The Magazine

What's in a Name

Just about everything for the purposes of fiction.

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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Tom Bedlam

A Novel

by George Hagen

Random House, 464 pp., $25.95

In a telling scene from George Hagen's debut novel, The Laments (2004), Howard and Julia Lament argue over Howard's -Shakespeare-inspired decision to -christen the couple's newborn twins Julius and Marcus.

"Darling, they're fine names. It's not as though I named them Cain and Abel."

"No, but you picked names out of tragedies. Couldn't you have picked comedies?"

Howard looked incredulous. "Malvolio? Bertram? Bottom? Darling, the names in the tragedies have elegance, gumption, history! We want these lads to have a destiny, don't we?"

Unfortunately for the well-meaning Laments, the lives of their sons end as tragically as their literary forerunners. Perhaps it was the triumph-challenged surname. Or did circumstance, bad luck, and random malevolence simply rear its single, synergetic hydra head? After all, Julia Lament may believe a child's name "is his portal to the world," but we cannot name our daughters Chastity and then assume they will proudly walk high school hallways wearing an "Abstinence Rocks!" T-shirt and a "Savin' It" bracelet. Our Charitys are not necessarily charitable. Our Augusts may fumble iambic pentameter. And while playground mockery may be a certainty, even a Cornelius can receive a "D" in chemistry without any peripheral parental prodding and guidance.

Nevertheless, in fiction, names frequently do matter in much the way the Laments hoped/feared. Thus, when Hagen chooses to title his fast-paced, life-spanning sophomore novel Tom Bedlam after a character who attempts (unsuccessfully) to evade the implications of his name by becoming Tom Chapel, and, further, introduces us to an infant called the Orfling ("part orphan, part changeling") who refuses to age when his family forgets his name, it behooves readers to take note.

Steeped in Dickensian imagery, Tom Bedlam opens in Victorian London amongst the standard-issue tenement death traps and factories. Here young Bedlam stokes the fires at a porcelain factory a few feet away from his God-fearing mother, the mistreated and underappreciated figurine carver Emily Bedlam. The first time Tom meets his absentee, ne'er-do-well actor-father the man eats all the household porridge and pilfers his mother's meager savings--from between the pages of her Bible, no less.

Life, in other words, is, indeed, bedlam. Even Tom's pious mother, who refuses to embody the disquiet of her married name, develops a brain tumor that causes her to unwittingly abandon her turn-the-cheek blessings for less affectionate retorts.

"Ah, Mr. Todderman," she memorably greets her cruel boss one morning, "may the devil brand your backside with the face of your wife."

When Emily succumbs to her illness, Tom appears destined to inherit the same chaotic life, and not much else, until a hitherto unknown, and well-off, grandfather suddenly appears offering to pluck Tom out of the factory and drop him into a private school. On Tom's first day, a kindly professor advises: "The factory and the farm are similar my friend. The chicken that walks differently from its neighbors is pecked."

Proving the maxim in a none-too-subtle manner, Tom's only true friend at school--Arthur Pigeon, a bird-named boy who walks very differently--is shortly thereafter heinously murdered by the popular scion of a well-connected, affluent family. When it becomes clear that the school authorities have no intention of conducting a good faith investigation of Tom's foul-play claims, the young man reluctantly strikes a semi-Faustian bargain with the murderer's father: his silence in exchange for medical school tuition.

Once his schooling is over, Tom, believing the name Bedlam "probably wouldn't inspire confidence in a patient," changes his name to Chapel, runs off to Africa with the daughter of his mentor (against the man's wishes), sets up a medical practice, begins a family, and, for a time, experiences blissful peace.

Settling into the well-worn ruts of other period novelists, Hagen colors his narrative with celebrations of social struggles gone by, and so only the boy from the tenement rises above the privileged order and immoral vacuity of the aristocracy-in-training.

"In London my practice will be waiting for me: fat, old people ravaged by wealth, good living, infidelity, sloth, vanity and self-importance," a classmate observes with improbable pride. "And I shall soon resemble one of them."