2 Novels About What’s-Their-Name

Dear readers,

Where did all the Brendas go? The Donnas and Debbies, Sharons and Carols? I wondered that the other day after meeting a friend’s beautifully scrunchy newborn for the first time — a tiny bread loaf fresh to the world, whose name fell refreshingly far down the current list of popular choices. According to the people who compile these things, parents of the 2020s have enthusiastically embraced the brass-fixture nomenclature of characters in an Edith Wharton novel, or at least HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” with every Brooklyn daycare now hosting a small army of Evelyns, Elijahs, Amelias and Olivers.

I grew up in a certain pocket of California kookery where unusual was the default: My best friends had names like Melon and Panama, and even the adults we knew seemed free to redefine themselves as Hindu gods or whimsical shades of the color wheel. My own birth name marked me as unconventional too, so as a teenager I took the opportunity of a family move to change it. (In junior high school, it has been empirically proved, freak flags are best flown at lower altitudes.)

Overwhelmed by options — should I be a bird, a tree, a TV star? — I panicked and reverted to a name that already ran in the family. A perfectly fine one! Easy to spell and only occasionally mispronounced like the galactic princess with the buns in her hair. But even now, I feel a little detached from “Leah,” a designation that floats politely adjacent to me but is still not quite mine.

I have found myself drawn to characters in fiction who exist in that liminal space as well — not just because of my personal history, but for the novelistic skill it takes to sustain an unnamed hero over several hundred pages. Like the protagonists of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” or Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” the incognito narrators in this week’s newsletter find distinction in their anonymity: Maybe you can’t call them by their names, but humanity, wily and specific, still seeps through.


It is probably a mortal sin to call an Irish writer “melodious”; haven’t they endured enough shamrock-scented cliché? The writing in Burns’s third novel, though, feels more like free jazz — a teenage girl’s almost psychedelic stream-of-consciousness account of growing up in the acrid thick of the Troubles in the late 1970s. (The city, too, is never identified, though all signs point to Belfast). A broody loner and inveterate reader of fat, dog-eared paperbacks by Dostoyevsky and Flaubert, our heroine is not entirely unsocialized: There’s the sympathetic paramour dubbed “maybe-boyfriend” and a rapscallion pile of small siblings known as “wee sisters.” Other players, equally freed from the bother of proper nouns or even definite articles, go by handily expository titles like “first brother-in-law” or “longest friend.”

Despite her best efforts to sidestep the ugly sectarian war that defines nearly every aspect of daily life in that time and place, she still draws the unwanted romantic attentions of an older, married “renouncer of the state” known simply as Milkman. (Spoiler: He does not sell milk.) And in an era when paranoia levels could be measured every morning like a smog index, his interest alone is enough to make her the subject of heated local gossip — an odd, stubborn lass whose unaccountable reluctance to become a paramilitary moll might easily be resolved in bullets or car bombs.

Though “Milkman” won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize, not everyone, understandably, was a fan. Burns’s prose pours out in dense, heavily referential paragraphs you may need more than a butter knife to cut through, and the forward engine of plot feels more like a suggestion than a fact. Still, the book’s incantatory rhythms cast a Joycean spell, a 350-page fever dream written in blood and brogue.

Read if you like: The giddy, verbose madness of a Martin McDonagh movie or theater piece; the Pogues; rebellious bookworms
Available from: Graywolf Press, in an incongruously pretty pink paperback

Fiction, 2005 (in France) or 2006 (in Britain) or 2007 (in America)

The 30-ish Londoner at the center of McCarthy’s sparse debut is almost heroically bland; if a bar code were a person, it would be this man. To be fair, he also has a catastrophic brain injury, incurred from some unidentified falling object — and now, an eight-and-a-half-million pound legal settlement to spend at his leisure. But what is a single guy with few passions and no discernible personality to do with that (literal) windfall?

“It was as though my memories were pigeons and the accident a big noise that had scared them off,” he reflects, without much bother. The only thing that brings him a frisson of pleasure, a sort of pleasant, fizzy tingling from head to toe, is what you might call the deliberate practice of déjà vu. By physically reconstructing ordinary moments from his scantly recalled past — the smell of liver sizzling in a pan, an uneventful tire change at an auto store — he can feel close to something divine, or at least less dead than alive.

It turns out you can pay a lot for the privilege of real-time “re-enactments,” and he does, commissioning a series of increasingly elaborate set pieces whose pursuit soon curdles into monomania. The result is a cool slice of existential horror that feels a little bit, indeed, as if it fell from the sky.

Read if you like: blank slates, organ meats, Gen-X anxiety turned up to 11
Available from: Vintage Books, or maybe just look up at the clouds

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