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."
Meanwhile, Tom's once and future love, Audrey Limpkin, is forced to dress as a man to support her family--"disguised for the benefit of those who fear change," as she puts it in a letter to Tom. "Surely society will not come crashing down because a woman adds sums as well as a man," our superstar accountant-with-a-secret posits earnestly. Then there are the ho-hum condemnations of British militarism in the Boer War and World War I, clearly designed for modern resonance.
"It was in the newspapers every day; it was good versus evil and us versus them," Hagen narrates. "It was a seduction, a distraction, an entertainment and an addiction." The antiwar Chapel takes on the angry aura of an Alec Baldwin robbed by history of a -HuffingtonPost login, his tongue rife with pithy takedowns of warmongers: "If patriotism could be removed as easily as tonsils, I'd work night and day, believe me. . . . Thanks to our leaders, we are all savages again." And when confronting Arthur's murderer who has grown up to be Britain's minister of war--well, yes, of course he has--"How many more men will die while you maneuver your political career?"
The almost supernatural pull of the Bedlam name, however, is the always-present undercurrent in Tom Bedlam that becomes more pronounced as Tom's frantic effort to oppose the Bedlam influence in his progeny only seems to further empower it. Like the poetry professor who wonders how the beefcake teenage quarterback in front of him could possibly be his offspring, Chapel is bewildered as his children morph into Bedlams.
"One daughter takes to the Bible like her grandmother, another to the theater like her grandfather," Tom laments. "Please tell me what mistake I made in your upbringing."
There is no more shocking case for Tom, however, than his son Arthur. Tom names the boy to honor poor Arthur Pigeon and then immediately begins to fret that the designation might cause his son to be as socially awkward and vulnerable as his long-dead namesake. So when Tom finds Arthur playing with clothespin dolls, he burns them and forces the boy to play with toy soldiers. Young Arthur responds by adorning the soldiers with makeshift dresses.
Tom sends him to a prep school to toughen him up. Arthur becomes so tough he decides to go fight the war his father despises. Simultaneously, the daughter who pursued acting much to Tom's chagrin ends up in an absurdly popular "war protest revue." The contradictions are intertwined with unintended consequences until Tom looks at the massive whole and realizes that, perhaps, his decision to "live with a backward eye, intent on repairing his past" ensured the very bedlam/Bedlam he sought to escape.
Before her convenient death--necessary for the reunion with the reformed cross-dressing love of his youth--Tom's wife muses openly whether he shouldn't have married her sister: "She would have molded you into a pillar of society," Mrs. Chapel says.
"I didn't want to be molded."
"We are all molded, darling, whether we like it or not."
"My father never molded me."
"He certainly did. The minute you were born he set you on a course by giving you a name and walking out the door."
We can dismiss such a contention as mysticism or a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Then again, would you choose a doctor named Tom Bedlam as your primary care physician?
Shawn Macomber is currently at work on a book about global class warfare.