In popular conceptions of dystopia, names are often among the first things to disappear. The totalitarian futures of Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” envision a citizenry known by numbers, like prisoners. Names vanish along with sight in José Saramago’s “Blindness.” They evidently have no function in the blasted post-apocalypse of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” These are extreme cases, perhaps—barring Armageddons, you might expect people to know what they are called. But, in recent years, a curious number of novelists have declined to avail themselves of that basic prerogative: naming their creations. The first few months of 2015 alone have brought us the following books with nameless protagonists: Tom McCarthy’s “Satin Island,” Ben Metcalf’s “Against the Country,” Greg Baxter’s “Munich Airport,” Daniel Galera’s “Blood-Drenched Beard,” Deepti Kapoor’s “A Bad Character,” Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout,” Alejandro Zambra’s “My Documents.” Surely others have escaped my notice. It’s an epidemic of namelessness. The phenomenon isn’t new, of course, though for a long time it was predominantly a feature of allegories: John Bunyan’s Christian, for instance, or the anonymous playwright’s Everyman (invoked by Philip Roth in his eponymous 2006 novel, which also has an unnamed protagonist). Similar efforts at Everyman universality are found in fairy tales, whose characters are often kept nameless or given purely descriptive labels (Sleeping Beauty, say, or the Little Mermaid), “thus facilitating projections and identifications,” as Bruno Bettelheim put it. When modern writers wish to set their tales outside of time, they often employ this technique. The characters in Franz Kafka’s subversive fables “In the Penal Colony” and “A Hunger Artist” are named for their roles or vocations; Philippe Claudel’s more recent “The Investigation” (2012) centers, naturally, on the Investigator. Realist novels occasionally do this to evoke a sense of folklore, giving us the Whiskey Priest of Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory” and the Consul of Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano.” Sometimes, the unnamed figure is a pure narrator, so to speak: a character with no part in the book except as an intermediary between tale and reader. We don’t have anything to call the person who tells us Marlow’s story in “Heart of Darkness,” because we have no reason to refer to him. He is simply the Storyteller. But a more frequent unnamed figure in fiction today is a relative of the strange, spectral speakers in such books as Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” or Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover.” Autobiographical fictions in which the narrator may be the author or may be someone slightly different have attracted much attention lately. They include Teju Cole’s “Every Day Is for the Thief,” Ben Lerner’s “10:04,” and Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation,” and many books by the newly minted Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano. These narrators appear to be doubles of their authors but are not specifically identified as such, and the anonymity keeps the books in a state of quantum superposition between memoir and fiction. As long as the question is left open, both avenues of interpretation remain passable. Many of these books, with their restless discontent with plot and character formation, are heirs to the work of W. G. Sebald, in whose novels an unnamed, unmoored solitary observer meditates on the histories of people he encounters or learns about in his wanderings. The stories are invariably about that wandering—about statelessness as a state of being—and, because the narrator has no proper home, he can also have no proper name. Namelessness has become an increasingly familiar trait in the fiction of exile, in which immigrants acquire new titles to suit new lives—the African main character of Dinaw Mengestu’s “All Our Names” (2014) takes an assumed identity when he comes to America, and we never learn his birth name—or simply lose their names in transit, like misplaced luggage. The American lawyer suffering from fear and loathing in Dubai in Joseph O’Neill’s “The Dog” (2014) calls himself X. The detached, disillusioned expat narrators of Greg Baxter’s “The Apartment” (2013) and “Munich Airport” seem to go by nothing at all. The nature of these characters’ universality has changed, Everyman becoming a collective No One. Behind this effacement, there seems to lurk a deepening distrust in writing itself, a crisis of faith in the ability of words to either capture the essence of a life or else speak truthfully to its essenceless condition. Consider the Bible, one of the earliest textual cases to deal with the conundrum of naming. In much of it, God is identified by what theologians call the tetragrammaton, four letters that cannot be spoken—because the word lacks vowels, no one really knows how it should be pronounced—and must be substituted with generic placeholders. If God had a commonplace proper name, He would merely be distinguished from other deities. Being the one true God, His name is sacred and unutterable. Compare that with a work of prophecy from 1953, Samuel Beckett’s “The Unnamable.” Here, a dyspeptic monologist in an unspecified space with no ability to describe himself speaks unendingly (the book stops on the famous line “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”) to an absent audience. He can have no name because he has no being; the only real thing about him is this lack of being, which he expresses through a “dust of words, with no ground for their settling, no sky for their dispersing.” In the Bible, unnamability is evidence of holiness; for Beckett, it is the cornerstone of the absurd. Like Beckett’s voice from the void, many of today’s unnamed characters are trying to convince themselves, perhaps futilely, of the realness of their existence. “Vui lòng đăng nhập hoặc đăng ký để xem link,” Ben Metcalf has said of his verbose narrator in “Against the Country.” Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder” (2007), about an unnamed man who wakes from a coma and tries to reënter the ordinary world, suggests that consciousness and memory are illusions, byproducts of errant mental hardware. (Daniel Galera’s “Blood-Drenched Beard” again links namelessness and neuroscience; his protagonist suffers from prosopagnosia, an inability to recognize faces.) In Colson Whitehead’s “Apex Hides the Hurt” (2006), a nameless “nomenclature consultant” sees his insubstantiality reflected in the labels he devises for products: “What he had given all those things had been the right name, but never the true name.” Few writers reject the usual elements of the novel with the same abstemious rigor as Beckett, and so the lack of names in many of these books meshes awkwardly with their otherwise realistic depictions of the world. Some mine whimsical humor from the weirdness of that juxtaposition—see Paul Auster’s meta-novels or Adam Thirlwell’s “Lurid & Cute,” due out in April—but the technique can easily become as conspicuous as a bald spot. Among the most memorable unnamed characters in literature are Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the key to these creations is their balance of the metaphoric and the actual. For namelessness, as these books illustrate, is a social as well as a metaphysical disease, one that tends to afflict women, minorities, the poor, the outcast—those treated as background extras in the primary story lines of history. With this in mind, one can spot a contradictory trend that runs parallel to the recent spate of namelessness: novels whose mission is to belatedly grant identities to past figures who have been unjustly unknown. Thus we now have novels about the servants in “Pride and Prejudice,” the murdered Arab man in Camus’s “The Stranger,” the models for iconic paintings, and so on. But these are historical projects. In contemporary fiction with nameless narrators, the real-world, present-day phenomenon of namelessness is not usually confronted. Those who do much of the cleaning and cooking and building and dismantling in this country, people who are so often, in a broader sense, anonymous, play little part in these novels. They do not even enjoy the distinction of being left unnamed. Vui lòng đăng nhập hoặc đăng ký để xem link Đây là một bài khá hay, mình cóp lên đây để lâu lâu ghé vào đọc. Vào New Yorker thì giới hạn lượt xem chặn bằng paywall phải nạp tiền vào mới được xem tiếp.