I should first admit to recently commenting on a student’s writing that was full of ‘unnecessary’ exclamation marks: ‘Get rid of all of these except one.’ I was… right, and I was also doing my discipline-specific job of passing on ideas of quality in written expression, otherwise known as craft, or, usage of punctuation as it relates to style and voice. Not that I’m so good at that myself but one of the few neat bits of advice you can give when teaching creative writing is about how sentiment should ‘work’ without exclamation marks; that using them is a failure in expression; that it reduces the impact of the blah blah blah. But writing, especially in the grammatically meagre English which is lacking in subjectifiying cases and moods is more fun when its improper nature can have such style. We can always hear someone however something is written, and the someone we hear is formulated by the tiniest tricks and measures, compulsive or controlled. The written voice of the exclaimer is still professionally and culturally judged by Adorno’s aphorisms on punctuation, where any sentence or phrase that ends in, ‘!’, is potentially ‘bad’ writing: ‘a desperate written gesture that yearns in vain to transcend language.’ The graphic that resembles an ‘index finger raised in warning’ is pointing not at the reader, but more at the writer themselves, for being so cheap!
The voice created through any work of writing is an exercise in attitude and form. We can’t help it. As character and psychology emerge from punctuation marks so does the workings of literature as a social exaction of who speaks. When novels and their characters speak in a way that is exclamatory, we register the yearning in the voice, and the choice in the writing. Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, one of two recent books that exercise prolific use of the exclamation mark, is significantly her first novel after the Outline trilogy. Outline begins with Faye, a writer on a trip to Athens to teach a Creative Writing workshop. I doubt I’m the only one to detect the thrill in Cusk’s move from this character to Second Place’s narrator, M, who does what Faye would never and litters her written speech with unabashed yearning and tasteless punctuation. The second book studied here by the artist Sarah Tripp, is a novel of sorts, also an experimental memoir. Its subject matter and title compound the sonics, feelings and ontics in exclaiming: Guitar! To latch on to the excited thoughts each book, phenomenologically and (ahem) professionally, inspired in me, I will focus on their use of the exclamation mark and how this signifying scoring relates to a sense of character in the context of literary culture, its economies and affects.
Modern like coca cola or spitfires; ancient like a crucifix or quaver note, this gimmicky icon, ‘!’ (supposedly coming from a logotype for the Latin word for joy; io) is distinctly European in its lineage in post-15th century text, coming closer in age and nature to the expressions of advertising and dollar signs than of holy scriptures. However, while there are few exclamation marks in the standard King James Version of the Bible, we might intuit that the New Testament has a lot to do with exclamative speech, with the words of Jesus announced as an urgent energy with persona built in. And the name, the single rarefied figure, becoming exclamation itself. Jesus…. Christ! The nature of the word, its passion and plea, are figure and feeling.
We might ask what was necessary but missing in our printed text to represent just how exuberant we were? Without spelling out a god’s name or an entire feeling, literature drew itself a device for the affects of drama inseparable from the industries of print and non-mutually-exclusive to genera of speakers. Rare on pre-computer typewriters, the ‘screamer’ key in the modern state of the written word, is to persuade through exclamation, to gesture to want over need. In this way the link between punctuation culture and commodity culture and the linguistic desirer – to point at things and and say WOW – is clear. In both literary culture and the day-to-day of communication the exclamatory relates the feminine. We know without looking there are articles on the statistical majority of exclamation marks in women’s emails. I am entirely at peace with this truth. My first thought about exclamation marks is of my Mum’s texts, with long buzzing queues of the little guys, each one eager to tell me how excited they are that Coronation Street is on and they LOVE ME!!! But I’m worse. I wonder how many work hours I spend editing them out of my newsless correspondence, and how often I have to detach one from the greetings, Hello! Maybe I shouldn’t worry about all my interobangs, they seem like an accurate figuring of my work voice. But work culture, and specifically women’s voices within it, has generated an assessment of emphasised desire that correlate with George Eliot’s of 19th Century ‘lady novelists’, that the ‘many notes’ of exclamation are associatively desperate. Well quite. Exclamatory writing reads like a burst of feeling that must hit its mark or else it fails. What are the consequences of that fail? Cusk’s protagonist seems at the mercy of whatever it is.
In Second Place Cusk stages her protagonist, M – a woman in her 50s living in a large house somewhere indeterminable by a marsh, that has a whole other house next to it known as the ‘second place’ – in this pyschodramatic and gendered act of exclaiming. In contrast to Cusk’s previous novels that draw character through autofiction, the protagonist is not so hidden or effacing, nor is she an imperceptible outline of someone (not in her written form anyway, though that social fate is what terrifies her). This woman is effusively character, screamingly so. Told through her voice the story is of her voice in a state of the exclamatory. The whole novel is an address to an out of the frame person called Jeffers, who is never introduced as a character. My friend found the name, Jeffers, and the technique of referring to them, excruciating. It is excruciating and might also be one of my favourite literary devices of all time.
