What’s in a Name

I Am Not Sydney Poitier, by Percival Everett was less my cup of tea than it was a cup of iced coffee I was given instead. That is to say, the novel was a touch too bitter and too cool for my liking. That isn’t to say that I couldn’t get through it without moment’s of enjoyment, moments in which I found myself submerged in the words and the meaning of the work, and could enjoy it for the work of literature that it is. The reasons I dislike it came more from the portions that detached me from the work, aspects that made me focus more on the author’s reasoning for stylistic decisions than on the meaning he was trying to convey through them. 

This, for me, was most prevalent in the creation of a character that shared Percival Everett’s own name. When I saw Everett’s name first appear in IAm Not Sydney Poitier, I found it as amusing as I believe was intended by Everett himself. When the plot progressed after this, however, and the fictional version of Percival Everett emerged as one of the two most important ancillary characters in the novel as a whole, that amusement began to subside. The entire novel of I Am Not Sydney Poitier can be looked at through that common bit of advice for writers to ‘write what you know’, and while Everett clearly distinguishes his characters from their namesakes in reality, through both their zany actions, as well as a written disclosure there is something about a writer giving a character their own name that I can’t move past. The disclosure in the beginning of the book sparked a memory in me of the disclosure in the beginning of Huckleberry Finn in which the reader was warned not to look for meaning. In Everett’s case, though I am aware he might not have intended any similarities beyond the names, it is certainly the intent to see Not Sydney become closer to Sydney Poitier, and I had to wonder if we were meant to catch a glimpse of the real Percival Everett as well. 

The way I viewed that choice, as a writer myself, was that writers are frequently guilty of placing bits of themselves in their characters, particularly characters that already have qualities that the writer feels they share. In these characters, the writer will sometimes attribute flaws or strengths that they also might attribute to themselves. I don’t mean to say that I believe Percival Everett to have written himself in his own book, or even to call him a narcissist, only that at times, I was taken from his writing back into reality. I was drawn to look at descriptions of the character that wore his name and wonder which qualities were owned by fiction, and which qualities were simply rented. That is to say, I was left to wonder if some descriptions were less fiction than they were Percival Everett projecting his own views of himself, or his own ideas of how he wished to be, or wished to be viewed. 

Again, I want to say that this doesn’t mean anything more than a personal nuance, and something that fascinated me for all that it irked me. It always appeared to me that one of the first rules of writing is not to implement yourself into your work, not to implement your name unto one of your characters. The fact that Everett did this very thing seemed distasteful, yet led me to consider the countless other times authors break from convention. Writing is something as crucial to society as the spoken word; in my earliest years of schooling, my teachers always gave us rules, indisputable and enforced until they were engrained in my mind. This was done, I know, to help me master the basics of written communication before I could venture into the realm of experimental prose, but there will always be a part of me that notices authors doing the same like headlights coming out from around a corner. Looking back on my own experience with literature, I’ve recalled how some of my favourite writers have made arbitrary those guidelines that had been taught to me as law. 

The difference, I suppose, is more that I believe Everett may have gone too far in his decision for the benefit of the book. That the presence of his character, to me, felt too much like Everett throwing meaning at me without a certain trust that I as the reader could figure it out on my own, something I have never quite enjoyed, so perhaps it is only me.

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