Cel (c_elisa) wrote,

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"Nameless" Commentary

As requested by adn_heming. [ETA: formatting fixed now, sorry.]

the original story

This is one of my most recced stories, and I think every rec it ever got contained some variant of "No, really, this OC is not a Mary Sue!" Which is nice, but always secretly amused me, because -- now it can be told! -- the idea for the narrator's mutant power arose from the purest and silliest kind of wish fulfillment fantasy.

It came, in fact, out of my attempt to answer a classic comic-fan question: what mutant power would you have, if you could choose? I don't remember exactly how it came up -- it may have been making the rounds as a meme. And, well, if you limit it to canonical powers, I'm a big fan of Douglas Ramsey's language abilities. I need to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English so much more often than I need to punch through a mountain with beams from my eyes. And unlike most of the showier powers, Doug's has no downside. There'd be little risk of killing someone if I lost control and said the wrong word, and it's highly unlikely I'd be chased around by pitchfork-bearing peasants for being able to speak perfect Meroïtic.

If I get to make up new powers, then something that grants knowledge would be nice. Instant Nexis and Library of Congress access from my brain, something like that. But that idea seemed too sweeping somehow, and (having wandered pretty far afield from the original question) I started thinking about interesting ways to limit it. Eventually I came up with this idea of being able to look at anything and instantly know its name -- knowing the species of any insect, for example. Which is so limited that it's not even especially useful -- maybe I could get work in a natural history museum somewhere -- but somehow I found the idea very satisfying.

That must have simmered in the back of my head for a few months, and then suddenly, as one of those random ideas that seem to come from nowhere, I started to wonder what it would be like for a child that had this power from birth. That made me think of Temple Grandin's memoir Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism, a fascinating book I highly recommend. There's a short essay by Grandin here; she talks about having a highly specific visual "language" that she translates into English with some difficulty, and also mentions learning nouns first. It occurred to me that this mutant child's development would seem very similar, even though, internally, it's almost the opposite -- all words instead of all pictures. Nominal clairvoyance could disrupt normal development of the other senses, because it's so much easier to perceive things through this special sense than to learn to interpret the other senses, which provide a confusingly small fraction of the information. (During the story I picture the narrator's eyes only intermittently focusing on what he's paying attention to.)

Feature creep comes to all superheroes: I thought of giving this child the ability to "see" all the names that have been associated with an object, and then I thought of having him talk to Charles, and then it was a story.

“Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and
nameless? But you are young and I am old.”
 —The Fellowship of the Ring

I suppose nobody in the history of the world ever liked a story because it had such a good epigram. I don't care -- I dote on them anyway. There's just something very satisfying about finding the right one. Often the epigram comes first and helps me focus the themes of a story, but this one was a late addition. Originally I was trying to figure out how to excerpt this:

DYNAMENE: ...You have the air of a natural-historian
As though you were accustomed to handling birds' eggs,
Or tadpoles, or putting labels on moths. You see?
The genius of dumb things, that they are nameless.
Have I found the seat of the weevil in human brains?
Our names. They make us broody; we sit and sit
To hatch them into reputation and dignity.
And then they set upon us and become despair,
Guilt and remorse. We go where they lead. We dance
Attendance on something wished on us by the wife
Of our mother's physician. But insects meet and part
And put the woods about them, fill the dusk
And freckle the light and go and come without
A name among them, without the wish of a name
And very pleasant too. Did I interrupt you?

TEGEUS: I forget. We'll have no names then.

DYNAMENE: I should like
You to have a name, I don't know why; a small one
To fill out the conversation.

Which is from Christopher Fry's play A Phoenix too Frequent. (If I ever need to write up a history of the Summers-Grey clan in comicverse, I'm so going to steal that title.)

“You like the cups?”

Not a riveting first sentence, but then this character is rather artless.

I looked around. Everybody was gone except me and Professor Xavier. The class had ended and I didn’t notice. I was sitting by the shelf where he kept his tea set and I started looking at it and I must have gotten distracted. That happens sometimes.

