A character by any other name.

As this book opens I couldn’t help but focus on names.  I have always been attuned to the names authors use.  When I used to attempt fiction, I could spend as much time trying to come up with the perfect meaningful name (see how the name comments on the action?) as with a story itself.   So when I see an author using especially peculiar names, my reading senses tingle.

This story is just full of unusual names.  And on several occasions names, or lack of names is significant.

Before starting on names though I have to chime in and say that “shut your piehole, cakeface” is hilarious.  And the whole argument about punctuation on T-shirts had me cracking up.

First of all, with a comma before “cakeface,” the shirt would have to be considered “officially punctuated” which would require a period be placed after “cakeface,” not to mention a colon, if not another comma, after “Jonboat Say,” and quotation marks around the catchphrase itself….  This, believed Jonboat, was more punctuation than a T-shirt could abide.

But back to names.

Part 1 Section 1 “Jonboat Say” starts off with the character named Jonboat.  I suspect most people have heard the nickname Jonboy, but I have personally never heard Jonboat before and I liked it immediately–weird and memorable.  There’s also his full name Jonny Pellmore-Jason and that his father is named Jon-Jon Jason.

It’s also interesting how the narrator introduces his family.  Since his family name [Magnet] is an everyday object that could be used as a descriptive word as well, introducing his family as “My family’s. We Magnets'” is certainly not the most direct way of providing information. My first thought was that it was metaphorical and that his family were the kind of people magnetically attracted to trouble.  This doesn’t even address his first name yet.  in fact, his first name won’t come for a long time.

The other prominent name in this section is Blackie Buxman.  This name doesn’t specifically signify anything to me at this point, but they all strike me as meaningful.  Most of the characters aren’t named common Anglo-Saxon names (well, okay, Jonny, but he is Jonboat).

So is “Blackie” a nickname like Jonboat or a given name?  There’s no way to know yet and maybe we never will as he doesn’t seem to be very important after the tetherball match.  I looked up the origin of Buxman and learned it’s the Americanized spelling of German Buchsmann, a topographic name from Middle High German buhs(boum) ‘box (tree)’ + man.  That doesn’t seem significant–although later he does punch the main character “in the asshole.”

Just after the first black dot triangle section break, there’s a geographically made up name: “Wheelatine Township” in the Chicagoland area.  Is the made up use of Wheelatine an indication that things are not real right from the start?  (I don’t know anything about Chicago, so if it’s a play on a region, it is lost on me).  Or is it just a simple narrative device to prevent people from fact-checking details?

Also, what the heck does Wheelatine mean?

Then there’s the main invented plot device, the “cures.”  The way these are introduced puzzles in the same way as “magnet”: “There I had my cure rustling around in its PillowNest.”  [shades of George Saunders with this naming convention].  This is deliberately confusing, there’s no question.  No capital, no italics, no capital C, there’s no indication that it is significant.  I had to read this sentence a few times just to see what I could possibly be missing.

Cure is short for Curio (which makes a lot of sense both as the real name and as an abbreviation).  It is a pet of sorts.  And he has named his Blank.  The Curio’s full name is Kablankey–named at his mother’s suggestion for the sound of its sneeze.  But ever since he’d “vented his temples” (?) he’d changed it to Blank, which was less childish but retained connections to his missing mother.

Curios had originally been called Botimals

By the way, “rear ejection” is what they call its waste.  Ha.

There are a whole bunch of names for things that happen to Curio owners. More words that have mundane meaning which are clearly used differently.  For instance, kids “go into overload” (which gets them on the news).  This is bad.

All of this in the first ten pages.

Then we finally get to the main character’s name.  Or what his name isn’t:

“Billy, listen–” said my father.
“That’s not my fucking name.”

Chapter 1 Section 2 is called “Two Hundred Some Quills”

I feel like I’ve heard the name Quills before for cigarettes, but the only thing a quick search provides is in a Stephen King story (which might be where I heard it).

