The Road and The Vaster Wilds: Anti-Odysseys (Part 3 in an ongoing series)

posted November 1, 2023

This is the third in a series of essays about what I’ll call “road novels,” the stories that share The Odyssey as common ancestor. To read the first essay, go here.

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
When he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the sea, and how he worked
to save his life and bring his men home.
He failed and for their own mistakes, they died.
They ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

The Odyssey, Book 1, lines 1-10, trans. Emily Wilson.

In the introduction to her translation of The Odyssey, Emily Wilson points out that the word “epic” simply means “word” or “story.” Yes, the hero Odysseus is pretty unusual, but Wilson reminds us in the voice of her narrating consciousness, that he is still but a “complicated man.” His quest is a simple one: to lead safely home his men, fellow inhabitants of the island kingdom of Ithaca. Although he faces all manner of adventure and overcomes much through his unusual strength, cunning, and endurance, and although he himself returns to claim his kingdom and his wife, these very first lines tell us that “he failed.” His men perished. A helpful reminder to me, as I examine multiple quest narratives. I got into my head, probably from not listening all that well in English 129, that, while The Iliad represents the root of Western literature’s tragic lineage, The Odyssey was supposed to be a comedy. Perhaps I need to expand my own definition of that genre.

By happenstance, I read Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 apocalyptic novel The Road and followed it with Lauren Groff’s latest, The Vaster Wilds. It was September, technically still summer, but both of these novels take place in life-threateningly cold weather, and each author made me feel that cold, that terror of being consumed by the natural world, an awareness of the scarcity of essential resources, the distrust of other human beings–even our intimates. As I revisit these novels today, fittingly on Halloween, when the air in Massachusetts has grown chill and my body continues to fight against that novel corona virus, I find myself sharing some of these primal fears. When the terrain is unknown and the enemy invisible, who and what can we trust?

Although the two moments in history couldn’t be more different–The Road takes place over a future landscape ravaged of plant and wild life, reduced to nuclear ash, and The Vaster Wilds, the virgin forests of what Europeans would call “tidewater Virginia”–the daily desperation to survive without freezing, starving or being killed by other humans, even the loss of language are the same. In both novels, the protagonists are unnamed; Odysseus’s joke/trick which saves him from being eaten by the Cyclops by stating his name as “No-Man” is appropriated by both McCarthy and Groff. If one is nameless, one has a better chance of escaping. Or perhaps this is an invitation to the reader to place herself more firmly in the shoes of these characters.

The Road turns the Odyssey on its head. Rather than a father trying to get home to rejoin his loyal wife and son, here is the story of a father whose wife has abandoned him and their child. They have no home except the road–no one does. Nameless father and his nameless boy make their way by foot toward the Gulf of Mexico, pushing a shopping cart full of their belongings. Why the Gulf of Mexico? Simply because it might be a few degrees warmer.

Just before the boy was born, there was a human-created apocalyptic event that effectively killed all life on the planet. Some things and beings were lost immediately, like electricity and thus telecommunications, and others more slowly–the trees, the insects, humans too shrewd to stick around, knowing what their inevitable deaths would look like. Some people proved more durable––or maybe just ruthless and savage––forming bands of militants, often cannibalistic. There is no new food because nothing can grow. At this point, perhaps eight or ten years hence, no animals have survived to be hunted because humans have eaten them all. The boy and his father must scrounge for canned goods and other stored foods in abandoned houses in order to survive. In these empty homes, they search bedroom closets for shoes, coats–it’s nuclear winter, so always cold. It’s not possible for them to stay put, to make any of these places their new home, because those who survive only do so through constant movement. To fail to keep moving along the road is to become prey.

As in The Odyssey, every day is an obstacle course in survival. Monsters are everywhere, and the very landscape is monstrous. Yet at the heart of the book is the relationship between father and son which is unspeakably tender.

He took the boy’s hand they went to the top of the hill where the road crested and where they could see out over the darkening country to the south, standing there in the wind, wrapped in their blankets, watching for any sign of a fire or a lamp. There was nothing…after a while they walked back. Everything too wet to make a fire. They ate their poor meal cold and lay down in their bedding with the lamp between them. He’d brought the boy’s book but the boy was too tired for reading. Can we leave the lamp on till I’m asleep? he said. Yes. Of course we can…He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said.

Yes of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now. …

And later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy, pp. 9-11.

I almost failed this book, and by that I mean I had to put it down several times to stare at the wall in despair. It was just too brutal. I couldn’t imagine a future for this duo, and because the love between them was so palpable, so natural, so beautifully and perfectly rendered, I couldn’t handle seeing them suffer. I thought I’d rather walk away. But something kept me reading–perhaps sheer determination to be brave, perhaps simply because I loved these characters so much I couldn’t bear to leave them. I’m glad I stuck with it because the ending of this book shocked me in its hopefulness, and I cried out loud as I read the final page.

