I once read (though the source is now lost to me) that the names of the characters in a novel do the work of telling the reader what world he’s in. Musicality, characterization, hints at a character’s gender, ethnicity, and social status—all of these are important in a name. But at the most basic level, a name’s realism, surrealism, or undisguised silliness helps ground us in the universe we’ve entered. In this way, names are something of an expedient, a key to reading a book as comic or tragic, both or neither.
Firmly situated in this tradition is the comic name, which goes back as far as literature itself. Don’t forget that along with his Lear and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare had a character named Bottom. An even earlier example: the name of the title character in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata means, roughly, army-disbander, a joke for the Ancient Greek audience watching a play about a woman scheming to end a war.
Such monikers are called “cratylic,” from Plato’s dialogues with Cratylus about the truthfulness of names. Cratylic names, per the Guardian, “advertise a property that is fixed, whether terrible or ludicrous. A character thus named must act out a characteristic, which is his inescapable identity.”
Nowhere is this principle more apparent than in Dickens’ broad morality tales. There is tattered spinster Miss Havisham, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, vengeful Madame Defarge, and obsequious snake Uriah Heep. We can glean from these names not only that we’re reading satire, but the general trajectory of each character.
Meet Holden Caulfield. Holden is not so good at staying in school. He is 0 for 4 as far as schools go.
As a general rule, Holden is annoyed by people.
Except for Jane Gallagher. He still likes her.
The Story of My Purity
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2013
I don’t know much about providence, but it seems extraordinarily lucky that Francisco Pacifico’s first novel to make it into English translation—a ribald picaresque of Catholicism, breasts, and a conspiracy theory wherein Pope John Paul II was a Jewish puppet—was released within a week of Benedict XVI’s resignation. With the whole world is watching the Vatican for a hint of scandal, what more could an author ask for?
Pacifico’s book follows a down-on-his-luck Roman and relatively recent convert to Catholicism, Piero Rosini. By day Piero works as an editor at an ultra-right wing Christian press—where his most recent editing assignment is the book proposing the papal conspiracy—and by night he goes home to an empty new housing development on the outskirts of Rome. There, thanks to his newly-minted celibacy, he doesn’t have conjugal relations with his wife, and instead spends a great deal of time visiting the nearby Ikea.
Into this descends temptation, in the form of 1) an aspiring writer who draws Piero into a modern-day salon at a local café; and 2) his sister-in-law’s fabulous breasts, about which Piero cannot stop obsessing. Soon he has decided, nervous-breakdown-like, that he must flee to Paris for the summer and collect himself, apparently unaware (or maybe very aware) that the only place more full of temptation than Rome is Paris—and there things there go from bad to worse.