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Radio Readers BookByte: Name that Character

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Welcome to the Radio Readers book club and the 2017 Fall Read.  We’ve been discussing our second Mark Kurlansky selection. 

Earlier in my chats about Edible Stories: A Novel in Sixteen Parts, I promised I would touch upon Kurlansky’s use of names.  While I don’t believe that Kurlansky chose every single name in the book for symbolic reasons, I do think paid close attention to this task.

Some of our best storytellers choose character names painstakingly.  One mark that an author’s work has become part of the literary canon is widespread character recognition.  Nearly all Americans, for example, recognize the name Huckleberry Finn, whether or not they’ve read any Twain. I read that J. K. Rowling created a bit of a problem for the many real people in England with the common name, Harry Potter.  Apparently, after the books became a sensation, they’d call to order pizza, saying “Hello, this is Harry Potter and I’d like a deep dish pie brought round.”  The person taking the order would typically reply, “Oh, sure, aren’t you a clever bloke?” and hang up the tele.  Certainly, Rowling visually sketches people with names like Draco Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange.  

When writers create a character whose name becomes an adjective, they’ve achieved a real pinnacle.  A name that has entered the language as an adjective or noun, by the way, is called an eponym.  Some well-known examples are “Yahoo” and “Lilliputian” from Gulliver’s Travels and Scrooge from A Christmas Carol.

Although Mark Kurlansky’s work has garnered popular success (if one judges success based on the New York Times Best Sellers list), his work has not yet given us any eponyms.  Still, he uses so many unique names, many of which relate to food.  In the U.S. we don’t commonly name our children after foods (although I do have a daughter named Clementine and Gwenyth Paltrow has one named Apple).  I can think of a few other names that are food related:  Candy, Olive, Kale, Ginger, and yes, Huckleberry. 

We have already talked about Kurlansky’s unifying character, Robert Eggle’s last name.  Beyond that, Kurlansky uses names like Agent Lemmon (in “Cholent) and Minty (in “Bean Curd”).    I’m not sure if it is significant or not, but the central female’s name, Margaret, is derived from the Latin word “margarita.” Ledoux means “sweet.” And we certainly can’t forget Wonderbread.

The numerous characters that pop in and out of stories throughout the book also seem hyper-focused on names.  Dave Harris changes his name to Jesse “to announce the start of a new life.”  Later, when asked “Why Jesse?” he is reluctant to explain.  I have no idea if Kurlansky intended some kind of deeper meaning here, but listeners who are well-versed in biblical names will remember that Jesse was King David’s father. 

Some of the other monikers I found notable were Chancy, the woman with the “wondrous backside” and Robo, which is Spanish for “theft.” I also thought it was interesting how the married couple of Kugelman and Rogers called one another by their surnames, and Mrs. Kugelman even corrects people to “Rogers” when they refer to her as Mrs. Kugelman.  In that last story, we met Joe, the cannibal, and from the very start, Margaret did not believe that could be his real name.  Did she believe “Joe” was incongruous because it’s such a basic, trustworthy sounding appellation?

Practically every story had dialogue or narrative about names.  There was some fuss about what name to print on Senator Green’s business cards in “Hot Pot.”  He could either be Senator Jacob Gren or Senator Jacob Luse – the two-syllabled Chinese word for the color green. And then after Senator Green chokes on a Sechuan pepper, the translator comforts him by saying, “Poor Senator Luse” but then another woman corrects him, insisting, “Senator Gren,” is his name. 

I won’t pretend to grasp all of the reasons for Kurlansky’s MANY, MANY choices for character names in this so-called novel in 16 parts, but it makes for interesting pondering.  I’d love to read some of our listeners’ favorite literary names on our Facebook page.  And can anyone think of some more food names? I’m Valerie Brown-Kuchera for the Radio Readers’ Book Club.