Wednesday, August 01, 2012
Choosing novels to take on vacation is an anxiety-inducing exercise. The night before a recent trip to French Polynesia, I stared at my bookshelves, agonizing over which novels to bring along in addition to a giant stack of unread issues of The New Yorker, Commentary, and The New Republic (and, I confess, an unsubscribed to issue of Vanity Fair). I ended up with these: Janette Turner Hospital's Orpheus Lost, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (through which I had previously only skimmed), John Updike's The Terrorist, and Nathan Englander's What we Talk about When we Talk about Anne Frank. I really had no desire to read the Updike, but since I've been teaching post-9/11 fiction I felt that I should at least take it along for the ride. A Franzen hardcover started out in the pile, but given the immense weight and size of his books, it was thrown aside minutes before the taxi arrived to take us to the airport.
I didn't think much about the fact that, armed with multiple novels about terrorism, I was getting ready to board an 8-hour flight. And I'll I'm going to say is that by the end of my trip I was sick of reading about terrorism. (And I couldn't, just couldn't, finish that awful Updike.)
Orpheus Lost proved to be a gift: one of my new favorite novels, the kind that leaves you longing and makes you sad once you finish because there's no more to read (and especially if you're stranded in paradise and all you've got left is Updike). There's so much to say about this novel, and this writer, but I keep thinking about one idea in particular:
"Names are always a problem . . . They're never you. They're baggage from your parents."
Of course this is likely much more true in some circumstances than in others. I suspect there are people who are quite able to choose names for their children based solely on sound, rhythm, alliteration. Surely not everyone considers the meanings or histories or connotations of names. But even then the parents' choice conveys something about their needs, desires, preferences, or histories. A name chosen simply because it was on a list of most popular names for a given year says just as much about the parent as does a name that is somehow rare, unique, or laden with symbolic meaning, doesn't it?
We are born violently and into a position of responsibility: to bear our parents' burdens. We bear witness to their wounds from birth: this is our origin.
As I consider names for my own soon-to-be son, I feel the burden, of course, and I contemplate how I might relieve him of having to carry anything of mine. And I don't know how to name someone I have never seen or met--someone of whom I have no knowledge, other than what I imagine. But this is the way things are done. We imagine our children and who they will become, and we name them accordingly. We imagine them in our image, and because of this they inevitably carry our desires within them.
But I would be dishonest to suggest that I don't experience a modicum of pleasure when I imagine my little son carrying a certain brand of burden: the one that teaches us to struggle and to discover delight in the struggle, the kind that teaches us to care for others, especially those who are different from us. I know that I carry a few of my parents' burdens and that they have made me who I am. I can only hope that my own child similarly delights in the burdens he will help me carry.