Making a Bad Name
In a book or movie, an author must choose names for characters.
Sometimes it's just a matter of convenience. A character has to
have a name, after all. Other times, the name is chosen with
some purpose, because of its sound, or associations, or a silly
pun. Sometimes the name can add something to the portrayal, and
sometimes it's a distraction. Occasionally, though, an author
betrays a real tin ear, picking a name that just sounds so wrong
or stilted or inappropriate that it sours our memory of the character,
the book, and the author.
Bootie, aka "Frederick Tubb" aka "Ulrich New", of Claire Messud's
"The Emperor's Children"; an overweight, directionless, dreary book,
I mean, college dropout, who wanders into the life of his uncle, a famous
writer and personality, is hired as a personal secretary,
and then, having never written an article in his life, is requested
to write one on spec for a new cutting edge satirical magazine; he
promptly writes a scathing article about his uncle and his unpublished
manuscript, is startled by his uncle's outrage, and then stages his own
death and disappears to Florida, changing his name to Ulrich New, and
taking a job as a busboy, only to, by what might be called a bit of a
coincidence, run into an acquaintance from New York, who had early
mourned his "gravitas", "ambition" and "integrity"!
Chapter Eleven Stephanides, older brother of Calliope/Cal,
the serially hermaphroditic protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides's
Deo Gratias, of Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case,
the obtrusively-named "burnt-out case" leper who's lost his
fingers and toes, and stays on as a servant for the
intellectually burnt-out and somewhat more delicately named
Duncan Idaho, of Frank Herbert's Dune. This
name keeps me thinking of "Duncan Hines" cake icing,
and, of course, of good old Idaho.
Father Time, as the oldest child was known, in
Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, and who dispatched
himself and all the kids when they became inconvenient
to the story, "Because we are too many."
Jacks, the first name of Keanu Reeves's character in
Feeling Minnesota, a movie with a bad name all its own;
Justice, the name of Janet Jackson's character in
Skeeter, whose poorly chosen name reflects an
ill-thought-out paper character who becomes a sort of second son
to Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit Redux, by John Updike;
Tennessee (like the state) Alice Moser, a character in Anne Patchett's "Run".
The book is a maddening mash of coincidence and hyperbole, in which
everyone is just super in their own way but the thing that sticks
out is the names: adopted boys (in Boston of course) named Teddy and Tip;
a son named Sullivan named for his uncle Sullivan. A daughter named
Kenya (which counts as normal anymore), and, the true breakthrough,
Tennessee (like the state) Alice Moser. You see, when Beverly gave away Teddy and Tip,
her friend Tennesse (like the state) Alice Moser had a daughter Kenya
and she died and Beverly decided to take the daughter and the name
for reasons not, apparently, worth much explanation, but which caused
great confusion in the deathbed scene where the real Tennessee (like the state)
Alice (who's dead) shows up in the hospital room of the second
(soon-to-be-dead) Tennessee, and has an expository chat to fill us in
on parts of the story we missed. The author dutifully distinguishes
between the two identically named characters by calling one Tennessee
Alice Moser and the other just plain Tennessee. The chapter ends
"I think he has some problems," Tennessee Alice Moser said.
"The truth is, Tenny, we all have problems," Tennessee said. "I have
a new hip."
"And I'm dead," Tennessee Alice Moser said.
Tender Branson and Fertility Hollis, of
Chuck Palahniuk's Survivor; The first name Tender
is justified because he comes from a cult in which the first
born son is always named Adam, and all subsequent sons are
named Tender...and sent out into the world to earn money
as servants. (Girls were all given the first name Biddy,
but if they married an Adam, their first name became Author).
The church, by the way, was called the Creedish Church.
Fertility (who was not a member of the church) has only
the author to blame for her name.
Turtle, later April Turtle, the Indian baby
given to Marietta Greer, (named after the town in Georgia
where her Florida-bound parents stopped and conceived her
when their car broke down), who renamed her ownself
Taylor Marietta Greer after her car ran out of gas in
in Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees.
Given the name Turtle because she would cling with
a very strong grip (a characteristic of turtles as yet unknown to
me); name improved to April Turtle after she looked
interested when someone mentioned that a phone bill was for April,
suggesting that April might could be her real name, and who's
to say not?
Last revised on 09 July 2008.