felt, since I too was yawning at judgment day?

  1. 1  Serena  January 13, 2010, 11:13 am 

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. 2  Mr Blackett  January 13, 2010, 11:32 am 

    Yeah, thanks for that. I started reading it the other day and now I’ll just be looking out for the word ‘some’. I’d never have noticed had you not pointed it out but now it’s guaranteed that I will. You’ve ruined it for me.

    I forgive you though. I forgive you like some giant, erm, forgiving…fish? See! Not easy as it looks.

  3. 3  roskelld  January 13, 2010, 11:47 am 

    I never picked up on the ‘some’ thing at all. I did pick up on the childs ‘okay’, which seemed to end almost every conversation.

    It didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the book though, I’m a sucker for a bleak tale.

  4. 4  Dave Weeden  January 13, 2010, 12:15 pm 

    I liked the way ‘discalced’ was defined later in the sentence (I didn’t know what it meant). But I looked it up (on my Mac, which I think uses Webster) “denoting or belonging to one of several strict orders of Catholic friars or nuns who go barefoot or wear only sandals.” So, it’s not really a good synonym for ‘shoeless’. Surely it would have been better to have written, “They were barefoot, like Joe Jackson, the once-famous baseball player…” Just a suggestion.

    BTW, you say that ‘gray’ appears every fourth word, but none of your examples include it. Didn’t he get both ‘some’ and ‘gray’ into the same sentence like ‘He trudged over the mountain like some large gray beast which had transported Hannibal back in Roman times.’

  5. 5  Ricardo  January 13, 2010, 12:31 pm 

    For Christmas, SP must have got a party pack of question marks with a looming use-by date.

  6. 6  Darryl Mason  January 13, 2010, 2:27 pm 

    I think McCarthy used the word “ash” a lot more than “gray.”

  7. 7  richard  January 13, 2010, 3:15 pm 

    I’m intrigued by envacuuming – is that what happens to the things sucked into the vacuum cleaner, or do they hold vacuums within themselves?

    I’m grateful, though, that he qualifies the painting that contains a yawning grave at judgment day as apocalyptic. That clears things up nicely: I can easily imagine pastoral, maritime, still life or non-referential paintings with yawning graves at judgment day in them, and the effect is simply confusing.

  8. 8  Smeggy  January 13, 2010, 3:34 pm 

    I too read The Road recently and while I agree that the words ‘some’, ‘ash’ and ‘cold’ come up more often than David Tennant on the beeb I read it as engendering a sense of apathy and uncertainty. More often than not the response to questions are just a small ‘ok’ – not exactly the most definitive or passionate of comments. Indeed the pathetic fallacy of the book with its ‘gray’ and ‘ash’ are not tones of colour but a dull shade – something that is not particularly strong nor precise but a mush of vagueness and indecision.

    This lack of conviction and saying things in an off-hand way is what makes the book so scary to me. The compliance and apathy while facing an enormous horror makes it all too human, all too familiar, all too imaginable. Although Steven you make the point about how McCarthy unsophisticatedly avoids the stench of cheese in what is a very popular apoclypse genre atm it does have this harrowing aspect to it which provides it potency.

  9. 9  Degrus  January 13, 2010, 4:00 pm 

    Steven, Steven – if McCarthy were as neurotic about the little words as you appear to be, he would never have got a single book in the bag at all. He must do whatever it takes to get the book written – developing a tic around the word “some”, a tic that brings forth words, was clearly one of the things it took to get The Road out of the way. Why not forgive human beings their little verbal habits, their little lapses and oversights of utterance. We are not gods, after all, and language is not incontestably perfect in the hands of any one of us.

  10. 10  Ed  January 13, 2010, 4:24 pm 

    I did not notice the word “some” being over-used, but did think the book was quite heavy on the “wank”.

    I have now switched to childrens books.

  11. 11  Dave Weeden  January 13, 2010, 5:02 pm 

    Degrus, you may like to try reading Shakespeare, Conrad, Henry James, James Joyce, P.G. Wodehouse. Some writers at least aspire to perfection, and get pretty close. There’s a thing called ‘rewriting’; one makes what’s called a ‘second draft’. The job isn’t over when the first draft is finished.

