Oct/Nov 2021  •   Nonfiction

State Your Name

by Robert Fromberg

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

You know that moment in a novel, that moment when the omniscient narrator says the name of the main character for the first time?

Detective Ken Goode

Santa Ana winds were spreading their evil dust and waves of heat were oozing from exhaust pipes, casting a blur over the gridlock of cars ahead of Detective Ken Goode. (Naked Addiction, Caitlin Rother)

Wow, the way that name just lands at the end of the sentence... the full name, with title. After the first paragraph of the book, which is only one sentence, at the end of the first sentence of the second paragraph. Two sentences, two paragraphs of suspense for us readers—where are we? Where should we focus on this hot day? Then the name. Solid. Sturdy. (I would have put a comma after dust, but no matter.) Detective. Ken. Goode. This is the first moment he has been shown to us. He is introduced formally, with his full name. Good to meet you, Detective Goode. No, not good—thrilling. The camera has panned, has swept across the sweltering landscape (albeit rapidly), and here he is, one presumes wiping sweat from his eyes. Exhilaration. My heart is beating faster right now, as I write this. Although I have to admit I abandoned the novel a few sentences later when the point of view failed to deliver the full Goode I was hoping to occupy, nor the worldly omniscience I would have accepted in Goode's stead. Ah, but the confident careening into that full name—such a sense of adventure!


Robin Stone

Amanda was freezing, but she was impervious to the crowd. She was thinking of Robin Stone. (The Love Machine, Jacqueline Susann)

This one is a little different. There has been a prologue, in which no names are mentioned. Then there is this: "Part I: Amanda." So we have been given a point in the distance. Amanda. An entire prologue leading up to her. An entire Part devoted to her. And presumably, other Parts to come to be devoted to others. We also have a chapter title: "One Monday, March 1960." Suggesting other Mondays, other months, and other years (!) to come! The sweep here so much more than the pan of Caitlin's omniscient camera. Switching metaphors now: painting on a huge canvas. And our first point of landing, after a description occupying the entirety of a lengthy first paragraph of a crowd gathering in front of the Plaza Hotel in front of which "she" is shivering, is the first word of the second paragraph: "Amanda." Sigh of contentment. Amanda! We knew "she" was Amanda, but still a satisfying settling into her Name, which after all is required for a degree more intimacy than "she." But wait, just as we have had our first taste of intimacy with Amanda, we are delivered another name: Robin Stone! The object of Amanda's thoughts. A full name, so in this case the object is more important than the subject, and, as Stone, more weighty as well! We are deliciously off balance, as we wait for subject and object to... to do what? do battle? circle one another warily through the years? Who knows! Close the book, let it rest in one palm, feel its weight, the weight of Stone, feel the ripples of Stone through all these pages. Now there is some delicious excitement. Amanda! (It will be another ten pages before we discover she deliberately omits her last name. The thrill of that omission, and its attendant mystery!)


Joseph Bloch

When Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he was fired. (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Peter Handke)

That's it—tear the adhesive bandage off in one pull, by all means tuck the full name and those salient background details into a relative clause that diminishes the weight of the name, which after all could have been Lukas Schmidt or just "the man," as in other works of this author (leaving us adrift with nameless but trustworthy intimacy), designating Joseph as a person to whom things happen, or a person who watches things happen, or a person whose actions are random and propelling us to the true point of departure: not this man but what happens to him. Another kind of excitement! Another level! A delicious feeling of being on the verge of being lost, or perhaps overwhelmed, or perhaps swept along. There we are sweeping again!


Kay Leiland Strong, et al.

It was June, 1933, one week after Commencement, when Kay Leiland Strong, Vassar '33, the first of her class to fun around the table at the Class Day dinner, was married to Harald Petersen, Reed '27, in the chapel of St. George's Church, P.E., Karl F. Reiland, Rector. (The Group, Mary McCarthy)

Now there is a world-class introduction of names. First sentence. Not shy. In part: Let's get this over with. In part: I know, I know, I need to tell you the names of my characters, and so here are the names and other names... let's see how many names I can cram into the opening sentences... there, are you satisfied? In part: A name is the cruelest word when the world's view of a person stops there, disallowing any view of the soul, which, dear reader, you will see played out over the next 500 pages.


Perry Mason and Della Street

Perry Mason regarded the pasteboard jacket, labeled "important unanswered correspondence" with uncordial eyes.

Della Street, his secretary, looking as crisply efficient as a nurse in a freshly starched uniform, said with her best Monday-morning air, "I've gone over it carefully, Chief..." (The Case of the Perjured Parrot, Erle Stanley Gardner)

Wow! A full name at the beginning of each paragraph, each paragraph defining the individual like an arrow thwumping into a target. Who would not want to put themselves in the hands of a narrator with such crisp efficiency? (Hmm... perhaps Della is the narrator.) Not me! I am your contented passenger, and thank you for allowing me aboard!