When I came to the school, when she was still alive, Dr. Grey said I wasn’t autistic. I had known that but no one had ever believed me. She said I was something new, and she made a name for it. Nominal clairvoyant. It means that I know all the names of things. I’m not a telepath—I can’t see what you’re thinking right now. But if you gave your bicycle a name when you were ten, I know it, even if you forgot. If your bicycle got lost and I found it, I could see your name on it, and I could see your parents’ names because they named you, and their parents’ names. I can keep going back and back until there are no names left, and sometimes it’s hard to remember to stop.

This voice is so easy to slip into. It's a child's voice, but it's very firm and definite -- it's the voice of someone who knows everything he says is absolutely true. I find myself nodding my head to emphasize each sentence as I read it. On a more technical level, the narrator is obviously good with nouns, so in revision I kept going back and making the nouns more precise and the verbs simpler. He uses the past perfect less than any other POV character I've ever written, and in retrospect I wonder if I shouldn't have avoided using it at all.

The narrator's gender is never specified in the story; I'm using the male pronoun here because it's easier, and because I'd pictured this character as male in the early stages before the thought of not specifying occurred to me. (I'm a big fan of gender-neutral pronouns in principle, but tend to trip over them in practice.) The idea was that while the narrator has read enough books to know that you're supposed to introduce characters and provide a backstory, he doesn't think to specify gender any more than you'd walk up to someone and announce yours. Gender would seem just as clear to him when reading someone's writing as it usually is to the rest of us when meeting someone in person.

The narrator would also have been oblivious to all gender-specific socialization cues as a child. Lack of a clear gender identity is one of several ways this character is like me viewed through a distorting lens.

Mutant powers are supposed to start at puberty. But I can remember the brand name of disinfectant that they used in the hospital where I was born. The first word I said that someone understood was “pacifier.” I was four months old. But I was eight years old before I spoke in sentences.

The narrator would certainly be unusual among autistic children, but when I looked at the diagnostic criteria it seemed likely to me that he could be placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Dr. Grey said that sometimes a mutation needs to do something to the body or the brain before birth, to get ready. Like Meggan Rowell’s fur. Like Terry Melton’s blue hair. Like The Incredible Nightcrawler’s tail, although I didn’t know him then. She said that my real power must be going to come later. But I’m not a teleporter, or a shape-changer, or a hydrokinetic, because I would see those names inside me. The power I’m going to have has to be something that no one has named yet.

I have a general idea of what this character's adult power might be, but I'm going to hold it back in case I want to use it later. I don't think I'll do another story from his viewpoint -- seems like pushing my luck -- but maybe I'll be able to work him into the background.

I consulted a list of Roma surnames to make up a maiden name for Meggan Braddock, since she didn't seem to have one in canon.

Dr. Grey said that I didn’t learn like other children because I knew the names of things before my eyes could even focus right, so I never really had to look at things. She said it would help if I learned how to draw, but I can’t, not even a stick figure. I can’t remember what her face looked like, now, either. The shampoo she used was made with lavender and honeysuckle and the names of them were in the air.

This character is emotionally affected by smell, like anyone, but has only a limited conscious awareness of the sense of smell. Everything presents itself to him in terms of language.

I was still looking at the paintings on the cups. They were of flowers and each cup was different, and the flowers’ names were written on them so that everyone would know.

What he likes most about the china is the botanical and common names included in the pattern. He's used to his perceptions being very different from other people's, and when things are labelled it creates a more even footing.

“What do you see?” Professor Xavier asked.

“Old names,” I said. “Thomas Green. William Clarke. Mrs. Rebecca Hey.”

“Those must be the authors of the herbals that the patterns were based on.”

The Universal Herbal and The Moral of Flowers.”

I got all this information off the Portmeirion Potteries website. Google's so convenient when you need to fake omniscience. It's a mutant power we can all have!

There was something else that I could barely see, among the other cups. I put my hand there, trying to feel it.

“What are you looking for?”

“There’s a flower with no cup,” I said. “Rhododendron lepidotum.”

"A flower with no cup" is a suspiciously poetic phrasing -- after all, the missing cup should be just as "visible" as the flower on it. My excuse is that the narrator is always struggling to translate his perceptions into English sentences so people can understand, and sometimes it comes out strangely.

“The rhododendron cup was broken, years ago. By Dr. Grey, when she was younger than you are now. I’ve thought of replacing it, but it wouldn’t be the same. This china was left to me by my mother.”

“Catharine Emma Xavier.”