  12. 12  Daniel Simpson  January 13, 2010, 6:03 pm 

    I think you might be right”?”

  13. 13  Alex  January 13, 2010, 6:29 pm 

    They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen.

    You mean – the shoeless ones were barefoot and not wearing shoes, their shoes having been stolen by some shoethief preying on the soon-to-be-unshod?

  14. 14  Degrus  January 13, 2010, 6:43 pm 

    Dave Weeden – thanks for the reading suggestions. Heard of some of those names, of course, but never actually got round to reading them. Picked up a certain quantity of received opinions about Shakespeare, to name one, but probably is time that I tackled the works themselves. Interesting to hear that he was one of the world’s redrafting perfectionists. I’d always gone for that line about how “in his writing, (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand.” But that was from someone writing several hundred years ago, so he probably didn’t know what he was talking about. No doubt documents have come up over the years, Shakespeare’s earlier drafts for instance, which you yourself will have cast an eye over, that show how wrong that idea is.

    And I’m excited to hear that these other people you mention managed to get books written without relying on or resorting to occasionally irritating and superfluous little habits, verbal mannerisms, thought-repetitions, obscurities and inanities. Can’t wait to get stuck into their almost completely unassailable prose.

  15. 15  ejh  January 13, 2010, 6:47 pm 

    Anyone looking for a precursor to The Road – in theme rather than style – could do worse than look at SS Johnson’s very good short story “The House By The Crab Apple Tree”, which they can find in a very fine collection “The War Book”, edited by James Sallis.

  16. 16  Matt  January 13, 2010, 6:59 pm 

    This just in, Martin Scorsese uses the color green a lot.


  17. 17  Chris Schoen  January 13, 2010, 8:12 pm 

    I blame Holden Caufield. I mean J.D. Salinger.

  18. 18  Reader  January 13, 2010, 8:30 pm 

    I haven’t read anything this sour or immature for a long time.

  19. 19  Dave Weeden  January 13, 2010, 9:31 pm 

    Degrus, well, you’re right about Shakespeare. I can’t prove you wrong, but personally, I really doubt that the myth is true. But even if it is true of the Swan of Avon, reworking manuscripts is what writing is all about. I’m sure the others had irritating little mannerisms. Thing is, they had editors who took those out.

  20. 20  weaver  January 14, 2010, 1:43 am 

    (a very fine collection “The War Book”, edited by James Sallis

    Jeez, I thought I was about the only person on the planet who owned a copy of that.)

    I get the impression Mr McCarthy’s fetish for the word “some” is matched only by his antipathy to sentences with verbs.

  21. 21  john c. halasz  January 14, 2010, 10:04 am 

    Heaven forbid! An Apocalyptic phantasy of such banal generalization that it lacks the detailed specificity that such paranoid phantasy deserves.

  22. 22  Dave Weeden  January 14, 2010, 11:08 am 

    @21 Don’t entirely agree there. This works because it lacks specificity.

  23. 23  dogwoman  January 14, 2010, 11:41 am 

    And here I thought I was the only one who noticed the heavy handed prose. And rejected it. Thank you.

  24. 24  Ann  January 14, 2010, 5:19 pm 

    It’s an awful book for many reasons, poor language choice, lack of imagination and explanations for such things as how they survived at all for eight or nine years and why starving people need haircuts twice in one book. I don’t think anyone is willing to actually edit McCarthy’s work — he’s too famous.

  25. 25  Tawfiq Chahboune  January 14, 2010, 5:35 pm 

    What a minority to be in: someone who enjoyed the book and consider McCarthy one of the most inventive and interesting novelists alive! Yes, McCarthy is guilty of some very silly things, but on the whole his style, and The Road, works well.

    If I remember correctly, Michael Wood in the LRB took McCarthy apart in pretty similar vein. But as someone once astutely commented, many critics (I don’t know about Steven) dismiss McCarthy for not being as stylish as Henry James. Pynchon gets the same sort of treatment (was it Michael Wood or James Wood who gave Pynchon just about the worst review in history?).

    Although I’d like to think there’s a happy medium somewhere between the minimalist sentences and bare style of McCarthy and that of the baroque and many-page sentence of James.

