During the month I read "The Road", the first cold wave of the winter hit Hong Kong and Maomao fell with a fever that quickly shot over 40 degree Celsius. At night I set alarms to take his temperature every hour and half, and it took me a while to fall asleep again every time. As I laid in the dark listening to his breath, hot and heavy like that of a wounded little monster trying to break through some invisible wall, I thought of the opening sentence of the novel in which the man woke up in the dark and cold of the woods and reached out for his son sleeping beside him. Or maybe I dreamed that scene, having sunk into REM so quickly due to exhaustion without even realizing it. And I thought how frail it is this thing we call staying alive, in particularly together, just a man and his son through the night, in an all-out apocalypse or a mere cold spell.
In the morning on the subway, having left Maomao at home to recuperate, I found myself ruminating over the last scene of the man. I kept imagining what was going through his mind as he closed his eyes on the world for one last time. Was he at peace at last, having exhausted every ounce of his own existence to prolong that of his son, unrelentingly, always more unrelentingly than the onslaught of the apocalypse as long as he could and did hack it, till the last breath? Or was he drowning in sheer terror in realizing that his wife was right all along, that in the end he could not help but left his son to die alone out in the open, most likely in some unimaginably gruesome fashion, and all the more cruel on his part because he chose to raise him into a conscious human being capable of experiencing and understanding such inhumane horror and pain?
It's not by design that I picked up "The Road" right after "The Way of All Flesh", and it surely didn't help the crippling doubt that seeped in through that long and often tedious read. Many times I had lashed out on Maomao due to impatience or worse frustration totally unrelated to him, and quickly tried to ameliorate the guilt by some ad hoc and self-righteous justification. But theoretically, that's something one can strive to atone, something that unbounded love and vigilant self-restraint can hopefully prevail over. What McCarthy did here is an ultimate denunciation of love's delusion and fallacy. Like any tragedian worth his salt, he presented that love so beautifully and movingly before shattering it right in front of your eyes. Love, as we may call it, in its most bare-bone and courageous form, is at the same time hubris and selfishness, at all time: what makes you think your love can triumph over the evil of human nature? In the typical, ruthless McCarthy fashion (think of "the kid" in Blood Meridian in the end), he killed the man, and left the silent accusation hanging in the cold and dark air before dawn: Look at your son. what have you done, what now. But the ending, so faint-hearted and jarring with the rest of the book, is in itself an admittance of defeat and a parody of the weakness of human nature -- even he, who brought to life "the Judge" that still terrifies me to my wit's end whenever I think of it, cannot bring himself to properly kill off the boy.
It's probably inevitably morbid to call the book beautiful. Yet time and again I admired the man, not when he was fighting off a gang of cannibals to save his son but when he stood in the bleakness of a dead world and saw beauty:
"Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp." "He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it." "He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins." "Years later he’d stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation."
Reading these excerpts over and over again I thought the apocalypse setting notwithstanding, it is in the end the same and only thing that is in a father-son relationship: hurling a man's memory into the future, "carrying the fire", always remembering being a human and how it is to be one. Two nights ago as I put Maomao to sleep we somehow got into the abstract notions of genealogy. He asked, "Who's grandpa's dad then?" I said, "My grandpa. My grandpa is the dad of your grandapa." He was like, "Huh?" and started laughing. He kept trying to repeat what I said and couldn't and found it enormously amusing. This went on for a good five minutes before he got tired and snuggled up to me and closed his eyes in satisfaction. Holding him I thought of the last words of the man:
"Look around you, he said. There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who’s not honored here today. Whatever form you spoke of you were right. The man took his hand, wheezing. You need to go on, he said. I cant go with you. You need to keep going. You don't know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go. It’s all right."