What is interesting is how the exclamative and vocative case work together. In lines such as, ‘I’m telling you all this, Jeffers, because…’, ’You’ll remember, Jeffers,…’, the hilarious audaciousness of that name, repeatedly cast, mingle with the augmented language that longs to be heard. The notably frequent exclamations are somehow linked to the narrator’s middle-aged-woman status, or at least, that’s the provocation. Dare we hear her cry as something more than then a shrill inability to speak calmly? Her life is the centre of the novel and our experience, while as she narrates it, she is living way out of the centre of her own life. The famous male artist she has invited to stay in their ‘second place’ and the uninvited young woman he brings with him; her adult daughter and her useless boyfriend; her self-sufficient husband, all represent a force against her will that she just has to tell someone about. Every character has wealth and privilege that makes their lives read fantastically anyway so the way the ‘!’ is played adds to how complicated it is to invest in their lives. You could even argue that M (and Cusk) uses so many exclamations because she can afford to…
In this tension of monetary and emotional economy, M is interesting as an exclaiming woman. She, on the page, reads like a fragmented psyche in the grasp of linguistic expression of narrative past-tense, in the grip of calamity. The is M’s document of that period of her life, when ‘L’ came to stay, and also her reaching out of it, away from this painter of machismo methods and style – arguably, the worst kind of man, but portrayed as one with a gifted ease of expression. In proxy to him M is at the limits of her self-image, her attractiveness, the voice of her soul is baffled, the problems of her life come back to her as her own reflection; ‘Inviting him into my life had been all my affair!’
This what I mean by the vocative case working with the exclamatory. Jeffers is the space of exclaiming; the place to send exclamative urgency is to another. In this uncareful writing is where a woman’s age goes, becoming a terrific intensity, pouring her heart out. The passage when M recounts to Jeffers what she recounted to the painter about her time in therapy with a terrible analyst, tells us something about the exclamatory psyche:
“I reminded him that I, the mother of a young child, had come to him in distress, afraid that I might destroy myself, and he had done nothing, nothing to safeguard her or me, just doodled on a piece of paper and come up with the proof of my authority complex – as though I didn’t have proof enough from the suffering I was in!”
An account of oneself in crisis is almost impossible. Even in this retelling of a retelling the speaker capitulates to inadequate punctuation. We learn that there is something terrible her history with her ex-husband, we don’t know what it is but we can feel its aftereffects in the ‘!’. The skill of Cusk is to make the frequent use of cringe-worthy exclamation marks, that are part of the vocative system of address that characterises the voice of the novel, work so as to make you feel the cringe without losing sympathy for the character. The exclamations at the end of so many of her over-excited sentences are where something of the panic of age and fear of sublimation get pushed. As both a symptom and signature of my hysterics, I leave this exploded full-stop at the end of my sentence to mark my existence and the end of my speech.
And they do, in English, come at the end. Readers have to retroactively apply the mood of danger or joy or urgency to what was read. That feels like a psychoanalytic process to me, in the realm of psychic returns where the self reconvenes in an orphic tendency to be re-staged as a figure of the past in the nearish moment. Hello! Or with exclamation marks are we pushing at the edge of the libidinal, where there is too much ego for one language to bear, and what’s left over, what’s inarticulable in the hands of the exclamation, is merely squawkish. What Cusk seems to be saying is that the exclamation is a place to heap redundant persona. This is where we end up, in the dredges of the keyboard, emoji hearted, elliptical in typographic duty and parenthetically self-communicated.
The spirit of a phrase or sentence is always bound up with the condition of the voice to follow and the voice within it. I am interested in who we hear when we read this, ‘!’. How that is controlled. What are the conditions of style, the qualities of voice? What style of personhood is ushered through? My feeling is that when we get to this punctuation mark in a text what happens in us is a kind of production, in the theatrical sense. It sets off the production of sound and character, the gesture of intonation in the scene of writing. It is an instruction to perform something and feel it performed. For the use of text as a material of imaginative performance we should look to Sarah Tripp’s Guitar!. It features again the vocative, the word guitar (and semantically, imaginatively, an actual guitar) gets called up and determined. In Tripp’s hands the summoning case is polyphonic and operates like an instrument, we can hear the clang of the small acoustic guitar every time it is written.
