Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Road’s "Weird Little Marks"

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. 2006.

Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist and playwright. He has written 10 novels in the post-apocalyptic, Southern gothic and Western genres. McCarthy has won numerous awards and accolades for his work, among these are the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Road, a National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian was listed in Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language books published between 1923 and 2005. Modern literary reviewers compare McCarthy to another heavyweight author, William Faulkner.

During an interview with Oprah Winfrey, McCarthy declared that he doesn’t like using punctuation in his writing. He occasionally utilizes commas and colons to set off a list but never uses semicolons or quotation marks, saying there is no reason to "block the page up with weird little marks." This aversion to punctuation adds further context to McCarthy’s spare prose in The Road.

He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure.” (McCarthy 4)

There are two missing pieces of punctuation in the quoted sentence: a comma and an apostrophe. With the two missing parts, this sentence would have read, “He thought the month was October, but he wasn’t sure.” This sole sentence would have been broken up by two marks, creating a visual cadence. Without the punctuation, the sentence reads flat and monotonous. It’s like a visual drone. A relentless background buzz.

Include this in the midst of multiple unpunctuated sentences, and the big blocks of featureless prose blend together.

He shoved the pistol in his belt and stood looking out over the yard. There was a brick walkway and the twisted and wiry shape of what once had been a row of boxwoods. In the yard was an old iron harrow propped up on piers of stacked brick and someone had wedged between the rails of it a forty gallon castiron cauldron of the kind once used for rendering hogs.” (McCarthy 92)

My computer hates these sentences. It wants to automatically correct all of the red misspellings and green grammar fuck-ups. As well, the reader hopelessly scans the pages of flat black ink, looking for spots of scant markings to break up the tedium. In this way, McCarthy’s distaste for “weird little marks” is effective in mirroring the plights of The Road’s protagonists. The nameless man and boy have been cast into an apocalyptic world where every day and everything is gray and featureless. The monotony and relentless nature of walking through the unvaried landscape day after day is best characterized, not in McCarthy’s beautifully stark descriptions, but in the image of black letters against a white page with nothing but periods, like small finalities, breaking it up. It is as close as The Road gets to being an illustrated novel.

McCarthy’s specific disdain for quotation marks even lends a voice to the protagonists.

Can I ask you something? he said. Yes. Of course. Are we going to die? Sometime. Not now. And we’re still going south. Yes. So we’ll be warm. Yes. Okay. Okay what? Nothing. Just okay.” (McCarthy 9)

You can almost hear the resignation in these slight exchanges. The man and boy rarely speak and, when they do, the short sentences composed of few words take up an entire line of their own on the page like short lists. It breaks up the big blocks of black paragraphs. Even though their voices are small, the man and boy’s speech is like a puncture in the bleak nothing of the book’s world.

Likewise, McCarthy occasionally punctuates.

Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs. Paper towels, toiletpaper, paper plates. Plastic trashbags stuffed with blankets. He held his forehead in his hand. Oh my God, he said.” (McCarthy 117)

McCarthy’s use of punctuation to set off lists is especially effective in this passage where the man finds a bomb shelter stocked with food and supplies. Instead of the continuous uninterrupted words marching along the page, this paragraph is strewn with commas. Couple those comma-ridden lists with the occasional single bit of food offset with a period, like canned hams and corned beef, and it reads like an excited babbling. This shows the reader what the man must have felt, his eyes flickering fast from one object to another. Instead of the drudging pace pounding from word to word, the commas provide a visual dip and swoop in the sentences.

The parade of commas works to offset the rest of McCarthy’s prose. The “weird little marks” stand out, almost alien, like the abundance of food in the bomb shelter. In this way, the reader can feel the hope as well as the doom. While the story of The Road tells of a dying world, its naked sentences emphasize the emotion in those words.

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