In The Vaster Wilds, our wily unnamed protagonist, a tiny young woman, possibly in her late teens (she refers to herself only as “Girl”) is full of Odyssean ingenuity. Like Odysseus, master of disguises, whose brainchild was the Trojan Horse, our Girl too finds a way to overcome the limits of a wall, though instead of sneaking in, she secrets herself out. It is 1610, and Troy is the fort at Jamestown, surrounded by indigenous Americans who are fed up with these stupid intruders, most of whom are dead or dying from small pox or starvation. It’s been a terrible year for the English, and their settlement is about to fail. For reasons we don’t discover until the end of the novel, it’s vital that our girl succeed in escaping. She has armed herself with layers of clothes, the boots taken from the corpse of a dead boy, and several useful items, all of which she does name: a hatchet, a cup, a knife, a flint, all tied in a sack around her waist. Because of her many feats of physical and intellectual brilliance, I had no doubt that this girl would survive. She has knowledge; she has seen a map: Spanish settlements in the south, French to the north. She knows a bit of French, so it’s north she runs. As she makes her way up the James River she manages to capture and eat everything from fish, duck, baby squirrels, even wood grubs at one point. She’s a major survivor. But she, like the father and son in The Road, must keep moving or risk capture and certain death (“I want to live…If I stop, I’ll die,” p. 83).

After reading the first 50 pages, though, I turned to Tom and said, “How is she going to make it to Canada?” I grew up in Virginia. I know the geography well enough to understand that even if she gets all the way to the Rappahannock River, how is she possibly going to cross the Potomac? I got out of bed and found my giant Rand McNally Road Atlas to see if I could help her determine the best route.

Right around that point, I must have realized that this story couldn’t end well. But how could we lose this witnessing consciousness, this brilliant, resourceful girl who seems to have exactly the perspective that Europeans lacked? She sees quickly that this is not a land to be tamed, but revered. She has a mystical outlook on this natural world, even though it seems to contain within it many of the same mortal dangers as The Road’s in the form of deranged, murderous white people. At one point, on a rare warm early spring day, she pauses at the top of a ridge and gazes far across the river to what she thinks must be the sea to the far western edge of this continent.

Glory pulsed in her gut; she, a nobody, a nothing, going farther than any man of Europe had yet gone in this place so new to their eyes.

But once there, what else was there to do, who would be there to save her and bring her home again? If none of her countrymen had ever claimed to cross that ocean, none of her countrymen would ever find her. And she would languish alone with her feet in the distant ocean and know she would be alone until she died.

The Vaster Wilds, p. 168

“You can’t go home again,” writes Thomas Wolfe, a good reminder that even though we’re all just trying to find a home, it’s almost impossible to do so, even for those of us who aren’t escaping cannibals, or fleeing for our very lives. I’d argue though that home is a concept we carry within, that we are all hermit crabs of sorts, though we endoskeletal-types carry home within our bodies. McCarthy’s father and son pair speak of “the fire” they must carry.

We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?…Nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

The Road, p. 83.

Although she experienced plenty of trauma (“She saw it again and again: the door could no longer close. She could not push back the seeing” p. 239), Groff’s Girl too has a “pinprick of light” within that she carries. “I am not alone for I carry my god in my heart always.” (p. 10). This fire within, this essential goodness that inspires and inoculates the heroes of both novels, is what draws me to these characters, unites me fully with them. I have my doubts about Odysseus, and my current reading of the end of The Odyssey leaves me deeply unsettled. But when I arrived at the end of each of these novels, I nodded with agreement, with relief, with gratitude to the authors.

Yesterday, as I sat alone in my studio missing my children, my husband, my fellow writers, fearful that I’d never fully recover from this invisible enemy’s colonization of my body, I turned to this god of my own heart to ask what I should do.

Play the piano. Play music. Find the beginning.

So I did. On the keyboard in my music loft, I played a Bach piece very badly. I worked out the chords to “What a Wonderful World.” Then, I found the very first album I ever bought, the album I consider my ultimate comfort music, an album music aficionados scoff at, and I put on Side One of The Beatles Greatest Hits, 1967-1970. The haunting, Samhainian notes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” made me laugh and shiver with gladness. Like walking into one’s childhood kitchen on a winter morning––the stove warm, the smells of coffee and pancakes in the air, the feel of flannel between one’s fingers, the gentleness of a well-slept parent’s embrace––I was home.

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  1. I just finished Lauren Groff’s novel and came across this comparison. The Road is one of my all time favorite novels for its undying love between father and son. I gave this to my son and he read it, He actually finished the book whilst riding Bart to the East Bay and he asked me “why didn’t you tell me? I was riding Bart and at the end of the book I was weeping like a baby”. At the end of The Vaster Wilds, I too was weeping like a baby. I’m 80. I have seen a thing or two. However, these two novels go to the crux of the matter. That is a reappraisal of life, the abandonment of all that is abhorrent and a treasure of all things tender and beautiful.

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