Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Apostrophic Anarchy

So, last week I read a book called The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig, which I very much enjoyed, but which had an odd typographical feature: there are no quotation marks or apostrophes in it anywhere. There's plenty of contractions and dialog, mind you; it's just that those particular bits of punctuation seem to have gone MIA. Despite this, I found it perfectly easy to read, and, hey, there was a justification for the conceit: the story is supposedly being written down by an 11-year-old kid. And, while an 11-year-old damned well ought to know how to use quotes and apostrophes, I could certainly see one not bothering. So, fine.

But then, yesterday, I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road (despite, rather than because of Oprah's recommendation, I might add). And I liked that one, too, but it also leaves out all the quotation marks and apostrophes. I'm not sure what the idea is there. Were they all destroyed in the apocalypse? Or is this some sort of weird new literary trend? I mean, I've seen people ditch the quote marks before, but apostrophes? What did apostrophes ever do to anybody, other than shoving themselves into far too many science fiction character names?

This is actually kind of starting to bug me. Not quite as much as encountering quote marks and apostrophes where they don't belong does. But enough.


  1. What did you think of The Road? It sounds kind of..depressing.

    My original entry was going to be full of inappropriate quote marks and apostrophe, but I just couldn't compose anything.

  2. I'll count myself grateful for your lack of imagination on that, then. :)

    Y'know, I read all these reviews and comments on The Road about how OMG DEPRESSING! it is, using words like "harrowing" and "disturbing" and "bleak." But, man, I think I must've read one too many post-apocalyptic novels, because it barely pinged my depress-o-meter. Reading On the Beach when I was a teenager, that depressed me. Seeing the movie Threads when I was 15 had me twitching for a full day afterwards. The Road, while I guess it is pretty bleak, didn't depress me at all. Possibly because there is actually sort of a hopeful thread that runs through it. It's a thin thread, but it's there.

    Anyway, I did like the book. Weird punctuation quirks aside, the prose is generally very good. Well, OK, there are a few passages where it's trying a little too hard, waving its arms around and going, "Look how poetically written I am!" But mostly it works. I found it a very fast read, too. It pulled me right along. And I liked the ending, which I thought was thematically and emotionally satisfying.

    I don't know that I'd recommend it to everybody. Some are likely to find it too depressing or too pretentious or too boring or whatever. But I did think it was worthwhile.

    (There ya go. My five-cent book review. :))

  3. It saves on the cost of ink, and not having those pesky notations all over the place makes the book several pages shorter (also saving paper)?

  4. And here I thought publishers liked longer books these days.

    Although I suppose it could be a bold environmental statement, especially considering that we're talking about a book that kills off pretty much every plant on Earth. :)

  5. The Road is fairly short, if that's worrying anyone. Even if you find it depressing, you won't have more than a couple hundred pages to wallow in it. Me, I liked it.

    I haven't read a lot of McCarthy -- just All the Pretty Horses, but that seems to be the sort of thing he does, dialogue and punctuation-wise. He owes a lot to William Faulkner, whose prose reads much the same a lot of the time.

    I'm of two minds on this. I think McCarthy handles it very well, and it's well suited to this novel, but quotation marks, apostrophes and other punctuation were created for a reason. Sometimes they're needless clutter, and a skilled writer can pare them away, but sometimes not using them just leads to confusion. There are few who do it quite as well as McCarthy; he makes it seem natural most of the time, where it could easily seem like an annoying affectation.

  6. Totally agree about punctuation existing for a reason. And not using it certainly can create confusion. E.g., my brain wants to read "cant" as meaning something entirely different than "can't" and stumbles badly when it sees "were" written for "we're."

    I did think Haig really got away with it, and was a bit surprised, overall, at how easy I found his book to read, apostrophes or no apostrophes. But, I dunno... It was just bad timing, I guess, but when you encounter something like that for the second time in a week, it suddenly really stands out and does feel like an annoying affectation.

    And I can understand dispensing with the quotation marks in order to create a certain kind of feel or flow in the writing, but I just don't see how losing the apostrophes adds anything, stylistically. Again, at least in The Dead Fathers Club it serves the function of reminding us that we're reading from the perspective of a kid (which is actually useful in narrative terms, because the kid is an unreliable narrator, and it's kind of important to keep that in mind). With The Road, really, the only thing I can think is "Geez, the apocalypse was so bad even the apostrophes died!" and that kind of irreverently humorous reaction is really not the effect McCarthy's going for. Despite that, it worked for me, anyway, but it does leave me scratching my head a little.

    I haven't read any of McCarthy's other books. Haven't read any Faulkner, either, come to that.

  7. I'd recommend them both (McCarthy and Faulkner), but they can take some getting used to -- and sometimes require work. Maybe start with Faulkner's "The Bear" like I did.

    And it's sometimes remarkable what we can understand, even when the traditional rules get tossed out the window. Take this famous example:

    "Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?"

    Did you have any trouble reading that?

  8. I've seen that before... I think I even posted it here, actually. :) FWIW, I later found heard that said "rscheearch" isn't actually real, and that particular paragraph was actually crafted to be readable, rather than randomly scrambled. That doesn't actually undermine your point, though. Humans are really good at this kind of thing.

  9. Oh, I don't think there's any lab at Cambridge where they're studying this sort of thing -- or even that it works for the reason the example says it does. There are plenty of words in the paragraph that don't follow its own rules, but it's still sort of remarkable just how easy it is to read.

    I just read over at Bookslut that The Road won a Scottish literary prize. "So the Scots AND Oprah love it," they write. "Damn, that sounds like a depressing book."

  10. With The Road, really, the only thing I can think is "Geez, the apocalypse was so bad even the apostrophes died!"

    The apostrolypse? An apocastrophe?

  11. "And here I thought publishers liked longer books these days."

    I think they do. Ursula LeGuin is a marvellous, but very concise writer. The last book of hers I read had been set in almost double line spacing, presumably to make it look longer and make purchasers feel that they were getting their money's worth. I can imagine this conversation in a bookshop between customer and sales assistant:

    "I'd like to buy a book, please."

    "What sort of a book?"

    "Well, it should be at least an inch thick."