  26. 26  Matt  January 14, 2010, 6:06 pm 

    The argument that the book is flawed because it does not explain the 9 years prior or how exactly the disaster occured is ridiculous. That’s all beside the point. The book’s goal is to cast a light on human nature after the apocalypse, after living on the road has become a normal way of life. McCarthy knows he shouldn’t clutter a story that is supposed to be bare-bones with exposition that really wouldn’t matter anyway. It’s a story about two people, not about the world. And it’s an account of a way of life for those people, something that has always been that way for the Boy. Describing them learning the ropes would be counterproductive.

    That argument is like saying Blade Runner doesn’t work because we don’t know exactly why most of humanity has left the planet or who originally built the androids or why Deckard orginally quit. Bollox.

  27. 27  John  January 14, 2010, 7:21 pm 

    While I think The Road rates below the Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian and am anyway always happy to debate the merits and failings of literature, I’m not quite sure the point of Poole’s ‘review’ is; is it simply to sneer at a successful writer he doesn’t like? That’s not really a review is it? But pointing and laughing? Oh well, this is the first and last time I’ll come here.

  28. 28  Tawfiq Chahboune  January 14, 2010, 9:16 pm 


    “…is it simply to sneer at a successful writer he doesn’t like?”

    But some writers do deserve to be sneered at (Amis and Updike are high on my list)! I rather like McCarthy, but I see the humour in Steven’s review.

    “Oh well, this is the first and last time I’ll come here.”

    You don’t know what you’ll be missing (if you’re reading this, that is). Unspeak is one of the best things around. Interesting readers, too!

  29. 29  Ann  January 14, 2010, 10:50 pm 

    Oohh excuuuuse me! Wanting a fictional story to be credible is ridiculous where your favorite author is concerned.

    FYI, I do like his other books. I found this one not to be up to par. I realize a lot of people who don’t like him normally have liked this. It’s like McCarthy lite.

  30. 30  KB Player  January 15, 2010, 1:08 am 

    I haven’t read the book but have just seen the film. We’re told at the beginning all the animals are killed. What kind of disaster would spare some human beings but not spare rats? Cockroaches would die of cold but there are other insects that would survive. I’d expect the place to be swarming with flies, like in the tundra. After all, presumably maggots have eaten the flesh off the skeletons they keep stumbling over – so where are the flies that those maggots would turn into? The father and son are by water all the time, and never slap a mosquito.

  31. 31  sw  January 15, 2010, 3:58 am 

    I, for one, was really taken by the novel (until the ending) and enjoyed it as some sort of putrid literary amuse bouche. It wasn’t as good as Blood Meridian, which left a taste in your mouth like some grey granite chocolate bar had been dragged across your tongue. But, despite this, I really have a hard time objecting to Steve’s objections. In fact, I kinda think he’s right. You know, there are people out there who, for very good reasons, hate Coldplay – but I just can’t join them, even if I know they’re kinda right. And if someone then sneered at me and said, “But Coldplay isn’t as good as Radiohead or the Beatles”, I’d be hard pressed not to think “Yeah, maybe, no, of course you’re right. But sometimes I still really like Yellow or The Scientist?” And what the hell is this about some sort of veracity or realism or debating things on their merits and whatnot? I can’t even figure out who is complaining about what! I mean, Tawfiq, I really like what you say, but what on earth does “Although I’d like to think there’s a happy medium somewhere between the minimalist sentences and bare style of McCarthy and that of the baroque and many-page sentence of James” mean? Would that be some sort of Hemingway-Proust hybrid, some mad scientist’s recombination of the DNA of Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill, a literary mash-up of Auster and Wallace? Christ, maybe McCarthy is onto something: we’re monsters.

  32. 32  Ee Leen Lee  January 15, 2010, 9:31 am 

    You evoked the Talking Heads song in your post, but when trying to read ‘The Road’, I thought of the The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy…”, with the opening lyrics, ‘the road is loong!”

