Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's in a name?

So, what's in a name? Quite a lot actually. Choosing a title for a book is a tricky business. It should theoretically entice the prospective reader into opening the book while not giving away too much or too little of the context of the novel at hand. With "The Missionary and the Brute" I carefully considered various options before settling in on this one.

The other serious contender for title was initially "African Psycho", which seemed to accurately underscore the serial killer aspect of the tale while placing it in the appropriate locale. Ultimately I decided against this option because it seemed a bit sensational and misleading perhaps. Not that "The Missionary and the Brute" isn't sensational in its way too. It is. But that's not the point of it - it's subtext is more complicated and philosophical than that.

It also was too closely attuned to Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" for comfort. Not that this connection is not apropos. It is as well. I consider "American Psycho" to be one of the great American novels for a variety of reasons - and will compare and contrast similarities and differences between Ellis' novel and mine at some later point in this blog. It is definitely one of the conceptual godfathers of my work and I am unabashedly a fan.

But I wanted something more ambiguous and yet apt. I took as my guiding light a different authorial godfather - Frank Norris. Most folks frankly haven't given Norris his due in my opinion. His work is disarmingly complex, and yet accessible. He has a well-honed philosophical bent that plays directly to what I am attempting in this work.

"McTeague" is considered his masterwork, and for me I would tend to agree although I truly love all of his fiction with equal ardor. "The Octopus" and "The Pit" are my two favorites. And of course, "Vandover and the Brute" has informed my mindset and my work greatly. In "McTeague" (which was turned into the classic silent film, "Greed" by Eric von Stroheim), the titular character struggles with competing forces within himself. Perhaps it can be simplified to the civilized self and the animal self, but that is merely a structure.

That too, is the underlying premise behind my work. In my telling - we have characters who hear the still, small voice of their conscience and those who hear a much different bestial voice. Those voices can be summarized blithely as being those of a missionary and those of a brute. In Norris' "Vandover and the Brute", the brute is that part of Vandover which can not control its animal impulses - its sexuality, its self-preservation and raw instinct. In concept, it is a masterful philosophical MMA event that is not unlike Freudian battles betwixt ego, superego and id. The brute is the unrelenting id. The missionary is the superego.

Of course, it may also be a double entendre in my case. There may indeed be two separate characters - one a missionary and one a brute who engage a danse macabre - a pas de deux of sorts that plays out in front of our wondering eyes. Perhaps.

But before we get too close to solving crimes and revealing too much - let me close by saying that for me, the title "The Missionary and the Brute" is all of those things as well as a not so subtle homage to Norris himself. I tend to toss in sly (and not so sly) literary allusions along as I am writing - and am more than happy to lift up the work of an under appreciated giant of the literary world.

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