Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a crazy awesome western that you should all go out and read right now. It’s not a spaghetti western by any means – it’s one of the darkest, most brutal investigations of mankind’s capacity for cruelty I’ve ever come across. It opens with a third-person narrator describing the traumas of The Child, soon to become our protagonist, The Kid. I’m only capitalizing for clarity, because McCarthy does no such thing. By the time we enter the story proper, however, characters begin speaking, even the nameless Kid. The funny thing is, there aren’t any quotation marks to be found at all.
I don’t mean that McCarthy uses alternative punctuation, like <> or something – I mean nothing. None. Why would an author make this decision? It’s a good discussion to have to get into some of the book’s themes, so I’m going to have it. And before you get hung up on what McCarthy may have intended, refer again to John Green’s “How and Why We Read” on YouTube for a nice expansion of why that doesn’t really matter. (I’d link to it, but I’m lazily typing this on my phone in bed, so you’re just going to have to take five seconds and Google it.)
Quotation marks are separators. They put words into categories, either said or unsaid. By banishing them, McCarthy is in a way assigning equivalence to narration and dialogue. It gives the book a campfire feel, like one voice is telling the story and acting the parts. It blurs the lines between characters – a crowd of onlookers becomes a single character with a unified voice, while a set of main characters exchanging dialogue becomes a chaotic mass. You have two choices – try as hard as you can to figure out who is saying what, wrestling with language in a way you probably haven’t done before, or let the words wash over you as a whole, embracing the chaos.
Chaos is a fundamental theme of the story. People try to impose order, usually their own, on McCarthy’s West, or people choose to embrace the chaos and fighting, for fun or profit. People can either stand alone and make their own voice heard, or blend into a crowd or a gang and share responsibility for their words with the collective.
The lack of quotation marks also blurs the line between words and actions. The phrase “them’s fightin’ words” comes to mind. In this setting, fighting words almost invariably lead to a fight, and no lie is small enough to escape some definition of violence. Everything that is said becomes part of the landscape, another piece of the legend, inseparable from the people and plains and deserts and gunfire.
The equality of dialogue and narration also forces us to confront the privilege of dialogue. Sometimes, I’ve been known to skim narration to get to the talking. After all, what’s so important about what characters are actually doing in dialogue scenes? Perhaps they bob their heads, or purse their lips, or continue walking. It accents the dialogue, but only just. McCarthy forces us to see the relationships between speech, scene, and action. The lives of his characters cannot be separated from the harsh setting, nor their intentions from their actions. Nothing is a root cause or a direct effect – everything is interdependent and maybe it’s no one’s fault. Maybe The Kid, in his propensity for violence and distaste for talk, isn’t the main character at all. Maybe he’s just a mouthpiece for The Wild West. The ultimate setting of isolation and independence becomes a coherent whole. While individual actions may be arbitrary or disconnected, and the relationships between them not reciprocal or karmic, nothing is unexpected or out of place. It’s all just right. You know that this is the only way the story could go, because there aren’t really any pieces. There’s only The Whole West.