Grace Notes in ‘The Road’

Grace notes

A grace note is a note between notes. In musical terms, it can be described as a fleeting and minute note placed before a regular note. When printed on a musical score, it is shown in miniature. It is the performer who subjectively decides the amount of time to be taken up by these notes. Chopin’s inspiring works contain long series of grace notes. A grace note is by definition decidedly shorter in length than the principal note which it ‘graces’ and theoretically subservient, but in many examples the grace note receives a greater degree of accentuation (emphasis).
The redeeming power of grace notes seen in fiction is powerfully evident in Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel, The Road. As subtle, fleeting and almost insignificant as the musical ornament itself, his use of language is exultant, in contrast to the hellish, post-apocalyptic setting of the novel. “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before…the country…barren, silent, godless.” The rhythm of his prose is as monotone and grey as the landscape he paints, yet his language hits such breath-taking high notes, that we are left dizzy and reeling at times: “…they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
The grace note throughout The Road is the child. “He knew only that the child was his warrant…If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” Against the horrific backdrop of a threatening and lawless landscape, the father’s only remaining certainty is his drive to protect his son and keep him alive against all odds. The child is the only light amidst the unrelenting blackness: “The boy had found some crayons and painted his facemask with fangs as he trudged on uncomplaining.” The stakes here are high.
In How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, James Frey writes: “to gain the sympathy of your reader, make the reader feel sorry for the character…Sympathy is the doorway through which the reader gains emotional access to a story….having gained sympathy, bring the reader further into the fictive dream by getting him or her to identify with the character (p10).” In Vandenburg’s Architecture of the Novel, force (or vector) is “something within a plot that exerts an influence on a character that, in turn, tends to produce a change in the direction of the action….Force lies both within and outside a character…a vector may also be used to mark external events as they meet a character’s internal motivations, as he is forced to move through conflict by choosing a specific course of action.”
The narrative of The Road is illuminated by extraordinary tenderness between father and son. “He kept constant watch behind him in the mirror.” Here is the grace note intersecting with the vector, followed immediately by the next sentence: “The only thing that moved in the streets was the blowing ash.” The father’s self-sacrifice is poignantly shown again in a quirky scene where he stumbles across what is possibly the last can of Coca Cola in the world, and is surprised to see it is still fizzy. When he opens it the child says: “You have some, Papa.” The father insists: “I want you to drink it…” When he accepts the boys offer to share it, but only takes one sip, the awful truth dawns on the child: “It’s because I won’t ever get to drink another one, isn’t it?” The father shepherd’s his son’s cursed imagination away from the awful truth by answering: “Ever’s a long time.”
A New York Times reviewer writes: “The father’s loving efforts…are made that much more wrenching by the unavailability of food, shelter, safety, companionship or hope in most places where they scavenge to subsist.” Whereas the boy’s mother lost hope and suicides before we meet the travelers in this story, the child is the father’s anchor, keeping him alive and hopeful: “The boy sat watching everything…the mummified dead everywhere…If only my heart were stone…He held onto the boy shivering against him and counted each frail breath in the blackness…a blackness…sightless and impenetrable.”
Throughout the book, McCormack holds firm to his pessimistic viewpoint of mankind as a whole, but the grace note of the enduring love between a father and his son, allows us to see beyond the bleakness. This grace note uplifts us in the midst of a fictive hell; it is the tiny sound that resonates so poignantly above the entire symphony and hangs in the air, the audience hushed and awestruck, long after the final note has been played.

1 Comment

  1. I read “The Road” years ago and absolutely loved it, not only because I’m a sucker for bleak narratives but also because of the poignant telling of a father and son relationship, or, as you so eloquently expressed it Leah, the “grace notes.” Thanks for sharing!

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