1. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Cormac McCarthy's Lack of Punctuation

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by OurJud, Jul 22, 2016.

    Many years ago I started reading McCarthy's The Road, but gave up about a quarter of the way in. I can't remember why I gave up on it, but on seeing it in a charity shop the other day I bought it and decided to give it another go.

    Anyway, I'm reading another book right now so have only skimmed a few passages, but his lack of commas is very noticeable - to the point where it's almost distracting. I've looked into his methods, such as this and his refusal to use "speech marks" for dialogue, and while I understand where he's coming from in terms of the prose being simple and clear enough that 'indicators' shouldn't be needed, I'm just wondering how others feel about his style.
     
  2. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I like his work, but I think I'd like it just as much, and probably more, with standard punctuation.

    He's good enough to get away with the quirks, but I really don't see what they add.
     
  3. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Doesn't bother me. But it took a brief adjustment. Others have done the same, including Faulkner and Joyce.
     
  4. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can handle the absence of speech marks - and to a sense understand and agree with his logic - but the no comma thing will take some getting used to. I'll just have to take deeper breaths when reading him :)
     
  5. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Do you think the non-standard format adds to the reading experience?

    I guess it slows me down a little, at least at the start... but I don't think it does much else, for me.
     
  6. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I don't know. Probably not, at least for me. I know McCarthy has cited Joyce as someone to be emulated, and said that commas and other punctuation like dialogue tags clutter up a manuscript and should be used minimally. That's his rationale - basically a cleaner, more direct manuscript I guess. To me, it doesn't really add anything. I felt the same about Joyce and Faulkner. I don't know if that's because I'm so used to standard punctuation or because of the style itself. Maybe if everyone wrote like McCarthy the now-standard punctuation would seem overbearing and weighty.
     
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  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I use commas lightly myself, though I use normal speech marks. I actually found The Road to be a very easy read. I'm surprised anyone would have trouble with it.
     
  8. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    I rather enjoyed The Road. It was a quick read. When I read All the Pretty Horses it took some adjustment in the beginning to get used to the run on sentences. After I was used to it, I ended up really enjoying the book and plan to read the rest of the Border Trilogy.

    It's just a different style. There's always a period of adjustment when you start a new author, right? Maybe it's a bit steeper with McCarthy, but it's worth the time to get into it.

    ETA: I find McCarthy's style less difficult to get into than someone who is overly comma happy. Jane Austen comes to mind in this case.
     
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  9. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If too many commas bother you, avoid later Henry James. He hogged 55% of the world's comma supply in his day.
     
  10. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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  11. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    I'll keep that in mind. It's not so much that I can't get into it. It just takes more getting used to, for me, than someone like McCarthy.
     
  12. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    From what I remember of McCarthy's interview with Oprah, he doesn't like quotation marks and commas because they "clutter the page."
     
  13. Robert Musil
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    One day I'm going to write a novel in classical Latin orthography, no letter cases, no punctuation, not even spaces between words. EVERYONEWILLMARVELATTHEIMMEDIACYANDGRIPPINGPOWEROFMYPROSE. They'll call me a genius, you should really just inform the Pulitzer committee now...

    I do like C. McCarthy and never really found his style distracting, although his books are painful to read, but painful in a good way, you know? Is that weird...
     
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  14. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Finally started reading this last night, and while I was prepared for his minimalistic approach to grammar, etc, I wasn't quite expecting instances that, in truth, are just plain incorrect. Yes, learn the rules then break them, but it's still unusual to see. Had half these example been written by a new writer I'm sure most editors would simple assume the author has no grasp of basic grammar.

    With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south.

    Okay, so maybe no grammar errors, strictly speaking, but who talks like that? (Was it McCarthy's intention to write voicelessly??)

    He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup.

    Again, how many 'ands'? And 'off of' ??

    An hour later they were on the road. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things. In case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it.

    Why is 'In case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it.' presented as a stand-alone sentence when it's clearly part of the sentence prior to it?

    I'm not mocking here - this is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel when all's said and done - but I am curious to learn what he was hoping to achieve.

    It's so unusual, in fact, that I'm not sure I'm going to enjoy it, as I'll be constantly questioning the sentence structure and grammar rather than just enjoying the story.
     
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  15. theamorset
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    theamorset Contributing Member

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    I think that one bit about 'in case something went wrong' was important and weighed on the father, so it was given its own sentence.

    Does anyone talk like that? Yes, practically everyone, especially when telling a story in a manner consistent with an 'oral tradition'. Repetition is also very common in oral traditions, but they have a number of other characteristics as well. The author brings some of these into his stories.

    I think he meant to write the story as if someone was telling it to someone else, using the spoken word rather than writing. That might be consistent with the gist of the story - that only a few scattered bands of 'good people' are left/would be interested in telling stories.

