the names of things

There’s both a thin line and a world of difference between living an experience and talking about that experience — even talking in our own heads about it, what we call thinking. As the narrator in John Wood’s novel The Names of Things says: “Think about it. I can be here or I can think about being here. But I can’t be both – the one is a remove from the other.”

The Names of Things explores this theme in a place people have long gone to explore it, the desert. The narrator is an anthropologist who lives for a time among a tribe of camel-herders in Africa. His work is to observe and describe with words the life of a people in a place at a time. His wife is an artist. She works without words, standing for clockless stretches before a canvas, waiting on whatever will happen to happen, while her husband stands outside her studio window and watches (timepiece pun intended).

Eventually – perhaps even inevitably – observer becomes participant, and this is the grit and spirit of Wood’s book. During their time in Africa, the wife contracts an illness that takes her life upon their return to the States. In his grief after her death, the anthropologist goes back to Africa, this time not as scholar but as pilgrim. Where before he was a spectator at the tribe’s rituals, this time he is swept up in one, brought to tears, and transformed. Like Jesus after his baptism, the narrator then enters the wilderness alone and lives among the beasts.

This is a book more about mood than plot. There are extended descriptions of desert landscapes – rocks, dust, sky, streambeds, occasional oases – and the lives of desert people – the layout of their tents, the fires they build, the tea they drink, the tobacco they chew. The dialogue is minimal. The narrator and his wife are not given names. There is an intentional, finely crafted aridity to the writing that doesn’t tell us about the narrator’s life so much as creates in us the feel of it. We accompany him slowly to the edge of liminal space and then, with him, enter it, leaving behind the world where things are known by name, initiates in a world of full-on, full-in living.

John Wood teaches anthropology at UNC-Asheville. The Names of Things was one of nine books chosen by the Chatauqua Literary and Scientific Circle for its Summer 2014 selections. He and his wife Carol are friends of ours. 

Thank you John for this treasure of a book and all the living it represents.

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