Sunday, October 5, 2008

Years of Work Ruined in One Name

In St John's, I saw a book called Return of the Native, and the story sounded like an interesting idea: examining Newfoundland's culture and national identity through a quirky picaresque novel about the return of a native son to his old stomping grounds. The boy from the provinces makes reasonably good and returns to the province to see what has changed and stayed the same. His purpose was to write a new history of his home island, with all the nationalist overtones one could expect with a book whose cover photograph is inlaid in pink, white, and green. It was a novella, a slim volume, the author Jonathan Butler's first, its title perhaps an homage to Thomas Hardy. Its back cover included the standard blurb and selected quotations of critical praise.

But the main character was a Newfoundlander named Udo Nomi. And then I realized the book must be terrible. No one in Newfoundland is named Udo. It's obviously a pretentious authorial contrivance, which is a major warning light for a book sucking. It's a first novel too, which is an even bigger warning light. I'm writing a first novel myself, but one thing I make sure isn't happening is that it sounds like all the first novels I don't like.

I feel kind of sorry for Butler, just as sorry as I feel for all first novels that are filled with overwrought imagery, symbolism that smacks you in the head with a cricket bat, an ego so huge that it crowds you out of your city, and cloying aggravating sentimentality. Actually, I don't feel sorry for them. They don't need my pity. They just have to read more authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Roberto Bolaño, Virginia Woolf, and Stephen Fry so that they can figure out how to write deftly, wittily, powerfully, and touchingly, while maintaining an attitude of friendliness and accessibility to its readers. There are few books I hate more than the ones that disappear up their authors' assholes and expect its readers to follow along.

Giving their protagonists stupid, unrealistic names is just one glaringly obvious way to spot a book that doesn't deserve your time as a reader to read it. Lots of English people have names like Hugo Cartwright, like in Fry's The Liar. Juan Garcia Madero is a perfectly ordinary sounding Mexican name for Bolaño's The Savage Detectives – it's Juan, for goodness' sake! But how many people outside Germany are named Udo? Not many if you don't count Germans living abroad.

There's one name that, even though it's a sensible name, can't be used in a novel because it can't avoid symbolic meanings. I've met people named Hope – two of them in fact, Jamieson and Bennett. But I don't think anyone could ever use the name Hope as a character in a story, because as soon as you say her name, she's turned into a symbol, whether you want her to be one or not. And people are terrible symbols. They work much better as characters instead.
Life is beautiful.

1 comment:

Michael Collins said...

A thought: novelists should have to write a 'practice novel' before they write a novel that can be published. When it is finished, it is shut in a drawer, and the author may then begin writing with a mind to publication. After the author becomes established or dies, that first practice novel can be removed from the dusty drawer and re-evaluated.

Wuthering Heights might be thought of as a first novel, but Emily and her sisters filled volume after volume with juvenalia. Not much of it survives, but what does suggests it was pretty dire.

Of course such hard and fast rules are terribly reductive and ignore things such as exceptions. And genius is almost always an exception.

Anyway, there is some really good Newfoundland fiction in existence. . . have you read much? Would you like a few recommendations?