Jess Taylor on CanLit Names (or "Not a Comprehensive List of CanLit Pauls")
Everybody knows a Paul, or has been a Paul, and maybe even loved a Paul or two. In Jess Taylor's short fiction collection, Pauls, Paul, who is not always the same Paul, but could very well be a similar Paul, another Paul in a long line of Pauls, runs through forests, drinks in student housing, flirts with girls, at times is a girl, loves men, makes friends, jumps from buildings, hurts people, gets hurt, climbs up towards the sky, waits for a sunrise, and all those human things.
Heather O'Neill calls the collection "a magical and penetrating collection of strange, mundane, traumatized and ecstatic people who are all named Paul. Its simple sentences are little atoms of wonder."
And in this guest post, Taylor riffs on what's in a CanLit name.
Originally while writing this list, I set out to write a Comprehensive List of CanLit Pauls. This should have been simple and I thought it would be until I realized that I’m someone with a mind where names slip in and out never to be recalled again. My method of research was to hit my bookshelf and comb through my favourite Canadian books, looking for Pauls. Instead I found several naming trends, which I’ve defined here. Of course there are more (don’t get me started on all the Daniels both as writers and as characters in literature), and there are wonderful books I wish fit into these categories like What We All Long For, by Dionne Brand or Funny Boy, by Shyam Selvadurai. I also haven’t included Bang Crunch, by Neil Smith on this list, which remains one of my favourite story collections. Therefore this list remains non-comprehensive, and I encourage you to add onto it or to keep your own lists as you read. (Just kidding, please don’t do that, you will die in a heap of despair and no one will ever find you.)
Michaels Writing About Martin/Kim/Gabriel Plus the Wave of Andrews
Three writers I admire and who have taught me all share the name Michael. The Michaels of the Toronto literary world have gone on to teach the several Andrews of my generation. And those Andrews will go on to teach the Cadyns, Aidyns, and Bradyns of the next generation. Here are three Michaels, plus a representative Andrew.
Martin Sloane, by Michael Redhill
I read Martin Sloane when I was in high school and a huge fan of the art of Joseph Cornell, who provided the basis for Martin’s art. The novel fascinated me with how present a character could be after they’ve left another’s life.
Cities of Refuge, by Michael Helm
Cities of Refuge is one of the rare books where I am equally invested in all of the character’s perspectives. Helm writes his protagonist, Kim, with a clarity that really spoke to me as a young woman. She’s a character who is processing trauma, as are several of my own characters. This was a book I felt deeply.
The Architects Are Here, by Michael Winter
Michael Winter caught me at a very impressionable time in my life with his Gabriel English in This All Happened and became one of my favourite writers, if not my favourite. I found the book when I was in my first year of university the way I found many of these books, by grabbing them off the shelf of a bookstore because they seemed interesting. The Architects Are Here hangs together much more as a novel than This All Happened, which is composed of diary-like vignettes, but the things I loved about This All Happened—the realistic characters, the beauty of the lines, the truth behind the language, the sensitivity and perception of Gabriel—are enhanced in The Architects Are Here.
All We Want Is Everything, by Andrew Sullivan
This is Andrew Sullivan’s debut collection of stories, and I love the language in this book. I’m also amazed by how completely he can depict a world both with many pages or just one or two. Also contains a Jimmy. Also calls his character, “Owen Frell,” “Frell” for the majority of “Simcoe Furriers.”
There are so many variations on James. So so many books with variations of James. My first novel (which was not really a novel, more like an unformed heap of words) focused on a graphic novelist named Jim. I’m sure everyone’s favourite short story writer (and one of mine), Alice Munro, has written about a Jim or two, although I haven’t conducted nor will ever conduct a naming analysis of her work. Here are two Jim books that had a huge impact on me.
Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson
Monkey Beach remains one of the best Canadian books I have ever read. The protagonist, Lisa-Marie’s brother, Jimmy, goes missing. I guess I have a thing for books about missing or disappearing people.
Mean Boy, by Lynn Coady
The protagonist’s mentor in Mean Boy is named Jim. This novel introduced me to the world of the creative writing workshop while I was still a girl in high school writing stories in Hilroys after finishing my class work. It doesn’t really depict studying creative writing in a favourable light, instead focusing on its humiliating and frustrating baseline with moments of exaltation. For some reason I still wanted to run head-first into six years of studying creative writing. I blame Mean Boy for all of my tears.