“She owned them for only a few years before she died.”

Portmeirion's Botanic Garden pattern wasn't introduced until 1972, and Charles's mother was most likely dead before the school was founded.

“Her name is still on them.”

“I’ve always thought so.”

The narrator is stating a fact about how the world works, as simple and obvious to him as "the pen is on the table," and Charles responds in terms of emotion. In a way, they're talking past each other, as they'll do throughout the story. In another way -- it's hard to understand what it would be like to live in a world where names adhere to things like that, and if Charles thinks of it as being sort of like the way objects are haunted by memories, well, it's not a perfect analogy but at least it's a meaningful one for him. I think they do connect somehow even though they don't really understand each other, and that's something that's been missing in the narrator's life.

He didn’t say anything for a while. Then he moved his wheelchair forward and took two of the cups. “Do you like peppermint?”

It's so freeing to be able to just write "He didn't say anything for a while" instead of struggling to find an elegant way to indicate a pause. This narrator is artless enough to make it appropriate.

Mentha piperita.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

The narrator just finds it satisfying to name things out loud. The effect is something like the echolalia of some autistic children, but actually I think he's trying to equalize his perceptions with other people's -- like, if other people can know the things he knows, then maybe they'll be able to understand each other.

He went to the credenza and turned on a Cuisinart cordless electric teakettle that had been given to him by Ororo Munroe.

“You didn’t say a word in class today.”

“The others talked.”

“A little, at any rate. I think they’re happy to be reading The Once and Future King. They’re treating it as a vacation. Which it is, of course. I thought we could all use one.” He took Horizon 2% milk from a compact refrigerator I had never seen before, though I had seen its name behind the oak doors of the cabinet. Then he put it down on his desk. “You were fond of Dr. Grey, weren’t you?”

“I don’t understand how she could have died.”

“That’s hard for all of us to understand. I think what we have to remember is that Dr. Grey gave her life so that the rest of us in the plane could live.”

These are prepared phrases that Charles has used before; they encyst rather than express the pain.

That wasn’t what I meant. She was supposed to have another name but no one gave it to her yet. Nobody wants me to say it but it’s true. Kitty Pryde said that someone could give her a name even after she’s dead, but that’s not it because I would know. I can’t see what the name is until someone gives it to her, but I know she’s alive when she gets it and I also know she’s really dead.

I wince at the thought of this poor child wading into everyone's grief with this incomprehensible revelation.

“It’s not right. It doesn’t make sense.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

I love writing conversations in which people talk past each other. The prison scene in X2 makes it seem more plausible that Charles can simply misinterpret people. In this case I think the narrator's unusual brain also makes him difficult to read.

He waited for steam to come out of the teakettle. He put a bag of Celestial Seasonings peppermint tea into one cup and then he poured in water. Then he took out a canister of proper tea for his own cup.

“I understand I owe you an apology for the inadequacy of our acquisitions budget. Mr. Summers tells me you’ve read every book in the library two or three times now.”

Ever since X2 I've loved having Charles interact with children, which wouldn't have seemed interesting to me after the first movie. There's something almost courtly about the way he talks to the narrator here.

“Some only once,” I said. “Some are hard for me.”

“Which ones?”


“Oh, I see. I’m sorry. We’ll get back to our textbook soon, I promise you.”

I love Charles for apologizing. This child's needs are very different from any of his classmates', and with the best will in the world, there's no way that a small, understaffed school can meet them completely -- but he admits this and wishes he could do better, instead of taking the traditional path of getting defensive and blaming the child. At the same time, he might not find it quite so easy to admit the limitations of what he's created if he weren't so broken.

“T.H. White,” I said. “He’s not like the others. He tells you the right names of things.”

“How so?”

“When Arthur turns into an ant, he turns into Messor barbarus. Most writers would just say he turned into an ant. They wouldn’t say what kind, not even to themselves. That’s the problem with fiction.”

I had actually written this scene the other way around, with the narrator complaining that White didn't say what kind of ant it was, but when I went to check I discovered that in fact he did say. White really likes giving the names of things -- he even makes up scientific names for mythical animals. The connection really pleases me, even though I think the scene was a little better before.

“Well, I think sometimes a writer doesn’t have anything to say about any one species of ant, but only about ants in general. To specify would only be distracting.”

