by Cormac McCarthy
King Jamesy, No-Nonsense
McCarthy shifts between two styles in The Road. When he's waxing lyrical and getting all worked up about something lost to the world, he tends to bust out the fifty-dollar words, ones you might find in an old-fashioned King James Bible. (Sometimes McCarthy strikes us as a curator of forgotten words.) Here's an example from early on in the novel:
He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings. An old chronicle. To seek out the upright. No fall but preceded by a declination. He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms oaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must. (19.1)
Whoa! People don't usually call the dark "autistic," and words like "vestibular," "reckonings," "lode," and "rotunda" aren't used very often either. Because of the rarity of these words and the odd, archaic syntax McCarthy sometimes uses (e.g. "To which he and the stars were common satellite"), these passages have something of a muscular, lost beauty.
We say "muscular" because there's a powerful simplicity to McCarthy's language as well. Even though he's throwing around rare words, he's using them accurately and within a relatively simple syntax. (If you haven't noticed, this is the "no-nonsense" part.) Plus, McCarthy does away with quotation marks and a lot of punctuation; he rarely capitalizes proper nouns or uses apostrophes. Take a look at McCarthy's dialogue and you'll get a sense of his pared-down style:
[The Boy:] It's really cold.
[The Man:] I know.
[The Boy:] Where are we?
[The Man:] Where are we?
[The Boy:] Yes.
[The Man:] I dont know.
[The Boy:] If we were going to die would you tell me?
[The Man:] I dont know. We're not going to die. (144.1-144.10)
Look ma, no quotation marks. We also challenge you to find a semi-colon in the novel. Give up? That's because there's not a single one. You'll only find a few colons, and the commas happen sporadically.