Tag Archives: The Magicians

I Have Issues with Fictional Characters’ Names

I’m teaching Henry James’s “Daisy Miller: A Study,” a very frequently taught short story, in my just-started American lit class.  If you haven’t read it, or read it a long time ago, it’s an ostentatiously written drama from 1878 about a group of privileged Americans living in Europe and their reaction to a new-money girl, the title character, as seen through the perspective of Winterbourne, a young man who finds her, in a word repeated a million times, “pretty.”  Nearly everything about the story is ambiguous or could be argued from either side, which is one of the reasons it works so well in a class: is Daisy a strong, free-spirited proto-feminist, or a foolish girl?  Does she understand the way the vicious polite society talks about her behind her back—and if so, what does this say about her behavior?  Does Winterbourne really love her—or does Daisy really love him—or are they both toying with each other in different ways?  Does Daisy—does Winterbourne?—understand what she—or he?—is doing?  Does Daisy’s [do I really need to say Spoiler Alert about a story that’s over 130 years old? Fine. “Spoiler Alert.”] death at the end suggest a misogynistic society, a kind of death wish, recklessness,  or just a fogey author who needs to punish his own literary creation?  Is Daisy “innocent”—another repeated word throughout the story—or, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, experienced?  Is this even a fair question?  Does Winterbourne experience an epiphany at the end thanks to some revealed information, or has he learned nothing? And over a hundred years of scholarship more.

HOWEVER.  For all the complexity, intricacy, and layered ways of reading, one aspect stands out: for all of James’s painstaking realism and period detail—clothes, speech, scenery—Daisy’s and Winterbourne’s names are so heavy-handedly symbolic that they threaten to bring everything down.  “Daisy”=fresh, lovely flower; “Winterbourne”=bearing or aspiring toward cold. ‘Cause you know, winter kills flowers! So much for subtlety.    

Maybe it’s more complicated—Daisy’s real first name isn’t even “Daisy;” it’s “Annie.” Her last name “Miller” could be analyzed, and Winterbourne’s first name, “Frederick,” could be worked in.  But the headline “WINTER KILLS FLOWER!” is inescapable.

Last month I wrote about Lev Grossman and The Magicians.  As much as I love the novel and admire the marriage of magic and realism, the main character’s name, Quentin Coldwater, still leaves me, um, cold.  A book-smart kid from Brooklyn (something I know a little about) is far more likely to have a name like Chang, or Furci, or Jackson, or Reddy, or really, for that matter, Grossman.  Like Winterbourne, Coldwater connotes someone chilled in his emotions, and “throw cold water on” means “criticize something that people are enthusiastic about,”  both of which describe Quentin well.  (“Coldwater Creek” and women’s apparel, less so).    

And the alliteration is reminiscent of real-life writer Quentin Crisp; of course, Crisp changed his name from Dennis Pratt.  Quentin Coldwater is closer to Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, but for me is most reminiscent of superhero names—especially recent X-Men villain Quentin Quire—and the never ending litany of Clark Kents, Peter Parkers, Lex Luthors, and Bruce Banners.   OK, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have alliteration, but he has two first names, along with Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Steve Trevor (Wonder Woman’s love interest).   Speaking of Steve, Dr. Stephen Strange gets—who could have seen it coming?—mystical powers! Dr. Victor Freeze develops cold powers!  And Dr. Victor Von Doom’s parents should have changed every name involved.  I don’t know what he’s a doctor of, but I’m guessing it’s not English.  As J. Jonah Jameson (triple alliteration!) slyly notes, of Dr. Octopus, “Guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs. Four mechanical arms welded right onto his body. What are the odds?”  Pretty good, I’d say.    

Would you take a college course from this man?

The Wizard of Oz pits sweet but sassy Dorothy Gale (meaning: “a very strong wind”—cyclone?) against wicked Mrs. Gulch (“a rocky ravine”).  The Bourne Identity’s Jason Bourne—Quentin Coldwater gets the Winter, Jason gets the Bourne—rediscovers his true self after losing his memory and becoming, quote unquote “born,” if you will, by fighting the covert operations who had previously employed him.  Guy named Bourne gets amnesia.  What are the odds?   Lev Grossman held a contest in December on his blog to provide a last name for one of his main characters, Julia.  The result: Julia Wicker. Gal named Wicker winds up becoming a witch.  What are the odds?   

But what’s the alternative to non-symbolic names?  While Hermione Granger gets both mythological allusion and a last name metaphorically fitting her reading habits, title character Harry Potter gets the Everyman treatment—no allusions, no symbolism.  But then, the LACK becomes the point.  His nonsymbolic name symbolizes his very ordinariness and relatability.  The Big Lebowski’s unliterary name is itself funny, and like Daisy, he then anoints himself anew. (The Dude also Anoints.)  I would quote Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” here, but Romeo and Juliet’s names have become symbolic, even if they didn’t start that way. 

When names belong to fictional characters, then, they’re either already filled with meaning, or we can’t help but fill them with meaning ourselves. 

Even if it would be unfair to warn women with floral names to stay away from Winterbournes , or Coldwaters, in real life.  Maybe they should, just to be on the safe side.

