Cormac McCarthy: no apostrophes = distracting

Just started reading No Country For Old Men, but I’m struggling to focus on the story. McCarthy seems to have an aversion to apostropes, and writes “dont, wont, cant, oclock” etc.

Dunno why but this is really distracting, especially as some terms do retain the apostrophe (“I’d, we’d” etc).

Is this is an affectation specific to McCarthy, or is it part of writing the “great american novel”?

The story is written in the third-person, so it doesn’t seem to be an attempt to replicate authentic speech.

There are a few other blogs where this is discussed… I’m sure some people would say that writers are supposed to play with language norms and challenge expectations, but it’s making it really hard to stick with the book.

It feels like all the reader’s effort is in ploughing through the prose, rather than absorbing the story, so drags all the pleasure out of the book.

(His prose is also pretty shabby IMO… the short, almost fragment, sentances seem like a poor attempt to mimic Hemmingway, but it just makes the book feel like an unfinished draft).

I usually try to stick with novels for the first few chapters, but I’m quite close to ditching this one, which is a shame as the plot is meant to be pretty good. :frowning:

Cormac McCarthy is a genius.

It’s true he doesn’t use apostrophes, and he doesn’t use quotations marks either. He’s never, to my knowledge, explained why (McCarthy notoriously reticent to explain his work), but I think he does it in the interest of economy and minimalism. His prose is as good as it gets. I personally think the guy is fucking brilliant. And even though the lack of apostrophes or quotation marks would strike me as obnoxiously affected in most writers, I cease to notice it with him.
As far as I know, the technique (I won’t call it an affectation becaus the guy is a fucking genius) is unique to him, but it looks good on him, and he has a Pulitzer Prize to back him up.

Yeah, that’s the problem… I’ve heard others praise him so I really want to enjoy (or at least *appreciate *the books), but I can’t help feeling there’s an “emperor’s new clothes” thing going on, where if you didn’t know who the author was you’d laugh and point, but because it’s McCarthy it’s embraced, or (at least) tolerated.

He’s a genious. The “clothes” are definitely there.

No Country (while great) is not the best example of his work, though. In my opinion, Blood Meridian is of the best books of the last 50 years or so.

They are an attempt to ape Hemingway. The polysyndetic coordination that marks Hemingway’s prose is an effective affectation, though, and McCarthy does it especially well in some of his novels, and it’s especially striking in his “Border Trilogy” (All The Pretty Horses, etc.) where it’s almost impossible to go a page or two without running into a sentence that just chugs endlessly along, pulling conjunction after conjunction behind, but like I said, it can be pretty effective, so whatever. If you’ve read any of his earlier work you’ll see that he’s always been incredibly self-conscious about the sonorousness (that’s not exactly the word I’m looking for, it’s late) of his style. For the first decade he was publishing, his novels read like really egregious Faulkner fan-fiction and no intelligent and well-read person could make it through one of them without wondering if he was attempting some sort of sly parody of Faulkner, because story-wise, his earliest efforts were a fairly hum-drum affair and riddled with bad Southern stereotypes that almost seemed like they were caricatures of something you’d find in, of course, Faulkner. That’s not to mention the prose. The prose is bad. Read some of the opening pages of his first three novels on Amazon and you’ll see what I mean.

But eventually he made something of himself and his work is literate and engaging and worth the purchase price, now. So I tend to forgive his stylistic fixations.

I’m sort of in the same boat. I just finished The Road and have The Border Trilogy in the stack next to my reading chair. I didn’t enjoy The Road because it was just so fucking dismal, but I did like the sort of poetic writing style. I don’t see the genius, but I’m willing enough to read the trilogy with an open mind to see if I can recognize it.

I hate it. It feels like all the characters are always whispering to me. Maybe that’s the effect he wanted, but I wish he’d just go ahead and use them.

In his favor, I have read at least a couple of his books, despite the lack of punctuation. Most books get put aside after the first page when I realize they’re doing this.

It’s not unique to him: David Guterson, for one, did it in Our Lady of the Forest, and possibly in Snow Falling on Cedars. And I’m not sure getting a Pulitzer is necessarily a sign of genius…
The question is: does it serve a purpose? Does it do anything to the reading experience? If so, what? Apostrophizing is, of course, a convention: he’s not closer to real speech or anything, he’s ignoring the convention–it’s a “fuck you” to the literary establishment, then? How daring…

And notwithstanding the sheer force of your opinion, I’d personally agree with this:

There’s a good deal of sense in this. I think it’s especially true of Blood Meridian, a horrible hog of a book that makes a mess of perspective and narration. It wants to come across as this sort of de-mythologized Western, but it is unable to deliver convincing characterization because it ignores reading conventions. If a paragraph starts with “The kid was sitting at a fire. He gazed at it. It was like…” or somesuch, I expect that I’m getting the kid’s thoughts and views; if it goes on to rhapsodize poetically, Shakesperean allusions and all, that’s not a clever narrative device, unless your McCarthy (or Hemingway, or whatever), it’s just bad writing that can’t seem to decide whether it wants to show off the narrator’s ability to make poetry or to be a gritty realistic novel.

It’s also the inconsistency that grates - if you’re going to challenge convention then do it 100% - but McCarthy shies away from this.