Robert "Speed" Morris and William "Chip" Hilton

The front wheels of the jalopy wobbled uncertainly in the car tracks for a moment and then buckled almost at right angles as Robert "Speed" Morris slammed on the brakes and slid the brilliantly painted rattletrap squarely against the curb in front of the Sugar Bowl. (Championship Ball, Clair Bee)

Okay, but wait... wait! I know, I know, Robert "Speed" Morris, what could be better, but wait. Robert "Speed" Morris is not even the main character! A paragraph describes the "crowd of boys on the sidewalk" reacting to the jalopy, and then, "Speed laughed and nudged the tall, blond boy seated at his side," and then on to the next paragraph.) "William 'Chip' Hilton grinned and swung his bandaged leg through the space which formerly had been graced by a door." (These are not names... these are not boys... these are legends. Seen through the gentle eyes of—shall we create a bit ourselves now?—let's say a long-retired newspaper reporter who covered the high school sports beat, now sitting on his screened porch, manual typewriter before him (his editor let him keep his typewriter, as the paper had long ago converted to electric typewriters and was now looking into something called word processors), re-creating (he thinks, but truly he is creating what never existed) the glory of the boys and their spirit that he had never been allowed to capture within the constraints of newswriting style, a style he nonetheless celebrates (or rests comfortably within) as he launches the story with nicknames enclosed in quotes. You can almost feel sexuality as he abandons the formality of this convention and begins referring to the characters simply as Speed and Chip.


State Your Name Faceoff: Carlton Keith vs. Raymond Carver

And now shall we embark on a comparison? First, this:

The plane ride had been tiring. MacArdle leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He tired quickly these days. He was getting old. That wasn't the entire answer on this trip, he realized. (A Taste of Sangria, Carlton Keith ("a pseudonym," it says on the back cover under the author's photo))

And now this:

Carl got off work at three. He left the station and drove to the shoe store near his apartment. He put his foot up on the stool and let the clerk unlace his boot.

"Something comfortable," Carl said. "For casual wear."

"I have something," the clerk said.

He brought out three pairs of shoes and Carl said he would take the third pair... ("What's in Alaska," Raymond Carver)

We have here two authors, two men, writing with masculine firmness, tossing out names with unselfconscious fingers striking submissive keys. First, we have "MacArdle" (its odd spelling evincing trustworthiness), whom we see glancingly in his interior, feeling tired from a plane ride. What are we to take from this MacArdle? Whom do we call by their last names only? Movie stars? Ballplayers? Politicians? Gangsters? People for whom a first name is either unnecessary or a sop to gentility. When the name opens our second sentence, it does so with a jab of a boxer getting warmed up, and we—a worthy sparring partner bouncing on our toes, ready for a workout—absorb the jab eagerly. All is fair, right, and balanced in a world of such jabs.

When I was in a graduate writing program, only a year or two (I was told) after such programs lauded Mr. Carver, it was common for Mr. Carver to be beaten up a bit (how dare he not show us more of his characters' interior lives... that kind of thing). Having decades ago lost touch with such things, I no longer know the fashion regarding critical responses to Mr. Carver, but admit to some problems with this "Carl." First, the name. The name is doing Work. It is a name whose initial hard consonant suggests strength, but whose strength dissipates immediately with its practically soundless subsequent three letters. Thus, this is a name of defeat. Surely integral to the story—Carl is announcing the story's realm of defeat. Still, as I read the first word of this story, "Carl," I feel immediately the Work this name is being called on to do, and I too feel I am squaring my shoulders and, without much pleasure, getting down to serious business. (I write this in the present tense because when I first read this story, decades ago, I loved it so, read it again and again, aped its style in my own just-post-adolescent stories, although now I remember nothing about it except "Carl.") Unpleasant work, but I am willing at this early stage of the story to grant perhaps it is necessary and even rewarding work. This is, I suspect in only the story's first sentence: Serious Writing. Then there is the repetition of "Carl"—three times in four tiny paragraphs. I know, I know, at one level the repetition of "Carl" is necessary, rather than the less insistent "he," to avoid pronominal confusion with the male shoe salesman. Still, a writer of Carver's skill (and Carver's editor has recently weighed in to take credit for the effectiveness of Carver's work—don't get me started on that, as I made a living most of my life as a ghostwriter, and respect the role of invisibility) could have avoided this handily—for example, why couldn't the shoe salesperson have been a woman? No, the repetition of "Carl" is Writerly repetition, is repetition for effect, is a way to pound the hopeless Carl into the ground and onto our foreheads at the outset, and even more is a bit of stylistic flamboyance along with the shorter-than-short sentences. This is a Serious Writer using Style in his Serious Writing.

I may have been happy to wallow in Carl's serious sadness 40 years ago, but now I'll take MacArdle's no-agenda straightforwardness any time (even though the book is a bore). I'll take the comforting firmness of Erle Stanley Garner (even though I don't care enough to follow his plots). I'll take the deft rage of Mary McCarthy. Shit, I'll take Caitlin Rother's clumsiness. I'll hop into her car. I'll ride along with her awkward joy ("Hey, I'm writing a book!") and her love of her hot, cliched Santa Ana winds and her Detective Goode (what was his first name again—oh, yes, Ken). By all means. Let's read a book! Let's write a book!