04 January 2010

Breaking the Rules

I've been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy and Chuck Palahniuk lately.  I picked up No Country For Old Men and Pygmy with a gift card to the bookstore I got for Christmas.  These two, combined with a read of Jose Saramago's Blindness not that long ago, has brought me to the subject of this much-delayed post.

The rules for English grammar are pretty hard and fast.  These rules are what make English an actual language; without them, it would just be a bunch of sounds.  Whether you realise it or not, you use grammar every day.  Every time you speak, you are building your sentences according to grammar's rules.

But these rules can be broken, and often are.  The rules themselves have countless exceptions built right in, and break themselves all the time.  But I'm referring to a more fundamental destruction of grammar.  McCarthy and Saramago, especially.  Chuck is a little more subtle about it.

These men don't do it out of ignorance.  Quite the opposite.  They have an intricate knowledge of how the language works (Saramago in Portuguese, but the translation to English carries his infractions almost completely), and they know how to manipulate it very well.

The key thing is, they are consistent in how the break the rules.  McCarthy uses no punctuation to specify dialog.  You have to infer it most of the time.  After a few pages, you don't even notice.  The way he writes, you instinctively know when somebody is speaking, because there should be somebody speaking at that point.

Saramago goes one step further.  Not only does he ignore punctuation for dialog, he ignores the structure rules for it, as well.  An entire conversation between half a dozen people will be contained in a single paragraph.  For example:

"How are you today?" she asked.

"Fine, thank you.  Have you met my sister?"

"No.  Hello, nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you, as well.  It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"


"It is."

That sequence above is hard to follow as it is, because there is no way of know who is speaking what toward the end, without keeping track of the flow in your head.  Saramago would write the same as follows:

How are you today she asked.  Fine, thank you.  Have you met my sister?  No.  Hello, nice to meet you.  Nice to meet you, as well.  It's a beautiful day, isn't it?  Yes.  It is.

It completely breaks it down, strips out everything that identifies a speaker, the change of orator, or even any indication of dialog.  You have to infer it.  The reason he does this, in Blindness, is to enhance the story.  The anonymity and confusion of the dialog pulls the reader into the story, in which everybody is blind.  Every character is completely blind, and cannot tell when somebody is about to speak, let alone differentiate between speakers.

McCarthy does it for much the same reason.  When there is no break in the text (and a quotation mark is a break. . . mentally, you switch gears to a dialog-voice), it flows much better.  With the style of McCarthy's prose, that lack of a break serves to pull you in all the more.  You're breathing with these characters, sweltering in the Texan heat right next to them, or suffering under the oppressive grey skies of a post-apocalyptic world with them.  There are no quotation marks in the real world, when somebody speaks to you.  The lack of them on the page makes everything seem more real as you're reading it.

But it's very hard to do.  You need a very good reason to break the rules in such a way, and you need to be consistent in it.  But, most importantly, you need to know the rules themselves, inside and out, before you can effectively ignore them.


Craig said...

Hey Bro. Your grammar is atrocious.

James said...

Pretty sure it's not, buddy. A few sentence fragments, here and there, but in a conversational tone that's acceptable. Aside from those, this is correct.

I wouldn't hand this in as a paper to be graded, but for this, I'm okay with them.