A year ago, I was the only person walking through St. Stephen’s Green early on a rainy Saturday, my first morning in Ireland. It was the wettest, coldest August on record, with flooding across Ireland. Every Dubliner I met accused me of bringing Seattle weather with me. I loved it.
After my flight over from London the night before, the only place still serving food was Eddie Rocket’s. Much less photogenic than a moist Joyce. When I ordered my veggie burger and fries, it just felt wrong that this was going to be my first meal on the Emerald Isle. But when the burger arrived with beets on it, the fries were served by the Polish waitstaff in a bowl (with knife and fork), and a crowd of Spaniards piled into the booth behind me, I felt a long way from home.
My list of 15 books that left a lasting impression is full of science fiction, much of it very dark, and some of it apocalyptic. After ignoring the hype for a couple of years, I finally picked up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only to become immediately annoyed with McCarthy’s pretentious, mannered style.
McCarthy’s writing is full of incomplete sentences and anastrophe, completely lacks quotation marks, and frequently embeds dialogue in the middle of paragraphs. What truly annoys me, though, is McCarthy’s inconsistent use of apostrophes for contractions. Each of these conventions is a barrier to straightforward reading (though I finished The Road in only a few hours). If they made me stop and think about the language, characters, or plot, I wouldn’t object, but they’re merely distracting.
Naturally, this apocalyptic abomination is being made into a “major motion picture.”
I think what bothers me most is how much attention McCarthy and The road have gotten. With more praise and “book of the year” awards than God’s own Bible, you’d think McCarthy had done something deeply original. Well, he hasn’t. Writers like Joyce experimented with alternatives to standard dialogue punctuation, but I would argue that time has proven their experiments a failure.
And there are far superior works that address how we as humans might react to the end of our civilization and the impending extinction of our species. Two of my favorite examples appear at the end of Elizabeth Hand‘s Saffron and Brimstone. “Echo” and “The Saffron Gatherers” explore similar themes of survival amidst the loss of hope without resorting to needless typographical devices.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who’s annoyed and even a little angry about The Road‘s undeserved success.
What really irritates me is his apparent aversion to punctuation. For a while I was trying to decide why some words deserve apostrophes, and others don’t, but I think I finally figured it out: he puts apostrophe’s for contractions of words + had, but not words + not. i.e. He’d use some markings, but he didnt use others. This to me is both annoying and pretentious.
Bibliobibuli has an excellent analysis of the specific patterns, along with a roundup of the punctuational criticism from around the ‘net.
Literary Kicks may respect Oprah, but nevertheless has some more well-constructed analysis of McCarthy’s assault on the English language.
And with that, I’m hereby inaugurating my list of…
Writers I Would Like to Punch in the Face
Cormac McCarthy, for being a pretentious twat.
Philip Pullman, who doesn’t seem capable of creating a sympathetic character, even in books ostensibly written for pre-adults.
Michael Crichton, whose varied and single-minded obsessions in each book (chaos theory! quantum mechanics! the Japanese!) seemed about as relevant as an elevator operating manual to a Kalahari bushman.
Having actually met enough reasonably well-known writers to think that there’s a greater-than-zero chance that I might also meet those on this list, I should of course note that I’m a pacifist and wouldn’t think of really punching these guys in the nose. Well, maybe Michael Crichton, since if I met him now he’d have to be a zombie…