One of the things I love about Charles is that he's trying to have a real conversation here. He does try to teach a little bit -- for all the good it does -- but basically he's treating this child like a person with an interesting point of view, not an oracle or a problem to be solved.

“But Arthur can’t turn into ants in general. He has to turn into one particular kind of ant. There are ten thousand species that have names and it would take me a long time to think of all of them.”

“I see the problem. Imagine if it were a beetle.”

Charles, like me, knows the line attributed to J.B.S. Haldane about the Creator having an inordinate fondness for beetles.

I was thinking about names of beetles. Then I realized that he had handed me a cup. It had a picture of Veronica chamaedrys, Speedwell. I drank a sip. I could taste honey made by Apis mellifera ligustica out of nectar and pollen from orange blossoms.

“I had hoped you might have something to tell us about the end of The Sword and the Stone,” he said. “About how the boy has to change his name to King Arthur and never be called Wart again.”

“He didn’t change. He was still Wart, even if nobody called him that.”

One way to go with the narrator's mutation would be to have him insist that everything has one true name. I went the opposite direction -- names attach through use, and something can have many names all of which are equally valid.

He took the tea strainer out and held it dripping over his cup. “Yes, I suppose that’s true. Just as Henry the Fifth is still Hal... as Ben Kenobi is still Obi-Wan.”

The narrator probably groks Henry V at least as well as Star Wars, but Charles's attempt to Relate to the Younger Generation is well meant.

Now that I've read artaxastra's "Last of the Jedi," I'll always see the Obi-Wan reference as something Charles would have said to Jean when she was young. Charles's interaction with the narrator probably owes something to his scene with Rogue in "Smoking on the Bus," as well.

“Like Magneto is still Erik.”

“Ah. Yes. I suppose you know all about... that.”

The mention of Erik is like an unexpected blow to the stomach for Charles, and when I hear this line in my head, it's almost as if the wind has been knocked out of him.

“His name is on that tea strainer.”

He looked down at it and stroked the handle with his index finger. “Yes, it is.”

This is the tea strainer from "Half." The two stories don't take place in the same continuity -- they can't, since large swaths of History Teaches are contradicted by X2 -- but in my head, the silverware pterosaur definitely happened in this universe.

“It’s a lot of places in this house.”


“It was on your old wheelchair.”

In my head, this evokes part 4 of "WMD" as well as "Half."

“I had to leave that one behind.” The name of tears was in his eyes but I couldn’t see the water.

“He was your,” I said, and then I stopped. I have to remember that people don’t usually like me to call things their true names.

Xavier's school isn't the refuge for the narrator that it is for some of the other children. I'm sure it's better for him than some institution where they don't even understand his gifts, but it's inherently difficult for him to interact with other people, and only time will ameliorate that.

In my head -- and I know I'm using that phrase a lot in this commentary -- Charles's solicitude comes partly from his awareness that the school isn't an ideal situation for this child. In my personal fanon, young Erik was one of the child survivors brought to special schools in England by the Central British Fund, as described in Martin Gilbert's The Boys: Triumph over Adversity. It was an impressive and highly effective program that -- again, in my personal fanon -- helped inspire the Xavier Academy, but it just wasn't well suited for a queer mutant child living in fear that someone would find out how he survived the camps in the first place. Seeing a child lost and alone in his school claws at Charles's heart.

“It’s all right,” he said. “You’re allowed to talk about it.” He put the tea strainer down on a tray. “You know, when I was about your age, I used to be troubled sometimes by things that I would see in other people’s minds. Thoughts. Emotions. I didn’t know how to keep them out yet, but it helped me just to talk about them. To be able to name them out loud.”

“To Erik.”

To me this has always been the key to Charles and Erik's relationship: for a very long time -- decades, most likely -- each is the only one that the other can confide in. It would be less of a stretch for me to write a Charles and Erik who aren't sleeping together than a Charles and Erik who knew other mutants when they were young.

“Yes, he was the one that I could talk to then.” He poured milk out into his tea and stirred it. “What I meant to say is that... I don’t know how to make it stop, but if it disturbs you, it’s all right to say so.”

My heart breaks for Charles in this story. He's pretending to be all right, and when he thinks someone sees through him, he tries to apologize for not pretending better.

