Put Off By Punctuation

by Matt Sitman

Josh Jones highlights novelist Cormac McCarthy’s unusual punctuation style which, as he confirmed in an interview with Oprah, entails never using quotation marks or semi-colons:

James Joyce is a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.

More on his style:

McCarthy declares his stylistic convictions with simplicity: “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.” It’s a discipline he learned first in a college English class, where he worked to simplify 18th century essays for a textbook the professor was editing. Early modern English is notoriously cluttered with confounding punctuation, which did not become standardized until comparatively recently.

McCarthy, enamored of the prose style of the Neoclassical English writers but annoyed by their over-reliance on semicolons, remembers paring down an essay “by Swift or something” and hearing his professor say, “this is very good, this is exactly what’s needed.” Encouraged, he continued to simplify, working, he says to Oprah, “to make it easier, not to make it harder” to decipher his prose. For those who find McCarthy sometimes maddeningly opaque, this statement of intent may not help clarify things much.

Not everyone is enamored, however. From Jacob Lambert’s 2009 parody of McCarthy’s The Road:

With the first gray light he rose and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Godless and blasted. A madman’s timeshare. The trees dead, the grass dead, the shrubs dead also. The rivers dead. And the streams and reeds, the mosses and voles. Dead as well. He glassed the ruins, hoping for a shred of color, a wisp of smoke, a faroff Cracker Barrel. There was nothing but swirling gloom, a grasping murk. He sat with the binoculars and the gray, and thought: the child is my warrant. If he is not the word of God God never spoke, although he might have scribbled something on a paperscrap and passed it along. He bit hard on his blistered upperlip. If only I had thought to give him a name. If only.

An hour later they were on The Road, an Oprah’s Book Club selection. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks in case they had to make a run for it. Cannibal rapists, roving bloodcults. Greenpeace volunteers. In the knapsacks were essential things: tins of food, metal utensils, a broken Slinky, a canopener, three bullets, a picture of ham. He looked out over the barren waste, the scorpled remain. The road was empty, as was its wont. Quiet, moveless. Are you okay? he said, quotation marks dead as the reeds. The boy nodded. Then they started down the road, humming a sprightly tune. The tune was silent, and unsprightly.