Because it was not important to the story. If we look at the road as analogous to life, then most people stumble down their road little caring how it got there or why things are as they are. Maybe as kids, they ask these questions, but then they just go on down the road.
This is a bad road. Why? why do people have cancer and diabetes? Why does a family of five get wiped out by a drunk driver? The reason the guy was drinking isn't important and even if we know he was drinking because his girl dumped him do we care why she did?
The post apocolyse is the setting for the road but it is not a sci-fi novel of the post-apoc sub-genre. It lacks almost all the conventions of the genre and sub-genre. This is merely setting... and I use the word "merely" recklessly here because setting is vital. But those seeking genre fiction (which I enjoy and am not putting down) will be disappointed.
It is inferred nuclear weapons have been used. The fires, the continuous cloud cover, the death of all plants and animals, and the ash which results could have only been caused by nuclear weapons. It is also interesting to note there appears to have been other calamities which preceded the use of these weapons. The man remembers a time when graves of cholera victims were unearthed in mass.
Yes, it seems to be a nuclear war of some kind. I remember a passage that went something like: "The Godspoke men are all gone and they have taken the world with them." To me, that seemed to reference a world-ending religious conflagration.
It seems that the important point in the book is the parenhood and the love that you can share with your son...this is a world full of danger in every turn and despise that you see the hope and love that the man try to show and pass on to his son, he knows that he is going to die and is trying to prepare the kid for the road ahead alone...and yes it seems that the destruction came from nuclear weapons used in a corrupted but not complity lost humanity.
If you're writing a book about the time after an "apocalypse," it's only expected that the author would somehow explain or justify how the world got to the point where the story begins. No great detail is needed, but something. And why are all the animals dead (except one barking dog we never see), while humans keep trudging along roads that should by now be completely impassable, and especially pushing a cart? So many unanswered questions, so many grammatical omissions that made it harder to read! Why? Novel-reading is a dying art in today's world, and if all novels were written like this one, I'd find a better use of my time also. I suspect a nuclear disaster of worldwide proportions, but I don't know. Maybe an asteroid crashed on earth again...so many maybes could be dreamed up, I'm sure. Would it have cost the author something to tell the reader what it was, in a brief sentence or two? But the reader is left to his own devices, as in so many ways in this book. When an author just writes for himself, he shouldn't be surprised if he loses readers. Based on the book, I wouldn't pay to see the movie. Just goes to show you that Oprah's enthusiasm doesn't mean a helluva lot.
Would it have cost the author something to tell the reader what it was, in a brief sentence or two? Yes. It would have cost the theme of the story.
Tell me, what would it be like if God himself met you as you emerged from the birth canal and explained the history of the universe to you in a way that made your life make perfect sense? Then he sets you on your path of struggle, explaining everything all the while right up until the end... prior to which, he tells you how the rest of the Universe will go about its business after you are gone, explaining what will happen to your children through every generation so that you need not deal with any ambiguity.
But, like the child in the story, we arrive into existence with only heresay, witnesses, and circumstantial evidence to provide us with a sense of what came before... not that it is of much interest to us as we go to work and raise our children... until we finally die, not knowing what will happen after we are gone. Now imagine that we are not doing this in a teeming civilization where the competition for resources is played within the context of rules and a certain amount of cooperation, but on a wasted planet, alone, where most humans have given up their humanity and every day demands that you compromise your own by degrees if you are to survive.
With the trappings of society about us... with the distraction of bread and circuses, pizza and TV, it is easy for us to forget that there really is no basic difference between our road and that of the father in the book. We push our cart (cool irony about our consumerism) down the road, protecting it, trying to upgrade it, filling it, emptying it... all in the service of perpetuating our survival and putting our children into a position to carry on. We go to a movie instead of firing a flare gun on the beach. Some of us enjoy more moments than these characters did. Some of us don't.
But by stripping the setting down to almost nothing, McCarthy shows us the stark, scary, joyous simplicity of existence. The Road is not about the causes of apocalypse. It's about us.
One of the many things I love about "The Road" is that McCarthy wisely leaves a lot up to the imagination of the reader. I don't believe the "why" is nearly as important to this tale, as the "what." I've read many statements that tend to say it is a nuclear war but if that were the case, then why is there no lingering radiation poisoning? I tend to think it was due to a series of calamities that started with the incident recounted by The Man when he recounts the streaks in the sky. The main point is that it has brought an end to most life on earth with a few humans and perhaps animals struggling to survive.
I would have to agree with James and Vinson. The "how did it happen" explaination would only distract from the themes of this story. Why would the author choose to water down the story with bulky explainations? What did the man do for a living before this? What was his marriage like before his wife died? Who cares? The story is about a father and son and their journey together. Was it a plague-like-outbreak, necular war, terroists? It simply doesn't matter.
There's absolutely no reason to include any "what happened to the world" to the story. It is up to the reader's imagination, but it's not important. I have wondered what happened myself, but to know what happened would not help the story in any way. To think you "need" this explanation to better understand the story means you completely missed the point of it.
I'd say a volcano going off is also likely. I saw no mention of radiation being a problem, which you might expect after a nuclear war.
That, I think, is a big problem with people saying this is an environmental book--if a natural process within the Earth is to blame for the apocalypse, then what good is there in attempts to preserve it? You'd feel pretty silly for buying a solar powered car once volcanic ash is blocking out the sun.
Not saying environmentalism was a big theme in the book--in fact, I don't think it was. But it's annoying to see people try to cast it in that light anyway.