Time: 60 minutes, not counting making the My Name Is Daisy Miller image or, as usual, uploading.

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No Gym Lockers to Narnia

Lev Grossman during our Skype session. Forget the wizards of Hogwarts–he’s the Wizard of Oz.

High school gym had a lot of rules.  Mr. Arbuse, his apt name a neologism of roast beef and cruelty, began every term with his stump speech:

“Dis is gym. Yuh cut, yuh fail.”    

“If yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

“If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late; yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

“If yuh not wearing yuh yuniform, counts as yuh not in yuh spot.  If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late.  Yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

And so on.  Scary, but, in fact, manageable, a series of reductions and equivalencies.  And Mr. Arbuse had no rules about actual participation in sports.  So I passed, even though I spent all year sitting in the bleachers talking about Metallica with Tommy Cassidy.

Cut (no pun intended) for a moment to the end of one of my own classes, twenty-five years later and two weeks ago.  Titled “Secret Worlds: Fantasy Novels and their Fans,” the class reads Peter Pan, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Magicians by Lev Grossman, with watching the movies The Wizard of Oz, Coroline, and Pan’s Labyrinth.  The books and movies serve as springboards and metaphors for first-year students’ own entrance into a new, unfamiliar place.  There’s magic, of course, but the books mostly revolve around life as students understand it: new schools, powerful friendships, dealing with authority figures, and rites of passage.

This year, when I met him at a St. Louis reading for his new novel, The Magician King, Lev Grossman graciously and generously offered to have a Skype session with my class.  And my students—both last year and this year—had very strong reactions to The Magicians, especially reading it last in sequence.

If you haven’t read The Magicians, you should.  Critics frequently resort to Hollywood high concept mash-ups to describe it: Slate called it “Hogwarts-goes-to-Harvard”; the Village Voice called it “Less Than Zero plus Harry Potter.”  They’re right, but they also both acknowledge that novel is more than that.  Magic in Harry Potter doesn’t actually affect the world much: Mrs. Weasely has self-washing dishes, wands can kill by pointing and shooting, and newspapers have moving images, as though we Muggles have to do without such extravagancies (“You mean the dishes wash—BY THEMSELVES?”  “You mean you have the power to kill from a distance WITH A SMALL HANDHELD OBJECT?” etc).  But JK Rowling never really asks how magic—how the power for words to affect the world in immediate, literal, physical, palpable ways—would affect our inner and outer worlds and force us to ask hard questions in the absence of fairy-tale morality and the face of real-life ambiguity.  Grossman does.  I’d call it Magical Realism if that term didn’t already mean something else entirely. 

And in our session, Lev Grossman was terrific, explaining (for what couldn’t be for the first or even tenth time) his relationship to the Narnia books, his initial motives and even doubts about the novel, and his recent meeting with Neil Gaiman, giving the impression that our course authors must loll away the afternoons over parchment and butterbeer.    

For all his great and funny responses, though, two stand out.  First, when asked about how he felt about an upsetting and unexpected development late in the novel (no spoilers—this is the Internet, after all), Grossman reveled that he himself didn’t quite understand what he had written when he wrote it, and that unlike other parts of the book, that section came quickly and without immediate introspection.  At other points, Grossman similarly demurred, suggesting that his intentions weren’t entirely clear even to himself at the time, and that even now he’s still coming to understand exactly what he wrote .

This admission—which one student brought up later as a revelation—flies in the face of what many students are taught about books and their writers.  Authors are not watchmakers; they don’t work in precise, mechanical ways and therefore don’t always have definitive answers about their books, or even their own motivations. 

Yet the Mr. Arbuses of English have drilled into too many students that reading is a set of equivalences, a scavenger hunt for Symbols—or clues, keys, secrets, decoding the correct combination to open the gym locker of Authorial Truth.  All stories become a series of equal signs: yuh cut, yuh fail.  If yuh don’t see that duh green light in Duh Great Gatsby is hope fur duh American dream, it counts as a cut; yuh cut, yuh fail.  If yuh don’t see dat duh white whale is an unobtainable goal, counts as not seein’ duh green light, counts as a cut, yuh cut, yuh fail.

In response to his recent blog post about advice for college writers, I asked Grossman what he would tell college readers.  And his reply: he wants them to enjoy reading.  Reading for school can take the fun out of it.  And he’s right.  The two responses—authors don’t have all the answers; enjoy reading—are intertwined: students hunting for the right answers and author’s intentions will detract from the one thing I do think authors intend: for readers to take pleasure in the reading experience.  I worry that English classes instill Arbuse-ive values: that learning to read and write well and critically become versions of good behavior, sitting still, in uniform.  Despite the convention of including a map in the inside cover of these secret worlds novels (The Magicians is no exception), Lucy Pevensie and Harry Potter have no roadmaps, no keys, and no immediate agendas to save the new world.   Even Dorothy Gale doesn’t really understand where the Yellow Brick Road will take her until much later.  When Lucy emerges from the wardrobe, Harry from his closet, Dorothy from her transported house, and The Magicians’ Quentin from ,well, Brooklyn, their worlds are bigger, not reduced.  (OK, Alice [of Wonderland fame] does have a key, and Lyra does have a compass, but that’s for another entry).  Quentin keeps looking for his purpose, his destiny, his Quest.  But there isn’t one—not exactly, or at least not that he’s aware of as he’s experiencing it.  At these moments, he’s less a character in a story and more of a person—and an adult.