As this section opens, our 38 year old narrator gets a birthday present from Clyde the Dad (his father is finally given a name).  Clyde is away (fishing with friends) and not-Billy is on his own.  Usually Clyde leaves money in the Marvin Hagler bust, be he has forgotten.

We also meet Grandmother Magnet who calls to wish him a happy birthday.  The narrator doesn’t feel like talking to her so he messes with her and she twists the Magnet/Jonboat piehole phrase to “Plug your dirty sheeny coinslot, ovensmear.”

Grandmother Magnet is full of racist name-calling, which is a shame because “ovensmear” is a wonderfully weird insult.

Not-Billy goes to the White Hen to by Quills from Pang, the owner (okay, sure) of the establishment.  Pang says that not-Billy is not creditworthy.  Instead Pang gives him a piece of Dubble Bubble (which not-Billy muses about and speculates could have been called bubbleychew). Speaking of gum, I’m glad Levin has settled the age-old debate that the plural of Bubblicious is Bubbliciousi.

Not-Billy returns home without his Quills only  to find “a check for $1,100 made out to my father.  My SSDI check.”  So he takes it to the bank.  Names are crucial at the bank as well.

The teller who helps him doesn’t have a nameplate up.  He is however, “wearing a pinstriped vest and decisive mustache … with a golden chain that disappeared inside the watchpocket.”  We soon learn his name is Chad-Kyle or C.K.

This fellow is just full of name brands:

“the most buzzed about line of Graham&Swords PlayChanger PerForumulae for Curios since 2008’s SloMo or perhaps even 1993’s BullyKing.”

He also passes out fliers at shows for DJ Crystal Worm.  And of course Crys-Dub’s style of sleazebeat was a revolution on the scale Wang Kar Pourquoi’s first forays into fuzzdub or even Murder-ers’ trademark-infringement days when they were still called Murderers Jr.  The fliers are for a party at Killer Queen Marmalade’s, sponsored by Que Padre Mezcal.

The teller is offering to give not-Billy an advance of the new Curio forumlae “Independence.”  He has already given it to his cure Tiddlywinks.  But when not-Billy says he doesn’t want to show off his Cure, the teller assumes that Blank is a hobunk.

Finally they get around to the transaction.  Not-Billy doesn’t have an ATM card.  When he shows C.K. his state ID, C.K says, “Now that is a name.”

Turns out the check is a problem because of names:

It’s my SSDI check. I’m the beneficiary.  My father’s my guardian, though, so it’s made out to him.

Outside of the bank we formally meet Lotta Hogg (a name that is hilarious, offensive and absurd but not out of the realm of believability).

Unless I missed it earlier, Lotta is the first person to say not-Billy’s full name: Belt Magnet.  She says it in full at least three times and addresses him by his first name many times during the conversation.  She even gives this name a series of nicknames: Beltenhauer, Magnetron, Beltinya Magnetovich [that one is inspired].

It turns out that Lotta and her friends (we finally have conventional names here: Kelly, Jenn and Ashley) were somewhat in awe of him back in 1987 [Belt was 12, Lotta was 9, give or take].  His actions caused them all to menstruate at the same time [?].

They talk about the return to town of Jonboat and his fiancee (?) named Fondajane. [There’s a lot to unpack with that].

As this conversation ends, Lotta wants to see his cure, but he tells her it is a hobunk and “could tear your friends to pieces.”

Chapter One Section 3 is called “About the Author.”
He tells us that he deliberately did not reveal his name at the beginning.  He didn’t want to write “My name is Belt Magnet, and sometimes I’m psychotic–at least that’s what they say.”

This section is a mostly a series of questions in interview format.

His psychotic symptoms manifest in being able to converse with inanimate objects or “inans.”  He needs to have his “gate” open to receive their messages (which are written in between vertical lines: ||Maybe that’s your own problem||.

The next question concerns Lotta Hogg and how she and her friends all had “the onset of puberty” at the same time because of what he did.  What he did has been named “the swingset murders.”  He essentially destroyed a series of swing sets with a bat, and they are continually referred to as “murders.”

