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The naming of characters

July 20, 2010

The naming of cats is a difficult matter. It isn’t just one of your holiday games. –T.S. Eliot, from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Nomenclature in fantasy novels is tricky. A fact which has been on my mind recently, thanks to starting to read fantasy again. It must be tough, in addition to juggling the elements of plot and setting, to come up with convincing names for characters. Fantasy and mythic names need to be otherworldly, allegorical, exotic, without alienating the reader.

And, putting syllables together in a way that pleases you might be a difficult task for an author.

That said… I can’t believe that the main character in Eric Setiawan’s 2009 novel, Of Bees and Mist is named Meridia. Okay… it sounds pretty, it’s unconventional, maybe with suggestions of tidal pull and finding a place in the world.

That could be why Meridia is the brand name for a drug. Specifically, Sibutramine Monohydrate HCL. A bit of Googling reveals that the drug, Meridia, has been on the market since at least 2004. So– I wonder if Setiawan had any awareness of it, or if the name tickled his subconscious from one of those awful “Ask Your Doctor About…” drug commercials that name-check a drug without telling you what it does. It’s woefully easy to be inundated with that kind of pharma messaging. Maybe he was, and it got under his skin and he forgot the source?

I wish the main character were named, oh, I don’t know, Susan. I wish I didn’t know that Meridia was a drug. In any case, it’s much more distracting from starting this promising novel, than I want it to be.

I’m not too far in, but it has a lot of what I like. Magic realism, in a folklorically spooky way, a house full of spectrally reflecting mirrors, expanding staircases, and odd mists. Parents who are ciphers- a terrifying father and an absentminded mother (non-pharmaceutically named). Shades, a little bit, of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, in the spooky-parents-and-house dynamic. I can hope its mythology will unify into something equally interesting.

I’m reading other reviews,  variously cautious and ambivalent, though appreciative of some aspects. But I’m the only one who noticed the pharma-associated name that I can see. And once I’ve made the association, I’m having trouble ignoring it and letting the story get on with itself. Drat.

Thanks to Kelly Welsh, of Simon and Schuster, who sent me this to review.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 20, 2010 12:11 pm

    Good catch– I didn’t find the name Meridia appealing, but didn’t catch that association.

    I hope you continue to enjoy the book!

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