Last Names Instead of First Names
A popular trend in Canadian literature, and in particular in work termed “muscular” by reviewers, is characters who are called by their last name. While reviewers seem to be trying to evoke the sports team full of guys swatting at each other’s asses or punching each other in the arms or the tough woodman chopping wood, this naming trend usually is an attempt to reflect how people really speak to each other and how what we are called (and even who we are) changes depending on who is referring to us.
Debris, by Kevin Hardcastle
Kevin Hardcastle has an Old Man Marchuk and Constable Tom Hoye referred to as “Hoye” in “Old Man Marchuk.” There’s an O’Flynn in “One We Could Stand to Lose” and O’Hara and DeCarlo in “Spread Low on the Fields.” There’s also the Campbell boy in “Debris”. This is Kevin Hardcastle’s first collection and is wowing critics and lovers of “tough-guy” prose. I am obviously a tough guy too then. Also includes a Paul in “They Have To Wait”!
Down to the Dirt, by Joel Thomas Hynes
At times the protagonist of Down to the Dirt is called Kavanagh or Young Kavanagh depending on who is telling the story. I read Down to the Dirt when I was in grade nine, and I think it featured the first really explicit sex scene I had ever read. I read it again and again, of course.
Striving to have a name that is uncommon and is unique to the character of the story is something that is quite common in CanLit. Whether this works in a novel or collection, like with all naming, really just depends on the skill of the writer. While whimsical names can at times seem a little try-hard, these three books are successful.
“Elf” in All My Puny Sorrows,by Miriam Toews
Elf is short for Elfrieda in Toews’ novel, and I could go into a whole other list on nicknaming/self-naming in literature, both Canadian and world-wide. But here Elf is the name given to the protagonist’s struggling sister, who feels out of this world. This is the book I’m currently reading, and I’m still on the fence about what I think about this naming choice. The novel is carrying me along with it and is enjoyable.
“Baby” in Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill
Baby in Lullabies for Little Criminals is such a memorable protagonist. In the hands of any other writer, naming a character “Baby” might seem twee, but in O’Neill’s world, it perfectly fits the degenerate lifestyle Baby has grown up with.
“Pillow” in Pillow, by Andrew Battershill
Pillow is the retired boxer protagonist of Battershill’s first novel,Pillow.The name is an example of the book’s natural, unique weirdness, which combines surrealism with crime fiction as Pillow works for a crime syndicate run by Andre Breton. The humour of this novel is also effortless and clear, something few writers are able to pull off.
Of course, I couldn’t write my naming list without actually including some Pauls.
Polyamourous Love Song, by Jacob Wren
Paul is focus of the protagonist of Polyamourous Love Song’s fascination. He interweaves throughout the text of the novel and provides the narrator glimpses of a photograph of a secret militaristic society where everyone wears mascot costumes, which propels the novel forward. Paul is also perhaps not even Paul’s real name; the narrator explains his struggle to try to get Paul’s permission to write about him at the beginning of the novel, promising to disguise his true name and identity. So perhaps his Paul is only a faux-Paul. This book is wonderfully odd and is one that remains a puzzle for the reader to think about for months after the actual reading is finished.
Cosmo, by Spencer Gordon
Cosmo makes this list with a wonderful, tangential Paul, only in the text for a moment as Paul Macdonnell phones the protagonist, Pierre, in “This is Not an Ending” about a slap in the workplace. He also calls Paul by his last name, Macdonnell, fitting our last name trend. Spencer Gordon’s book is playful and fun, but still gazes deeply into the lonely centre within us.
Jess Taylor is a writer and poet based in Toronto, Ontario. She is the founder of the Emerging Writers Reading Series and is the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, magazines, and newspapers, including This Magazine, CNQ, and The National Post. Her first pamphlet chapbook, And Then Everyone (Picture Window Press) was released in April 2014, followed by her first full-length chapbook, Never Stop (Anstruther Press) in October 2014. Jess also received the Gold 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, “Paul.” Pauls, published by BookThug, is her first collection of short stories.