In the newspaper article the girl who describes him as “so cute” is not named: “identified only, to my great frustration, as a “member of the popular set at WJH.”  Earlier it was said that the team name is Washington, so it’s safe to guess Washington Junior High.

Belt has an abetter in his murders, an eight grader named Rory Riley.  Belt had just destroyed the Blond family swing set.  Their son Ron Blond high-fived Belt for doing so (he hated that old swing set).  Riley also hated the swing set and proposed he fins another for Belt to murder.  Chuck Schmidt lived in “Old Wheelatine” where Feather lived, and they encouraged him to murder the Feather swingset.  This murder is what got the newspapers’ attention.

A question asks about his psychosis.

When discussing his medication, he talks about Eileen Bobbert who likes pun-driven jokes (and gave him Risperdal).  His prior doctor was named Emil Calgary who liked more scatological pun-driven jokes (and gave him Haldol).

There’s not much more in the way of names after this (even the doctor names aren’t revelatory I don’t think).  But one of the questions in this section stresses the naming of the Curios as botimals.  It was called a Botimal, a “robot made of flesh and bone,” but it was a pet to him–a new kind of pet.  He has never been able to think of Blank as a robot.

There’s more unusual word choice here though.  People “kill” their cures, regularly.  In fact, that seems to be what you’re supposed to do to it.  Earlier Belt said he had never so much as hurt Blank before.  Belt has been unable to do so, but he never prevented anyone else from doing it.  Nevertheless:

Blank was my pet, though.  My friend.  My sibling.  I didn’t want to kill it, even when I did.

Belt has possibly the oldest living Curio.  The oldest publicly stated Curio was owned by a monk and named Basho (17th century Japanese haiku master).

Finally, Belt reveals that he is an author.  His novel is named No Please Don’t.  It was published by Darger Editions (Henry Darger was an American writer, novelist and artist who worked as a hospital custodian in Chicago, Illinois).  It concerns a character named Gil MacCabby who has lost his most favorite toy, and intergalactic smuggler called Bam Naka (which seems Star Wars inspired).

Belt also wrote an essay for Harper’s which was not published (although it is printed here) called “The Magnets, the Birds and the Balls” (June 2006) about his Grandma Magnet having an affair with a mobster by the name of Salvatore “Sally the Balls” DiBoccerini.  The Balls had an African Gray parrot named “Mouth” who would repeat just about anything (including lots of curse words).

There’s a lot to look at with all these names.  Most are probably not significant.  Many are probably just there for a joke.  And there’s nothing wrong with that either.

I don’t imagine there will be too many more significant new characters introduced,so I doubt there’s going to be many more new names to look at.

Nevertheless, with Levin’s clear love of language, I’ll bet whatever names he does come up with will be entertaining.


♦          ♦

As a writer, he reads a lot.  Here’s a list of the stories he mentions

Donald Barthelme “Balloon”
Franz Kafka’s “Blumfield”
Jeff Parker “Our Cause”
Robert Coover “The Hat Act”


♦          ♦

Incidentally, I co-posted this on my own site which includes a “Soundtrack” for each post.  All of the posts for Bubblegum will “feature” bubblegum pop songs.  This week’s is The Archie’s “Sugar Sugar.”

13 thoughts on “A character by any other name.

  1. amanda May 11, 2020 / 3:50 pm

    Wheeling and Palatine are two northern suburbs of Chicago. Knowing that added to the other-worldliness of the novel – like the whole landscape has just shifted to one side by a few degrees

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston May 12, 2020 / 10:20 pm

    Ooooh, neat, Amanda. Thanks for sharing that.

    Something else that struck me about a lot of these names is that many of them are nouns for other things. Belt and Magnet are the most obvious. Others include Gil (gill — maybe a stretch), Chad (as in, a hanging chad), Kyle (Scottish for a strait), Jonboat, Feather, Chuck (as in a collar that might hold a drill bit in place), and Blank at least.

  3. Jeff Anderson May 13, 2020 / 8:32 pm

    Oh my god, Wang Kar Pourquoi made me laugh. (And “venting his temples” is a reference to the design he shaved into his haircut that he thought looked like vents.)

