The conventions of orthography evolve as language itself changes. Some developments are accidental while others are more directed, but there’s no telling which will last. There have been novelties in punctuation, for example, that have never been fully adopted (like the “irony point” and the “question comma”). And the jury is still out on emojis and the interrobang (a combination of question and exclamation marks).
Other changes involve a paring down. Despite the best efforts of Ben Franklin, English lost the capitalization of common nouns in the eighteenth century. And despite the efforts of a few grammarians who can still use it correctly, the semicolon may be on its last legs. In this same endangered category, we might one day find quotation marks, which are being silently dismissed by a number of contemporary writers. They aren’t just replacing quotation marks with dashes to introduce direct speech, which is itself a convention of long standing. Many are removing any punctuation that indicates when someone is speaking.
Probably the most notable among this crop of punctuation agnostics has been Cormac McCarthy, whose novels often have the character of oral performance, to the point where quotation marks might seem redundant. “If you write properly,” he once told Oprah Winfrey, “you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” For others, from Louise Erdrich to E. L. Doctorow, the reasons for going quotation-mark-free can vary. Some consider the marks to be unnatural and obtrusive, disrupting the natural flow of speech. Some simply find them aesthetically displeasing. Still others feel that working without quotation marks makes the experience of reading more difficult, keeping readers on their toes.
Elise Levine worked without quotation marks in her 2017 novel, Blue Field, and she doesn’t use them in her latest collection, This Wicked Tongue. Consider “Money’s Honey,” the first of twelve stories. At the beginning, we’re introduced to a pregnant woman being driven across America by various Samaritans whose company she barely tolerates. When one driver tells her to take a drink in order to stay hydrated on a very hot day, she doesn’t seem to respond to him. We know she doesn’t take a drink (the water is hot as tar), and then we get this:
Whatever happens, I said silently, careful not to move my lips. Believe I’m yours.
Without quotation marks, are we confident she is saying these words? Saying them to herself? To her unborn child? Is she speaking out loud, but quietly? One can, after all, speak silently but still audibly while trying not to move one’s lips.
Quotation marks could act as a kind of signpost on the highway, announcing where the story is really going, which is not to some destination on a map — the coast, Chicago, home — but inward. In the collection’s stories, most of the action takes place in a mental landscape where carefully delineated dialogue would only blur the already fuzzy boundary between thought and speech. Time and again, the question of what constitutes “real” speech is raised. What someone says may be silent or subjunctive — only the imagining of what they will say in the future. They also have interior dialogues with different versions of themselves. They’re warned to pull themselves out of their heads, and for good reason. It hurts in there.
Getting out of one’s head is, however, a tricky business. “For I am a prison unto myself,” the pregnant woman thinks. Or says. Of course, no matter how you choose to read it, any first-person narrative, like “Money’s Honey,” is a monologue. Whether the pregnant woman represents herself as speaking out loud or not, we’re hearing the story in her voice. The same effect is also achieved in the third person, with the use of what’s known as free indirect speech or discourse. This is how the second story, “The Riddles of Aramaic,” is written. We know we’re listening to the protagonist, because she’s a divinity student who knows some Greek and Latin and so can observe “calcareous crops” and “doxological crows” from her car window. Then there are idiosyncratic spellings that indicate strained pronunciations, and even emojis sprinkled into the text at one point. But again, there’s often no way to tell what she’s actually saying. She works as a hospital chaplain, and one patient’s wife calls her a ghoul: “You hurt me, she whines silently to herself.” This all happens, again, without quotation marks. It’s an important moment in the story, but we’re left wondering how much of it stays in her head.
The lack of quotation marks is not just a matter of style or literary affectation. Being stuck inside their own heads, a prison unto themselves, is a real disability for the characters in This Wicked Tongue. It makes the protagonist of “The Riddles of Aramaic,” for example, a vulnerable target when reality comes smashing into her. For young Martin, who appears in a pair of stories, it leads to a lifetime of, in the popular phrase, “issues.” And in “Made Right Here,” the movement inward, toward ever greater isolation and inability to communicate with others, takes on the resonance of a mythic journey.
In this latter story, a cop named Bryce and his wife, Serena, an artist, have joined a tour exploring a plaster and cement cave made to look like a prehistoric site. Their marriage seems to have broken down, and the two soon become separated, with Bryce stuck playing a game of catch-up. This all has a symbolic meaning, as he is also going deeper inside his head, spelunking through memories as he explores the archaeology of a relationship on the rocks. The cave is a skull (the plaster likened to bone) and a grave (“Soon dust would be all that was left of him”). Not surprisingly, Bryce is another character who spends a lot of time talking to himself and speaking “silently.” Until the end, when it no longer matters:
Serena? Bryce said out loud now in the cave, though no one was there. Hey you?
You can feel the space opening up around the word “now.” Only now? For how long has Bryce been silent? If someone speaks in a forest, or a cave, and no one hears, do you need quotation marks?
It’s a testament to the many layers in Levine’s stories that you can pull on a thread like this and see how much else it’s connected to. At times the resulting density and complexity can be overdone. Some shorter stories read like prose poems and remain frustratingly obscure. The best are more like Polaroids, which need time to develop all their subtle colours and shades. It’s in these longer stories that Levine shines, furnishing a mental space with language that juggles colloquial and classical vocabulary, complete with verbs that feel freshly minted. In other hands, such an inward turn might give rise to feelings of claustrophobia, but here one has the sense of a widening. Boundaries are erased right alongside opening and closing quotes.