So negative contractions (verb + not) get no apostrophe: cant, wont, didnt
But other contractions (esp. noun + had) do: I’d, he’d, we’d
And then a few other random ones: oclock etc

If you didn’t see a single apostrophe it might be easier to filter out, but because he pops a few in here and there it only serves to highlight the missing ones even more.

It feels like McCarthy is trying to bludgeon me over the head with the fact This Is A Proper Novel… self-conscious is a good description, as though the author is desperate to elevate a “story” into “literature” but isn’t confident that the themes on their own are enough to achieve this, and that something extra (in the form of tinkering with the visual form of the words) is needed.

I agree with the OP–I don’t care if the guy is a genius or not. I’ll never know, because I couldn’t get through more than two pages of his drivel.

Why does he stop with the apostrophes and quotation marks? Why not get rid of all of the punctuation, including paragraph breaks and spaces between words? Why use conventional spelling? Wow–that would show the establishment!

Of course, then it would be completely unreadable instead of just mostly unreadable.

Wow, see, this is my favorite of his books. The All the Pretty Horses trilogy didn’t do much for me, but Blood Meridian grabbed me and has never let go; I found it extraordinarily powerful. It didn’t de-mythologize Westerns so much as it re-imagined them as nightmarish, borderline Lovecraftian horrors.

The apostrophe/quotation mark thing doesn’t really bother me. Like Dio, I think it conveys a sense of spare-ness to the prose, a punctuational nod to the lack of fripperies in the lives of his characters. You dont need an apostrophe in “don’t” to know what the word is, so he leaves it off. You do need one in “we’d” to know what the word is, so he leaves it in. They’re there when necessary for pronunciation and meaning, and not otherwise. Certainly it’s not something that all authors ought to do, but I felt that this stylistic antiflourish gives his writing a bit of flavor.

Questioning why he doesn’t go further–getting rid of all apostrophes or commas or whatever–is just petulant. You want to do that, go write your own damn book. But if you already don’t like his choice, and others do, why on earth would you suggest he make a choice that you wouldn’t like and others wouldn’t either?

Certainly his books aren’t for everyone, and I can easily see why folks might find him irritating. I can’t stomach Jane Austen myself. But it would be ridiculous of me to suggest that Jane Austen is all hype, discounting all those who treasure her books; it’s similarly ridiculous to suggest that people only like McCarthy because of his cachet.

If you notice, apostrophes are added whenever the meaning would change:

The words “we’d” and “wed” are obviously quite different. Ditto “I’d” and “Id”.

That said, I consider it mostly affectation and pretension, masquerading as serious literature. McCarthy is certainly gifted, but he seems to be writing for himself, instead of an audience. Of course, YMMV.

And no discussion of the pros and cons of McCarthy’s writing style would be complete without a link to the Reader’s Manifesto.

The late Jose Saramago (the Portugeuse author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of years ago) apparently only used full stops and commas. No - ? ! … : or ; etc. at all.

(from the translator’s note in The Stone Raft)

Well… “cant” and wont" also have separate meanings to “can’t” and “won’t”, which is back to the issue of consistency (from context it’s clear what all those terms mean).

I don’t consider myself an unsophisticated reader, and I’m used to working hard to extract the value from a complex work, which is why I’m so disconcerted to find myself struggling with No Country…

I wonder if it’s because I’m used to the effort being linked to content rather than to form - i.e. highly complex thought delivered in a straightforward prose package - although I’m sure Joyce scholars (among many others) would argue that form and content cannot be separated so easily.

You’re trying too hard. The meaning in No Country does not lie in it’s contractions, but in the story itself. It’s a subversion of a genre. The stylistic choices are just stylistic.

I really had problems getting through the bleakness of Blood Meridian. It was an unrelenting slog through a nightmare landscape, with few or no redeeming characters. An exhausting read.

It was definitely all that, but there is a beating heart underneath it. It seems to disappear at times, but the humanity and hope emerges at the end.

Thanks for this link - seems to get to the heart of what’s bothering me :slight_smile:

I was going to mention McCarthy’s interminable “and” sentances too - “He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.” [The Crossing].

There’s a similar one in the first chapter of No Country… - it just feels “wrong”, the wrong words and the wrong form for the information he’s trying to get across.

I’m sure this is true, but he seems to go out of his way to obscure the story through his style (rather than illuminating it).
Anyway, clearly this is purely subjective, but on some level it’s gratifying to know that others have also failed to click with McCarthy’s prose, prizes or not.

See I read this sentence and immediately am transported back to the poetic experience it is to read McCarthy’s work. In one fluid motion (as illustrated by that sentence) he finishes his food and thanks her. You’re not getting information only, you’re getting a feeling of what it is like to be that person, doing that specific thing. I think it’s beautiful. But of course I’m just one reader (and I don’t much like Jane Austen either!).

The only thing it invokes in me is a feeling of hurrying through something. By making it only once sentence, without any normal places where you can breathe, I feel that all the actions must have happened very quickly. But that’s not possible based on the actual information.

You just can’t perform all those actions in one fell swoop. It takes time to do all those things. So, instead, I’m left with a feeling of incongruity, which then makes me think of a poor storyteller–in particular, a small child that is really excited, or a frantically scared person.