Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In a Name

A well-named character is important in fiction.  We remember Babbitt not only because of what Sinclair Lewis wrote about him, but because George Babbitt is the perfect name for the character.

Some novelists make up names that are right for the character but also funny, outrageous.  Charles Dickens was a master of this.  For the perplexing complexity of our time, the contemporary master is acknowledged to be Thomas Pynchon, though Kurt Vonnegut played a little, Don DeLillo has indulged, particularly in one of his least loved novels, Ratner's Star (Elux Troxl, Mimsy Mope Grimmer, Desilu Espy and the punning U.F.O.Schwarz and Bhang Pao) as has Jonathan Lethem in Chronic City. 

But as Philip Roth famously wrote, nobody could make up Richard Nixon, and reality is currently impinging on this wonderland of names.  What fictionist could come up with a chair of the Republican National Commitee named Reince Priebus?  Or the head of SpaceX, the billionaire Elon Musk?  (Well, Elux Troxl is awfully close.)  Or another billionaire, who funds green energy initiatives, an Indian businessman named Ratan Tata?

I'm not saying we should laugh at those names (not that anyone is going to laugh at the name of a billionaire.)  But they do seem like the kind of names these outrageous fictionists would invent.  Now they don't have to.  I'm not sure I'm reassured by that.