Overall, students loved the talk and loved The Magicians, which I say in agreement with Grossman is very important to me. I don’t teach books that I don’t also love.   Last year, one student was absolutely convinced that the Narnia-like books within The Magicians, called Fillory, and their imagined author, “Christopher Plover” (a quasi-JM Barrie more than CS Lewis), were real, declaring as evidence that she had, in fact, read them as a child. Googling (now acceptable as a gerund) only made matters worse, thanks to Viking/Penguin’s websites for the imaginary land and the equally imagined author.

It’s a testimony to how richly and deeply the Fillory lore runs through the books, and it made me appreciate that Grossman chose to write The Magicians INSTEAD of Fillory books.  Despite any waxing about timelessness, Peter Pan and the Narnia books—and, already, Harry Potter—are really products of their time. Part of the point of The Magicians seems to be that you can’t go home again—not to your parents, and even to your stories.  It’ something that college students learn too well, especially now, with their first winter break upon them.  Showing up, in the right uniform, in the right place, on time—good enough for Mr. Arbuse—is really only the beginning.  You also have to find your own answers—to your own questions.    Literature, like life, is better than that. 

Gym is not.

 

Time: Geez, I sat down and was interrupted at least six times for this one. I’m willing to call it an hour.

Coming soon: The only false note I detect in The Magicians is Quentin’s last name, “Coldwater.”  More on why.   

UPDATE 2/6/12: Here’s that blog on Quentin’s name: https://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/i-have-issues-with-fictional-characters-names/

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Why Hourman?

Two of my favorite contemporary books, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in the character within a character The Watcherwoman, use clocks and time as a central motif of mortality.  I can’t go a week without another clock-as-metaphor contender—for example, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  But go back further in time and meet Hourman, an obscure superhero created in 1940 and occasionally brought back as a supporting member of various super teams.  He was a scientist (see also: Flash, Iron Man, Spider-man, Mr. Fantastic, Ant-Man, et al) who invents a miracle drug (named, um, Miraclo; see also: Captain America, Cloak and Dagger, Luke Cage, ad infinitum) and, of course, tests it on himself (see: Dr. Jekyll, Beast), presumably to avoid the IRB paperwork.  The drug grants boring entry-level standard with the vehicle superpowers (super strength, super speed, super endurance), but—here’s the twist—only for one hour. 

The Hour-Man!

A few things interest me about this character. First, his powers are essentially framed as a deficiency—the super lasts only an hour, unlike Superman, who’s always super, rather than against regular people, to whom it’s an hour more super than they’ll ever get [said in sassy tone].  The other thing, though, is his decision to go with the name Hourman, which seems pretty stupid for a scientist.  He’s essentially advertising his weakness: “Hark ye, villains of the world! Just wait it out; I’ve only got a good hour in me,” as if  Superman called himself Kryptonite Man (the name a villain would later take pretty much just to screw with Superman’s psyche).  Later writers would also turn Hourman into a Miraclo junkie, kill him off, bring him back, reboot him, and make him time travel (last one: fair enough with the name), same as everyone else in Hollywood.

Think of how different Hourman is from Sixty Minute Man, from the 1951 song.  The names are nearly identical, but whereas Hourman has powers for ONLY an hour, 60 Minute Man has powers prowess for a WHOLE HOUR!  

There’ll be fifteen minutes of kissin’

Then you’ll holler “Please don’t stop” (Don’t stop!)

There’ll be fifteen minutes of teasin’

Fifteen minutes of squeezin’

And fifteen minutes of blowin’ my top

I’m still amazed at how explicit the song is for its time.  Also, how awesome.  But taken together, Hourman and Sixty Minute Man  present a nicely double sided pair and image—an hour is on the one hand never enough, but it can be, um, a fine, long time as well.  And so that’s my operative image for the page.  

I’ll be writing about popular culture—books, movies, music, and television—for no more than one-hour sittings, and I’ll try to keep track of the time.  Writing this blog for me is really an experiment in process, like the freewriting exercises created and espoused by writers like Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg.  Except my goal isn’t words on the page as much as expressing a particular idea for a particular amount of time.  The point of my hour is not to force me to produce, although it’s that too, but also to force me to stop.  Writing time is like dog years—you sit down to spend ten minutes tweaking and realize that seventy minutes have gone by.  For something that I’d write for publication, I could spend an hour on a page, or a sometimes rewriting or re-punctuating a sentence. Hell, I’ve spent an hour just rereading something I’ve written without making any changes at all.  So that hour is both a self imposed limitation as well as an endurance test.  And when I take less than an hour, which I hope to for this entry and maybe others, I’ll indicate the time at the end.

So maybe you won’t turn into an addict, or holler don’t stop, but maybe you’ll return for another episode.

Time: 40 minutes, not including getting the basics of the blog formatting down. That took forever.

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