  33. 33  Tawfiq Chahboune  January 15, 2010, 6:20 pm 

    SW: ‘I mean, Tawfiq, I really like what you say, but what on earth does “Although I’d like to think there’s a happy medium somewhere between the minimalist sentences and bare style of McCarthy and that of the baroque and many-page sentence of James” mean?’

    Both styles of writing serve their own purpose and are worth reading for various reasons. I should imagine that James, Proust or Flaubert couldn’t write like McCarthy or Hemingway if their lives depended on it. And vice versa. Although you could imagine a Private Eye-style gag in which minimalist writers have to imagine James or Proust describing, say, a bull fight or the psychopathic killer Chigurh; or McCarthy writing The Golden Bowl. The best would be the one you alluded to: Harold Pinter doing, say, Tolstoy: “…every unhappy family is unlike in its own fucking way, chum!”

    The literature that most appeals to me is that which doesn’t have one sentence paragraphs or Proustian sentences that last pages, which you have to reread because you can’t remember what’s going on. Authors like Bellow or Nabokov or Naipual. That’s not to say I don’t like McCarthy – I very much do – or Flaubert or some of Henry James. It’s just a question of personal taste.

  34. 34  sw  January 16, 2010, 12:13 am 

    I very much like the idea of these mash-ups. In fact, it made me wonder if much of Pinter’s poetry was like a mash-up of his own plays and Emily Dickinson.

  35. 35  Miette  January 17, 2010, 9:41 pm 

    These comments are like some never-passing kidney stone, immutable with the grey ash of their certainty.

  36. 36  grant  January 17, 2010, 11:00 pm 

    McCarthy probably didn’t make a whole lot on his earlier novels: Suttree, Blood Meridian being two grand books. The Border Trilogy brought him into more general recognition. And now we have No Country for Old Men and The Road. The author appears to be moving into a more populist direction. Given that he is quite critical of what popular culture entails, this direction is a grand metafictional (and lucrative!) turn. McCarthy writes popular novels that put a thumb in the eye of popular culture.

  37. 37  Sanjay  January 19, 2010, 4:51 pm 

    That’s some review.

  38. 38  Gee!  January 20, 2010, 3:50 pm 

    The only thing more redundant than McCarthy’s use of the word “some” in “The Road”, are Steven’s examples:

    “Yeah, like some cold glaucoma! (Are there hot glaucomas?) “

    “Oh, some granitic beast. I know there are many different types of granitic beast? But the exact kind of granitic beast I am talking about is not important right now!”

    “Some old world thespian? Which one? David Garrick? Sir Henry Irving? Whatever!”

    WE GET IT!!!

    I see that it irritates you, but did you really need six-plus paragraphs to convey the sentiment?

  39. 39  Daniel  January 21, 2010, 3:39 pm 

    Bob Dylan must have seen something in this mannerism when he appropriated the following line for his appropriate-ly titled “Love and Theft” album:

    “My old man would sit there like a feudal lord”
    [from “Confessions of a Yakuza”, Junichi Saga, trans. John Bester, the source of several passages in “L & T”.]

    Because he changed it to:

    “My old man, he’s like some feudal lord”.

    He probably wanted to create a sense of vagueness. He is, apparently, good with words, and at keeping things vague.

  40. 40  Steven  January 21, 2010, 3:56 pm 

    But he didn’t sing “Like some rolling stone”.

  41. 41  Tawfiq Chahboune  January 21, 2010, 4:45 pm 

    In the latest Private Eye, Craig Brown parodies Cormac McCarthy’s “The Snowman”. Although I like McCarthy, Brown is, as usual, hilarious. I haven’t got the time to type it all out, byt it starts thus:

    The snow fell nor did it cease to fall. It fell in flakes each hard flake pounding the ground like jagged white rocks hooked on destruction.
    Snow. Outside.
    Not inside.
    No. Not inside. The snow is outside.
    The snow is outside?
    Yes? The snow is outside.

  42. 42  sw  January 22, 2010, 7:06 am 

    @Daniel – I wonder if one day Cormac McCarthy heard some song and took it all too literally: “We could use some of that vagueness now.”
    Have to say, pretty nice use of “some” there . . .

  43. 43  spooked  February 3, 2010, 5:45 am 


    You don’t subscribe to Areté?

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts