Critical Essay

The strange hope of dystopian fiction since The Road

Surviving and communing together are sacred gestures.

Nearly a decade ago, Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road arrived like a literary thunderclap. McCarthy’s vision was darkly sacramental: God is not absent, but God is most certainly distant and has left humans to their terrible devices. While McCarthy did not invent the dystopian genre, The Road expanded its reach and elevated its grandeur.

Civilization has disappeared, and a father and son roam together through a scarred world, witnessing “fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road.” As the duo struggles to survive, they also grieve the recent loss of their wife and mother.

It’s her memory that finally gives them a reason to go on. Hope, however fragile, comes in what McCarthy calls “some ancient anointing. . . . Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.” In his work, sacraments arise from the ashes of a charred earth and destruction becomes a form of creation.