    I think you’re on to something by paying attention to names, though. The weirdness of them would be enough on its own to feel like a signal, but it actually gets thematized, or at least promoted from subtext to text, a number of times—Belt not wanting to be called Billy but not telling us what his name is, the little colloquy with Chad-Kyle about how he stopped going by that name because of what people thought of a person named Chad-Kyle versus what they thought of a person named C-K, and Belt’s ruminations on Lotta’s name.

    And come to that, your pegging of Bam Naka as Star Wars–inspired is so funny to me, because I agree completely and because I think the Star Wars universe names are almost uniquely nonsensical and bad. (I ask you: Kit Fisto?) Which is the topic at hand, after all.

    • Paul Debraski May 19, 2020 / 4:37 pm

      Thanks for the clarification on his temples. I thought I had read something about that earlier but figured it was some alternate universe thing.

      I actually had to search to see if Bam Naka was a Star Wars character, it sounded so spot on. LOL.

      Out of curiosity, am I missing anything with Wang Kar Pourquoi? Does it mean something beyond sounding funny?

      • Jeff Anderson May 25, 2020 / 4:53 pm

        Resurrecting this because I’m out of practice with notifications and just saw that you asked me a question!

        Wong Kar-wai is a major director in Hong Kong cinema. Don’t know his movies, so I can’t say whether there’s any actual reference intended or just a witty band-name joke (“pourquoi” = “why”). But it sounds pretentious as hell, in a way that could be either Levin’s joke or the band’s, and it made me laugh.

  4. Rob V May 15, 2020 / 7:09 pm

    In defense of Grandma Magnet… She didn’t say n*****. She called him, “n-word”. I don’t think Levin is censoring anything for us, as n-word fits the format (Cakeface, Ovensmear) and the actual slur does not. While it remains completely inappropriate to call someone an “N-word”, it is startlingly strange enough to be funny here.

    Rereading this, I feel like it could be unclear and I am struggling to clarify it. The insult, calling someone an “n-word” (the informally agreed upon term to use when we don’t want to cause offense by saying the actual word) seems like something I would run across in the Youtube comment section – in a world where the internet does not exist, no less. And this juvenile outburst is coming from someone annoying enough to call you on your “birth-hour”. I can’t wait for more from doggerel this woman.

    • Paul Debraski May 19, 2020 / 4:31 pm

      You know, when I first read “n-word” I thought it was very funny as an insult. And I did wonder if Levin was censoring himself. It seems like a really weird thing to do. he could just have easily avoided the whole issue if he felt the need to censor himself. So I do like your reading much better.

      This whole book is full of first class insults. He must have had a blast coming up with them.

  5. jackjwaters May 16, 2020 / 2:50 pm

    As to the four referenced stories, I’ve read three of them (Barthelme’s Balloon, Kafka’s Blumfeld, Coover’s Hat Act), and I don’t think they’re there for a joke or naming nonsense. They each feature objects in either animate or otherwise exceptional form, so perhaps they can be considered pronto-‘inans’ of a sort. I really enjoy those three stories, so I was happy to see them referenced. I’ll have to track down the Parker story. The Kafka story depicts a man trailed by two bouncing balls, so perhaps there’s some echoing between that story and bubblegum, curios, or both?

    • Paul Debraski May 19, 2020 / 4:34 pm

      My apologies for putting my observation about the stories in a place in the post that made it seem like I was saying THEY were the joke. That little section was supposed to stand on its own at the end and I clearly didn’t edit it since I was trying to get the post out. I have since fixed it.

      No, I am sure the stories are quite significant. I haven’t read any of them. And I was quiet surprised that I couldn’t find a free (or otherwise) copy of The Hat Artist online. I’d never heard of Parker, before. I love finding out about new authors.

      • Daryl L. L. Houston May 24, 2020 / 10:31 pm

        I don’t know how much of the story it provides, Paul, but I did find this copy of “The Hat Act” and this audio version (I don’t love what I’ve listened to of it, but beggars and choosers).

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