Well it is mentioned in the book that all of the clocks have the same time - this would be a side effect of them having survived an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) burst that is created from a nuclear detention. Essentially, after a nuclear bomb goes off it also breaks anything that is powered by electricity. Thus, battery powered clocks would all stop functioning at the same time - since they'd be within the radius of the EMP pulse.
It may be possible that the author's omission was done in order to allow for more relatability to our real lives. If he had specified what destructive event took place, it would keep the story safely in the realm of pure fiction. Leaving this open to conjecture makes the plausibility of this situation occurring in reality much stronger, and thus creating a much stronger reading experience. Blurring the lines between simple fiction and possible reality enables the reader to connect and learn something from the themes on a much deeper level.
In response to J. Lordan: That's an excellent point regarding the EMP disrupting electricity and electronics and could be the key. My only thought as devil's advocate, would be that the author doesn't really state that all of the clocks in the world stopped, but it is easy to read it that way. As this is primarily from the Man's perspective, as far as he knows, the clocks all stopped. But since there has been no mass communication, it's a localized observation. I've wondered if part of the puzzle is that there was a limited nuclear war using small bombs since there seems to be no lingering radiation or radiation poisoning. There are passages for example where the people fleeing were caught in a firestorm. If there was a large scale nuclear bombing I doubt that there would have been such a mass exodus along a state highway. What caused the fire storm? But again it's a mystery and you may be right. To me that larger mystery is how the family survived for 8 or so years in their own home or area before they see the need to get out and head for the coast. There is no mention of fall out shelters only references to fires on the mountain ridges and the gradual dissolution of society. I wonder what Mr. McCarthy had in mind other than to make us wonder?
I, too, wondered what caused this . I came to the conclusion it had to be a super volcano. The effects of one would include volcanic ash, loss of sunlight for months , a volcanic winter lasting several years, & a mini ice age with temperatures dropping 20 or so degrees.
L. Martin: The super volcano theory has been mentioned before and that or something similar is what seems to be feasible within the descriptions. Also there are continued earthquakes which also could factor for years in the aftermath of the Yellowstone caldera or if the Pacific "ring of fire" went off. But also there seems to be the suggestion of war in some passages. That is why my theory is that it is a combination of events set off by a super volcano or a large meteor breaking up as it entered the Earth's atmosphere and causing widespread destruction. I think it's also possible that there could be places on the Earth that haven't been as badly damaged. The film makes the cause of the apocalypse even more opaque than the book. So again, the why isn't the important issue. But it keeps us entertained.
First of all- the book several times mentions the silhouettes of cities on the horizon- skyscrapers still standing. No nuclear bomb craters are mentioned. No talk of radiation or radiation sickness.
What the author does tell us is that the sky is gray and getting darker and that it is cold and getting colder. Also earthquakes occur several times in the book.
Clearly I think the author had a super volcano in mind as the catastrophe- one that is actually still erupting 10 years later causing earthquakes and still spewing ash into the air.
And because of the initial description in the book of a "long shear bright light followed by a series of low concussions" I infer that the volcano was probably in the Western Hemisphere somewhere- maybe Yellowstone. The initial explosion would cause a shearing light that half the world would see- with crater ejection impacts for thousands of miles around the eruption.
The forest fires would just happen naturally (or by careless survivors not putting out their camp fires) later as the earth dies and millions of acres of dying or dead timber would produce huge conflagrations.
Thus I conclude that the disaster in "The Road" is an extinction level event- even bigger than the Toba event 80,000 years ago that nearly wiped Humans out (researchers estimate that humanity was reduced to 10000 breeding pairs that we are all descended from to this day).
Because of the mentions of earthquakes and that it is still getting darker and colder I infer that the volcano- after the initial eruption is still erupting during the course of the story- much like one of the really ancient extinction level events- like the one in Siberia or the one that all but created the sub continent of India.
The "signs of war" mentioned in the book are not "war"- but merely melees between organized gangs of survivors as resources ran out. Hastily constructed barricades are mentioned- the jackknifed trailer truck set on the overpass to discourage attackers. The book takes place about ten years after the initial disaster event. Resources are depleted. "Communes"- mentioned several times in the book- are talked about in the past tense for the most part where they are briefly mentioned. "Society"- no longer exists on any level when the story opens. Towns- villages- communes- setup for defense no longer exist as they were either overtaken by roaming armed gangs or they succumbed to cannabilism themselves.
The story takes place at the "end game" of humanity- where all that is left are packs of evil men (who have consumed their children and women and now just hunt for their human prey for base survival in small groups) and scattered isolated fearful and untrustful individuals or small family groups.
We know the "man" is an educated man- maybe once a doctor and we can infer that he and his family were more than likely once part of a survival commune- and that his services and knowledge made him useful and for a time provided at least some minimal subsistence level lifestyle for him and his wife and child. However- those days are long gone by the time the story opens- and the wife mentions the suicides of other families suggesting that things began falling apart for the last organized human societies around 6 or 7 years after the extinction level event and that they had to strike out on their own somewhere around that time for survival.
I'm constantly amazed at how environmentalists are disparaged by some people. How could any reasonable, rational, semi-intelligent person consider the desire to preserve and improve the environment as something scornful and worthy of ridicule? That is fundamentally illogical and quite disturbing to witness. And are you seriously advocating willful neglect of the environment - the only one we have - on the premise that statistically rare natural disasters render it pointless? I'm sorry, but that is truly ignorance at it's height.