Trawling through eBay recently, I came across a folder of sample funeral cards from the early twentieth century. As near as I can tell, salesmen would roam from funeral home to funeral home peddling these to undertakers, who would in turn press them on bereaved families. They were standard thank-you notes, essentially—“The family of _________ will hold in grateful remembrance your Spiritual Bouquet and kind expression of sympathy”—but unattached to any death in particular, their messages were gauche, even funny. That they were framed in advertising copy didn’t help. Imagine: Someone you love dies, and before you can even pick out the announcement cards, you have to read sentences like “Genuine engraving achieves its inherent beauty from a correlation of width and depth which no other process possesses.” As a character in Terry Southern’s The Loved One says: “Death has become a middle-class business. There’s no future in it.” Read More
Before Sadie was a baby name or even a dog name, hearing it would elicit one of two responses: singing (either “Sexy Sadie” or “Sadie Sadie, married lady”) or references to Sadie Hawkins. Since for most of my childhood I had pretensions to neither man-hungry spinsterhood, sexiness, nor marriage, I found all of these references obscurely humiliating. Sadie Hawkins Day—which falls on February 29 and only on February 29—was the worst one. All those desperate old maids chasing after unwilling mediocre men once every four years struck me as deeply troubling, not unlike Ginnifer Goodwin’s character in He’s Just Not That Into You, which is not to be confused with the equally execrable Leap Year. Why did they want them so much? Why were the guys so reluctant? Why was this one day considered so unnatural? Read More
How to name your fictional characters.
To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.
The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) Read More
Back when the world was new and there weren’t three Sadies in every kindergarten class, I worshipped the Lillian Vernon catalog. My love for the mail-order tome was purely theoretical; although it arrived in the mailbox regularly, we never ordered anything. But the pages filled with personalized things—pink-dotted linens, pencil cases, dolls, beanbag chairs, Christmas stockings—seemed wonderful to a child who had never found a keychain with her name on it. I remember in the late eighties the name Madison often appeared in the pictures, rendered in a round, admirably legible embroidered font.
That was the primary lure for me, and I’m sure for others, too. But the catalog opened my eyes to a whole realm of adult luxury beyond monograms. Hammocks. Seasonal wreaths made of artificial flowers. Eyeshades. The world seemed so full of things, both exciting and overwhelming. One item made a particular impression on me: a book cover for paperbacks. Was it needlepoint? Or am I conflating it with the hymnals at my grandmother’s church? Either way, I know the copy advertised its ability to “hide that trashy romance novel!” Read More
- Fact: the American newspapers and gazettes of the nineteenth century had names that absolutely trounced their present-day counterparts where liveliness and creativity are concerned (with the exception of the Modesto Bee, which remains a truly great paper title). In simpler times, you could spend your mornings over the Horseneck Truth Teller and Gossip Journal, Estabrook’s Great Public Chowder, Steven H. Branch’s Alligator, and the Striped Pig, among others.
- For a different kind of nostalgia, contemplate MacGyver, which hit the airwaves thirty years ago and has left in its wake a mess of nerdy white-male heroics and misplaced, quasi-racist adventure: “MacGyver embraces its own insistent loneliness to an absurd degree. And that, in turn, makes the whole show feel distinctly retrograde … MacGyver sags under the weight of its old-school definition of heroism. It glorifies the single man—the single mullet—while treating other people as victims and saps.”
