John Colman Wood’s fiction has appeared in Anthropology and Humanism, and he has twice won the Ethnographic Fiction Prize of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. He is the author most recently of The Names of Things as well as When Men Are Women: Manhood among Gabra Nomads of East Africa.
"The writing in The Names of Things is beautiful, hypnotic, and exacting. . . "
". . .a thoughtful, patient, and ultimately rewarding book. . ."
"The Names of Things beautifully renders one man’s struggle to balance his life’s work with the love of his life...a profound and moving story."
Before I started reading The Names of Things by John Colman Wood, I found myself thinking about what I expected out of a novel that centers on an American’s experiences in another culture. At the minimum, I decided that I expected a vivid presentation of the ‘other place.’ I wanted to live it like I was there. Really, I was expecting something like a vicarious travel experience. However, I found as I read that I was a little off base with what I expected from The Names of Things. As I found out, the book was much more than I expected.
Mind you, that is not to say that Wood does not vividly paint the remote African desert and the nomadic culture that the narrator encounters there. This sample should dispel any possible doubts of that:
Each morning the sheep and goats went en masse to pasture, and then, about an hour later, after they, too, were milked, the camels left with the older boys. It was a great to-do. The small stock streamed out of the thorn-branch pens, and, though many, they moved as fish in school, the hooves together making the patter of rainfall across the pebbles. They were gone before you knew it. Not so the camels, which were loud and impatient. The huge animals stood in their corrals anticipating pasture. They face the same direction, groaning and snuffling and snaking their tawny heads at one another, as if to argue over the exact moment the humans would come and let them out. When their herdsman finally came, the camels, like passengers at an airport gate, edged forward, jostling for an advantage that evaporated as soon as they were on the other side. As one corral left, long necks ticking forward like metronomes, the camels in other corrals groaned the loader, envious, worried that they would be left behind. The young men in charge would beat them back with sticks so they’d come out of their gates in order and not all at once. The moaned together like a colony of seals.
What I mean is that The Names of Things is not a simple vicarious travel novel, in either presentation or effect.
After all, the narrator may be in the African desert. However, he had been there before. He is an anthropologist and had come to study the nomads of the area, forcing his wife to accompany him. After they returned home, his wife died of an unnamed illness. The narrator’s grief is complicated when he discovers that one of their nomad friends also died of the same illness, making him wonder if his wife had an affair:
On the next page was a portrait of Abudo, his friend and informant.
He was not jealous by nature, but jealousy is a feeling of want, and at the moment he was empty. He wanted her, wanted her more than he had wanted her when she was alive. Of course he did: wanting is never as acute as wanting what one does not have. She was dead. He had lost himself.
Here was his wife, his partner, his best friend, drawing pictures of herself with another man.
* * *
Abudo’s death untethered him. If he was adrift before, he was now without sight of land. What most disturbed him, what filled his head with whirling, deafening voices and drained his heart of ballast, was to learn that Abudo died of the same scourge that killed his wife. That fact set in motion a confusion of feeling he wasn’t able to shrug off.
He then returns to Africa and the nomads.
However, the narrator is not really investigating whether or not his wife was unfaithful. In truth, he never even seems to really ask anyone. Instead, he is doing something different:
He returned to campus the following week but was more elsewhere than ever, though elsewhere now had location. The idea had come to him. He would go back, as soon as the semester was over, to visit Abudo’s family, to travel among people called Dasse whom he and his wife had known together, about whose rituals of life and death he had written two books and numerous articles, but mainly to see the place again where they had discovered and lost each other.
Wood weaves a wonderful tale here. Though the narrator’s travels in Africa are depicted marvelously, the narrator’s journey is more internal than external. He wanders through who his wife really was, who he and his wife were to each other, their competing views on life and how it is to be lived, and numerous other things. The narrator may travel the physical world extensively, but such distance is small compared to the internal distances he travels.
In the end, satisfactorily Wood presents more questions than answers. He presents more in the journey, as only this particular narrator can perform it, than in any particular factual accuracy or resolution. The result is beautiful and haunting. I highly recommend reading this book.