The Road: A landscape of Memory

08.18.15

In a radically changed world, what kind of survivor do you want to be?

Welcome back to a series of articles written by Patrick Carlson. Throughout this series, Patrick will analyze a piece of survival “literature” — be it a novel, a film, a game, etc. — and frame it within the context of The Long Dark. This entry looks at Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, a story that has become a frequently-cited touchstone for many players of The Long Dark. 


“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.” — Cormac McCarthy, The Road

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Scavenging in the The Long Dark can feel like walking through the memory of a long-forgotten story. All that’s left are the faded outlines of someone else’s life. The discarded objects that helped mark a stranger’s path through the world—old shoes, a favorite knife, a cherished book—all become milestones that mark an entirely new journey.

While this feeling has a lot to do with the isolation built into The Long Dark’s survival sandbox, it’s also an important feature of the post-disaster experience itself. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, we witness a father and son whose approach to the things that have been left behind becomes a defining feature of their own post-apocalyptic humanity. What remains of who they are is as much about what they choose not to do as it is about reaching the distant end of their cold and dirty march.

And in a scene late in the novel, the father happens upon an object during his scavenging that seems to sum up everything that conflict, trauma, and disaster do to the human mind.

“He lifted it from the fitted case and held it in his hand. Struck by the beauty of it. The brass was dull and there were patches of green on it that took the form of another hand that once had held it but otherwise it was perfect. He wiped the verdigris from the plate at the base. Hezzaninth, London. He held it to his eye and turned the wheel. It was the first thing he’d seen in a long time that stirred him.”

It was a sextant, and a nice one at that. Lovingly assembled and cared for, a brass treasure the father thought might be a hundred years old. We see it through his eyes and in that moment get just a glimpse of a different side to this ill and beaten-down man. A resourceful tinkerer and mechanic of the apocalypse, the father displays a wisdom throughout the novel that hints at a love for things and how they work. There’s a depth to his education about the physical world that has allowed him and his son to survive.

But the necessity of survival dims memories and darkens images of pleasure and joy. Knowledge of this reality usually makes my wanderings through the simulated disaster of The Long Dark’s Canadian wilderness that much more intriguing. I feel the anxiety of the moment in the way the game’s design calls on my character to act or die. But the game also presents me with images of unquestioned beauty to accompany all that dread—a welcome sunrise, an unexpected vista, or a surprising food cash. Trauma doesn’t always win, in The Road or in The Long Dark.  

Cormac McCarthy scholar Dianne C. Luce sees the father and son as embedded in a ruined landscape that works on them to create these kinds of meanings. She writes: “On their journey, they perform the artist-explorer’s essential act: that of taking a look—to discover what is life-sustaining or of interest in this alien terrain.” For Luce, the act of looking itself—in particular through the eyes of the father—creates meaning from disorder and chaos. Much like a painter, Luce argues, the father’s “gaze” gives us a hint at the way his mind experiences his past and present simultaneously.

As with the discovery of the sextant, a momentary flush of joy at his discovery is ultimately replaced by pragmatic melancholy. Although Luce is coherent in her description of the father and son as explorers, she also calls them “disappointed pilgrims.” She writes: “They find no new Eden, no earthly paradise, and the father sometimes retreats in memory and dream to the lost antecedent world to recover a more nurturing landscape.”

Beyond the constant scavenging among the ash-filled countryside along the story’s the titular road, the novel is about crafting new tools out of the abandoned remnants of history. It may be an often-seen system of the survival-game genre, as it should be, but crafting also has a figurative purpose in post-disaster stories. The things the survivors make—or are forced to make—helps define their status within the new world. In a poignant scene during their wanderings, we witness a moment of clever ingenuity on the part of the father. But it also points to the horror and desperation that mark their journey.

“While the boy slept he sat on the bunk and by the light of the lantern he whittled fake bullets from a treebranch with his knife, fitting them carefully into the empty bores of the cylinder and then whittling again. He shaped the ends with the knife and sanded them smooth with salt and he stained them with soot until they were the color of lead. When he had all five of them done he fitted them to the bores and snapped the cylinder shut and turned the gun and looked at it. Even this close the gun looked as if it were loaded … .”

When ammunition is this scarce, even the threat of fake bullets has a value.

Through crafting in The Long Dark, you can radically change the parameters of your survival experience. With the right materials and access to a bench, a subsistence scavenger can become something of a homesteader. Understanding crafting and the way the natural world makes its resources available can become one of the surest ways to prolong survival. It’s also one way to exert some agency over a frozen world. Instead of simply passively collected the discarded objects of the past, crafting makes a new future possible.

There’s a dark undercurrent, however, to all the scavenging and crafting in The Road. When the planet seems so broken and saturated by horror, can the father’s endurance almost be seen as a form of self-deception? The novel has a specific answer to this question but I’d welcome discussion on this question.

When do survival stories become trapped in their own pessimism? Can we locate joyful survival in The Road as easily as easy as many of us do in The Long Dark?

Editor’s note: Cormac McCarthy’s novel was also adapted into a film in 2009. The banner image above is drawn from the film’s promotional trailer. 

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