Hubert Selby Jr’s work is known for its strange punctuation, deployed aesthetically to depict life among slumland characters, to give a sense of disconnection: from society, sobriety, sanity. In particular, long before text messaging turned the nation into wanton apostrophobes, Selby was writing without them: first because his typewriter was faulty, later because the technique was so effective at creating his nightmarish worlds, he made it a part of his style.
So what other punctuation mishaps might we palm off as technical decisions? Bad grammar or punctuation is usually ascribed to poor writing by characters, such as the hilarious school feedback in B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo, where the teacher asks his pupils to write, anonymously, what they really think of him. Or the appalling letters from the Mexican escorts to the hack writer in Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew.
Is there any value in “poor” punctuation techniques? Say I run together words without spaces,like that several times,to give the impression of a speedily written text, something being written at haste because of unseen threats? More or less effective than working with register and rhythm? Or how about lots of lovely stabbing em dashes—that—link—together—to—create—a—sense—of—either—fast—breathing—or—some—weird—daisychain—effect? Wouldn’t that look purdy?
More punctuation fun is needed in novels. People still have the temerity to correct the error in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake by adding the apostrophe when he sank almost two decades of effort into breaking down all known rules of language to give us a brighter future. We owe it to him to really shake things up . . . you, knowits TRUE.