- Not dissimilarly: in a new book, Lions in the Balance, Craig Packer attempts to careen between the MacGyver-esque machismo of those who hunt lions in the Serengheti and the “communal emotionalism” that so often animates conservation movements. “It is his position, as the story begins, that the lions of the Serengeti need sport hunters to survive; that Cecils must die if prides are to endure … In his quest to restructure incentives, in his willingness to take the long view, in his commitment to numbers over narrative, Packer deems himself ‘ultimately alone.’ ”
- Trying to build a brand of one? Of course you are! This is the age of the brandividual. Let me tell you a few things you already knew, though: it’s a futile project, authenticity is a myth, and branding strategists are working to make our society a waking nightmare of empty professionalism. “I don’t think it’s possible to appeal to everyone and still be authentic, let alone unique. When [my branding strategist] declared my web-site font ‘almost hippie-dippy,’ I couldn’t help but get a bit defensive. So what if it is? My truest self does not use ‘impact as a verb.’ My truest self likes to be catty about former employers that have done me wrong, not write pleasant summaries of what I was able to achieve while working there. My truest self is sending GIFs to my friends, not cheerfully influencing strangers’ thoughts.”
- Today in new and novel uses for the black crayon: Richard Serra’s strangely affecting “Ramble Drawings” are seventy-four works on paper, all “variations on Malevich’s square, stretched out and pressed with black lithographic crayons to achieve different textures: oily, streaky, pocked, solid. The pictures, stacked like rows of large, incongruous industrial cement bricks across the gallery walls, are anything but monotonous, however. Black never looked so colorful.”
- Our culture’s obsession with design has led to a lot of useless flash, especially on the Internet, where things glide, slide, swoop, pulse, and occasionally dance across the screen. The artist Peter Quinn parodies user interfaces and their ornaments, including “such high-action gibberish as ‘nice, but useless circle,’ frenetic ‘pointless graphs,’ ” and other such forms of “flickery nonsense.”
- Before Thomas Pynchon there was William Pynchon, his ancestor, who was also stirring up literary trouble of a sort: in 1650 he published a pamphlet, The Meritorious Price of our Redemption, which “was not in full agreement with the Reformed position on Christ’s atonement … the Massachusetts Bay General Court took notice of the book, describing it as ‘containing many errors & heresies generally condemned by all orthodox writers that we have met with’ and ordering ‘the said book to be burned in the market place, in Boston, by the common executioner.’ Pynchon was forced to issue a retraction.”
- Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth is a novel, and an essay, and an attempt at a new kind of collaboration—written with factory workers at Grupo Jumex, a juice factory in Mexico City. “Luiselli constructed the book as … a serialized fiction that invited the input of the factory workers. The process was simple. She wrote an installment of the novel, and the factory workers organized a space to read and discuss it. Recordings of their commentaries, as well as images of local landmarks, were then sent back to Luiselli, who would listen to their notes and view the pictures before writing the next section. The formula for the novel, as Luiselli describes it: ‘Dickens + mp3 ÷ Balzac + jpeg.’ ”
- In which Andrew O’Hagan attempts to cross the street: “For some weeks now I’ve been standing at St Giles Circus—the junction of Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, New Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road—watching people try to pass from one side of the road to the other … People set out when the green man appears and before they get halfway they are running on red, and very few of them know there are cars about to stream onto the crossing from three blind corners, and many of the drivers are quite unaware of the existence of a crossing twenty yards ahead … We might forget that living in a big city means submitting to a lot of rules about how to live in a big city. You can’t park, you can’t wait, you can’t cross, you must queue, you’re being filmed. There are rules, zones, fines. People in the country don’t have that, and urban dwellers might, at some level, always be looking for strategies that could justify their basic refusal to conform. I thought of that as I watched a man in a business suit climb over two sets of barriers to cross the road. He just wouldn’t walk the extra few meters to be told what to do by an electronic system.”
- My dad was named Gary. Gary Sernovitz is also named Gary, and he’s not happy about it: “To watch television or movies as a Gary is to know pain. When writers can’t think of a joke, when they want to quickly convey character—or chinless lack thereof—they reach to my punchline first name for the bad blind date, the sad sack, the noodge. Garys rarely even rise to the level of real characters, in our culture, but when they do, they don’t lose their essential pathetic Garyness … Gary is a box of day-old donuts on the grab bag table, sitting among the names favored by rising immigrants groups, fearless parents, and people who should be prosecuted for Naming Under the Influence.”