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“It’s difficult,” he said, “when you can see through deception. It can seem that the whole world is made of lies. But what we have to learn is that sometimes pretense is necessary. No one else here ever knew him as Erik. Jean was the only one.... It could only be hurtful for me to....”

He covered his mouth with his fingers. He closed his eyes, just for a second. Then he opened them again.

“Or maybe it’s just that I haven’t been able to find the words.”

Then I understood.

“It’s grief,” I said. “It’s betrayal.”

He's used to being asked to name things -- to identify wrapped Christmas presents, determine the owner of found objects, and so on -- and he enjoys it. For him it's the most meaningful and positive interaction with his schoolmates he can have. Of course, he completely misunderstands what's called for here.

“Yes, of course. But being used in an attempt at something worse than genocide, by....” He paused. “Well. Since euphemism would be pointless, by a lover. Words seem inadequate.”

“It’s situational depression,” I said. “You also know the name melancholy.”

When I write dialogue I can always hear just how people say things, and I always want to make sure every inflection comes through the way I imagined it, but that way lies driving your readers insane. The narrator enunciates the words "situational depression" very carefully, as if he's talking to someone who's a little bit slow.

The narrator's at his most alien in this exchange, but paradoxically I find this very easy to relate to. Who hasn't felt clumsy and out of step when talking to someone in pain?

“Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “I suppose I’ve been putting on airs, in a way. Like falling in love, and imagining it’s somehow different from what anyone has felt before, when it’s really a very old story. That sort of self-dramatization would sit better on a teenager than on an old man.”

I guess this is a meta-commentary on the romanticism of some of my earlier stories, especially "Half." Charles breaks my heart again here, though I say it as shouldn't.

“That’s not really one of your names,” I said. “‘Old man.’ It’s not something you are, it’s just a state you pass through.”

This is an attempt at consolation, which is a bit of a breakthrough for this character, but Charles is in no state to notice.

“Yes. On the way to something else.”

Charles has come to feel that he's lived too long -- that, perhaps, it would have been better if he'd died before Alkali Lake. I think he *has* to be this broken after what happened to him; it doesn't make sense any other way, no matter what the end of the movie implies.

I was looking at his face, like Dr. Grey taught me to do, and then I realized something. What he felt was grief, but it was not the same as Mr. Summers’ grief. They had the same name, but the name didn’t tell you everything about them.

Once there was a flock of pigeons overhead, and I looked up and saw that one was special, because it had names. It had been called Joseph’s Double Duchess by a man named James Kinnear, and a boy named David Conce had called it Josie. It was a racing pigeon. It was of a breed called Dordin. It would always have known where its home was. I think I would give what I have for that knowledge. But it had forgotten. Or maybe it changed its mind.

When I looked up racing pigeon websites, one pigeon's name had the phrase Double Dutch in it, which seemed suitably linguistic for this story. I amended it to Double Duchess in a random homage to Elvis Costello ("...till i speak Double Dutch to a real double duchess.")

On looking again I think that Dordin is more properly referred to as a strain than a breed. Annoyingly, I'll never get away with blaming this error on the narrator.

Sitting there in Xavier’s office, I realized that the pigeon wasn’t special. Or they all were. Only the one had its own name but they were all different. Saying Messor barbarus isn’t really any better than saying ant. Ants and pigeons and emotions should have proper names, like people, but they don’t.

I could try to give them all their own names. But there are so many.

I said to J that I thought this was a happy ending for the narrator because he progresses from a misunderstanding of the world to a more complex and nuanced misunderstanding. She pointed out that some philosophers would say that's all we ever do.

“Life is too short,” I said.

He paused with his cup halfway to his lips. The flower on it was Viola tricolor, wild violet, also known as heartsease, and he smiled.

That first sentence should have been something like "He paused with his cup in his hand." "Halfway to" is too complex a spatial relationship for someone who can't draw a stick figure. It's a better sentence this way, but still.

“I hope you may always continue to think so.”

It's not a happy ending for Charles at all, but I think there's a trace of hope in it -- even if the hope is more subtext than text, and contained mostly in the word heartsease. Everything looks very bleak now, but in spring the violets will come up again and time will make things easier. That's the best I've got for Charles at this point in his life.

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