    This isn't to say that I like his writing, prizes or no. I find it a bit forced.
     
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  16. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    It's interesting to analyse why McCarthy might have chosen this way of telling the story.

    I've not read The Road, but I can sort of understand McCarthy's choices. If you think about it, connecting each of the character's actions with 'and' emphasises the robot-like way the character is going about his daily routine. The implication is that this is a routine with no colour and no relief in sight. He does this and this and this and this and this.

    The sentence with the knapsacks in it? If you correct it, and write, In the knapsacks were essential things, in case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it, you give the impression that the character is merely thinking ahead and covering all eventualities. However, the way McCarthy has written it, In the knapsacks were essential things. In case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it, you've implied that the character and his boy are very likely to abandon the cart at some point.

    It's subtle, but I think the style works, once you get into the swing of reading it.

    I think when you encounter an author who is as respected as McCarthy is, it's probably best just to trust that he knows what he's doing and go with the flow, rather than experiencing an internal grrrr every time he does something outside the rule book with his sentence structure. The style might not turn out to be enjoyable for you to read, but he's obviously not writing this way out of ignorance. Maybe that's why first-time authors don't get away with this kind of stylistic deviation. We don't know these authors yet, so we don't trust them?
     
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2016
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  17. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a unique style and voice, and I have no doubt whatsoever concerning McCarthy's ability as a writer. To write like this and get away with you must possess an amazing grasp of the English language and its syntax.

    That said, I still maintain In case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it makes no sense as a stand-alone sentence.
     
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  18. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Using a stand alone sentence like that isn't unique to McCarthy. Lots of modern writers employ that style - using a fragment, or something that's really part of the prior sentence as a separate sentence.

    I'm thinking of writers like Elmore Leonard, Robert Crais, Chuck Wendig, Gregg Hurwitz, Mark Lawrence, Caitlin Kiernan, etc. I'm pretty sure I've seen this from Palahniuk, maybe David Foster Wallace (I'd have to check). See it quite a bit in current short stories. New writers as well as experienced ones can get away with this if they're good.
     
  19. Spencer1990
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    You're right that it doesn't make sense as a stand-alone sentence. It plays off the prior sentence. Fragments can be a powerful tool. In my experience, when I see a fragment, my attention is drawn to it. And it looks like that's exactly what it's done for you, too.

    I've read The Road, and I know that the cart plays a big role throughout the book. It kind of makes sense that he would use a fragment in that sentence to emphasize the idea that they might have to abandon literally every possession they own.
     
  20. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, it can be quite effective. If a brand new author without a single publishing credit had submitted The Road, I think it still would have been published and the publisher would think they'd found a great new author. I disagree with the idea that you already have to be established to write in this style.
     
  21. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    It really is a great novel. There's an adjustment period with any author, I think. The time it takes to adjust to McCarthy might be a tad longer than other authors, but he's one of my favorite authors. His books are jam-packed with meaning and taut descriptions, beautiful characterization, and interesting plots.
     
  22. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    He writes like a Latin-American author. In some respects, anyway. José Saramago's Blindness (1995) is written very much the same way, no quotes, the words spilling out in a tumble of conjunctions and prepositional phrases that have no place to pause, thus leaving the reader sometimes mentally breathless. But writing in Spanish and Portuguese is like this, naturally. It's not an idiosyncrasy in these languages. I work as a Spanish interpreter and translator and I am often tasked to render paragraph long, single sentence structures into something that the English-thinking brain can engage and canalize in a way that doesn't leave the reader thinking: Is this ever going to end? Where is the freaking subject of the sentence, even?!
     
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  23. BayView
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    It's interesting that you used that example - I read Blindness and The Road at roughly the same time, and was really caught up by the similarities. I found The Road easier to wade through because the story itself, as I recall, was simpler, with fewer characters. I admired Blindness, I'd say, but I didn't really enjoy it. I don't like to work that hard!
     
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    Don't want to derail this thread, but I just discovered this today. Languages really do differ, don't they?
    Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 17.07.05.png
     
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    It's great that Saramago is being mentioned here. He was an amazing writer, and during the last 15ish years of his life, he was considered by some to be the greatest living novelist.

    As far as McCarthy is concerned, his style is basically an adaptation of the biblical style (which, in turn, is an adaptation of older epic poetry ("and this happened and that happened and some more stuff happened")). It takes some getting used to, but his sentences work very well in context. McCarthy loves varying sentence length based on what he's talking about. For example, in All the Pretty Horses, there's a scene where a train is rushing by, and McCarthy uses no punctuation when that happens so that the reader can experience the whole thing without any pauses or breaks. I've posted this example several times, so it may look familiar to some of you.
     
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