Having just arrived at the end of The Road, I realise I was so wrapped up in the devastating prose that there was something I failed to notice. Despite the occasional frustration that I was not entirely sure which ‘he’ Cormac McCarthy was writing about at any given time (especially when there was a change in the point of view), it simply hadn’t struck me that the author chose not to give his characters names. Throughout, they are simply ‘the man’ and ‘the boy.’
Tobias, Lavinia, Matthias, Rafe, Norman, Josh, Virginia, Delores, Apple, Edith, Rita, Sadie. Chances are that you have preconceptions about all of these names. Given all that can be conveyed in an instant – class, era, nationality, personality traits, genre of writing – the decision not to take advantage of what the reader thinks they already know is both brave and purposeful.
And yet we only know some of our favourite fictional characters by a description:
The Doctor – Doctor Who
The Cigarette Smoking Man – X Files
The Man with No Name – A Fistful of Dollars
The Dude – The Big Lebrowski
Daphne du Maurier’s narrator in Rebecca was only ever The Second Mrs de Winter. And although we were never in any doubt as to the identity of Hilary Mantel’s main character in Wolf Hall, Cromwell, for the most part, remained nameless.
Although one reason for not naming a character is to create an air of mystery, there is plenty of evidence that the very opposite occurs. One author was taken to task by both his editor and publisher for failing to describe his main character. When he asked them separately, ‘Okay, what do you think he looks like?’ each described himself.
One Day by David Nicholls begins, ‘I suppose the important thing is to make sort of difference,’ she said. ‘You know, actually change something.’ Nicholls is teasing us. It is only on the third page that the male character uses Emma’s name – incorrectly, so as to cause her to protest that only her friends call her Em – and she peers up though her fringe at Dexter Mayhew. Like thousands of other readers, I had, by then, been dying to know who exactly had jumped into bed with whom the night before. But even before we knew their names were Emma and Dexter, we already knew them. They were exactly like us, or if not us, someone we knew very well.
We may say that disaster has stripped McCarthy’s characters of personality or that they are a universal representation of mankind. But it is far more personal than that. Unlike watching a film or the television, the act of reading is not passive. A character who is not someone else is the reader. And so when I say that I have just arrived at the end of the road, in emotional terms, that is exactly what I have done.