Guitar!, through a sequence of diary entries and lyrical prose, documents the writer’s escapes from household-time into writing, and the emergence of a child’s speech into the adult sphere of language. In contrast to M’s speech it comes as something optimistic and unbound. The heart of the book is how the child’s speech pulls the adult means of communicating back into something supra-functional. (I am always interested when language that bears care-utility becomes less sensible and more like nonsense.) The word and action-of-saying guitar!, therefore, represents a crossfire of tongues; child and adult, and an infant’s deterrortorialising of a referent through the pleasure of repetition. In the combined scene of writing and motherhood ‘Guitar!’ is repeated over and over, in and out of semantic place. It means, it announces, the arrival of language, as evolved from babble, and when complete with an exclamation mark it has precision of spirit and word combined.
“Guitar! means, Hello guitar!
Guitar! means, I love you guitar!
Guitar! means, More guitar!
Guitar! means, More!”
Like any blasphemous exclamation that calls for the thing cried and its evacuation, and also for the crier’s absolution (Christ!?), Guitar! can mean itself, it can also mean, ‘I love what it is’, and ‘more of it now’. This gives us, what I love about this kind of language, substance impossibly simultaneous to figurative language. In other words ‘Guitar!’ signifies blasphemously, by performing making something present as an undoing of itself.
As the journey of the advent of this word into the speaker’s life evolves, Guitar! contorts and adapts the mother-writer’s language, becoming part of the vocabulary for making art and creativity. The speaker wonders if, ‘with the right listener, you could live with just two words.’ This is the prologue and comes back as a diary entry noted at 5:41am, a time and a space for stepping back through the day of language and cultivating a document of it. As with Andrea Brady’s Mutability the work of speech in the process of infant care requires a beloved estrangement from one’s own language.
While the writer filters the infant’s obsessive language through something more like poetics, the primal vocabulary is eventually re-rehearsed as part of her creative work. In a particularly romantic section, the figure who I have been referring to as ‘the writer’ becomes, ‘the Musician’, attempting to collaborate on some improvised sounds with ‘the Technician’. Here Guitar! moves into a language of love and collaboration and, characteristic of both, it is fallible, dysfunctional, and alienating, but when it works there’s fireworks.
Guitar! Guitar! Guitar! Guitar! she joins in.
together their metronome sinks into the foam,
the room watches them slow.
She exhale, Guitar!
Guitar! is boring.
Guitar! is beautiful.
Guitar! doesn’t mean anything.
Anyone can play guitar.
The meaning is dying.
He tries a sliding, Gui—tarrrr.
She blasts, Guitar!!! Guitar!!! Guitar!!!
He shrieks, Guitar! Guitar! Guitar! He has no
‘Guitar!’ said again and again is like the ignition of creativity but even in this close orientation around one word, this doesn’t look too different from so many interactions around trying to make something work together. Maybe survival on only two words isn’t far from how it feels anyway, in which case, we will need those punctuations and even the interobangs.
The exclamation in ‘Guitar!’ makes the compound of word and punctuation like a musical note, and also more like a slogan. While it exclaims, calls, realises, demands and more, it also characterises a feature of contemporary language. Adorno saw in the exclamation mark the ideals of German Expressionism and hears something like the musical instruction, sforzando. I went the Jesus-into-advertising route, but the legacies of certain ideologies are elegantly fused in the emphatic, onomatopoeic, exclamative, guitar! The miraculous yet interminable introduction of speech into life, followed soon after by time and household, and therein affected as a product, is also the workings of the slogan; the priority of sound object, its event in the mind, eventualises as the desire for a thing. In this reading of the exclamation and its operation as a ‘character’ (pun intended), we might see a dialectic of commodity language and living, breathing communication.
Something of the maternal is swirling around here too, in birth of the fantastic pleasure of saying something, coupled with the tonal panic of not being clear enough, in the context of standardised, logotyped, therefore commercialised language. In Second Place the reanimated care of an adult daughter puts the mother beside herself, into an abjectly conventional place. The exclamation holds that paradox still. In Guitar! acts of making, working, producing, re-producing, repeating and, most of all, playing, serve towards a process of recreating a selfhood in the refrain.
While these two books are starkly different and do so much more than the focus here, they both show how the typesetters’s stagecraft and the phenomenological process of writing can land at such a naff and glorious little mark. Here the crises between punctuation and beingness, that infiltrates all writing, is operating at two ends of the economy. To briefly come back to ideas of expense – a question of what we can afford to say — and to my comment on the students work (teaching them, as I was, to budget the hyperboles), the wealth of the characters in Second Pace means there’s plenty, and that one can afford the excesses of an exclamation. In Guitar! the focus is on the economical; the limited time for writing and the reduction of language (and all its available profundity!) to a single, small word, with albeit delicious syllabics.
Holly Pester is a poet and writer, working at the University of Essex, living in a private let in Hackney. Her pamphlet of a radio play, Eclogues for Idle Workers, is out now from Distance is No Object; her first full poetry collection, Comic Timing, is out now from Granta. She is currently working on a burlesque novella about the census and renting.