Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Names and Places

I have been thinking about ZZ Packer for some time now and remembered her story, Gideon, which I read a while ago in the Guardian. It is a great story, it progresses quickly (with a wordcount of about 1500)  and her writing, as always, is agile, brief and incredibly succinct. 

In stories like these, I think the author has to be judicious in her management of symbols and other devices only because she has a small space in which to apply them. While this limitation would otherwise cripple an amateur, Packer not only rose to the occasion but exceeded any expectations I might have had. 

I only just recently thought of her antagonist's name - for whom the story is named - as one such instance. Gideon is the narrator's one time lover, whom she had dated in her youth. In her words, she was "nineteen and crazy back then" and he was "this Jewish guy with this really Jewish name: Gideon." The trick here though (as is the case with most 1st person narratives) is that the name is not really meant to tell us as much about the "really Jewish guy" as it is to tell us about the narrator. She has him figured out from the get go and uses everything as a reference for his personality - only she is projecting a lot of her own mentality in decoding these ciphers for the reader. Apart from being an effective writing device, it is also a good lesson on the unreliability of our perception, if you are about stories with morals and all that.

Back to the name. I know it's a Biblical name and I tried to remember what I had learned from all my years of Religion - CRE for those who had the (mis)fortune of going through 8-4-4. As you might have guessed, I came up short on this one, and all I can remember is that he was sent to destroy some idol alters and that the wool & dew communication system he had worked out with God later came to symbolize the Annunciation. Seeing as Packer's story is about her narrator's (false) pregnancy, I wonder if there was some implied connection that I missed. This is why the Bible should be required reading for English majors - many works make these references that are often inaccessible to me as a non-xtian. And no I am not pushing for Creationism so don't get your panties in a bunch.

Another story in which I thought a character's name was significant, though not in the Biblical sense, was Chimamanda Adichie's My American Jon. Interestingly, the story line is somewhat similar to Gideon's and the two authors did attend Johns Hopkins for their M.A.s, Packer having gone there much earlier than Adichie and graduating in '95.

With this in mind, I decided yet again to change my blog name and this time it feels like the shoe really fits. I got it from a line in Kojo Laing's Search Sweet Country, which I recently stole from my dad. I like how he switches back and forth between his interiority and the exterior space. I haven't finished reading it yet so I can't say much more but I am really enjoying it so far. Plus it gives me a distraction from all the papers I have to write. Agh, which reminds me...

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