Part III–The later twentieth and twenty-first century American fictions in particular which I have considered (though others cannot be excluded) focus on ridding the characters of the “names” their relatives, their society, or they themselves have previously given them, or making the “names” they have significant of a new identity or idea. To mention just a few, in The Shipping News, there’s Quoyle, “the newspaperman” (whose past life is indeed a “coil,” like the cultural knots in a rope from which he descends and which he wants to limit). He transitions from a name alone to a fuller identity when he happens upon the “scoop” of his own life, the startling news that the aunt whom he loves is actually his mother, and that he is not excluded from receiving mature sexual love from a girl he meets. In The Lacuna, a young man is named alternately by those around him as a tool against his father (by his mother), a servant (even by his enlightened employers in his later life), a suspicious character (by the paranoid, communist-fearing functionaries of the United States government of the time), and finally as a good friend, and these are the roles and identities he generally accepts. Finally, with the aid of his good friend, a woman, he is able to escape into a never-quite-previously lived “lacuna” (lacuna can mean either “absence, gap,” or “lagoon”)–into an idyllic past, and his further identity thus becomes a lacuna itself, a mystery.
Even earlier in one of the precursive texts I looked at, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Ethan is by his wife treated or “named” a shiftless, no-good husband; is gradually accepted as a transgressive but gallant suitor of sorts by his cousin Mattie; and ends his days caught between the two “names,” his identity a cipher, that of a “dead man,” as one of the internal characters defines him at the end. He is a condensation only of the name “Frome” and the evidence of “the hard compulsions of the poor.”
The transition largely achieved by the struggles of the main characters themselves from being “only a name” to fulfilling (or “filling full”) an identity, cultural or personal, is not restricted to the Americans, however. Firmly and repeatedly undercutting his audience’s expectations, the author/narrator-as-author-as-narrator of London Fields at the end of the novel turns out to be the “murderer” he himself has been seeking (to “kill off” one of the characters). He steps thus with great irony and satirical intent into the shoes he has sought to fill (as if forcing the reader to write the novel), and satirizes audience expectations of identity patterns for characters, authors, and readers. This ending rejects and simultaneously glorifies the use the reader would make of him, and constructs by ironies that point in all directions a narrative “identity” of his own making, which is that of a whimsical dictator, a character nearly as sadistic as the woman who is to be murdered is toward her lovers.
To revisit the topic of the picturesque briefly, contemporary authors sometimes focus less overtly on figurative language from page to page, but choose summational titular and thematic structures (“the shipping news,” “prodigal summer,” “the lacuna,” “the joke,” “London fields,” “a thousand acres,” even “the girl with the dragon tattoo”) as partial naming concepts. They then “fill in” the significance of such things by close attention to character study as plot, setting, etc. The character becomes the plot, the character’s interior in some way evokes or resembles the setting, and so on.
Though my treatment in three parts has not been exhaustive, it has been as far as I can see at the present time. All of the contemporary novels I’ve mentioned above are in my opinion well-written and show a consistent concern with quality of reading experience which signals aesthetic significance, and each has a moral value system firmly in place. You may have to find your way through multiple ironies to it, and sometimes traditional moral values are revised or moral elements are shifted around to allow for a more contemporary viewpoint–but clearly these writers, who manipulate the demotic and traditional voices of literature and experiment with both romance and realistic elements in their fiction, and who show characters caught up in the process of finding their own identities–these writers just as obviously have no doubts or qualms of any force about their own voices or identites in these books. I hope if you haven’t read some of them you will find some new “friends” among them, after my long demand on your patience.