The other day when discussing Suzan-Lori Parks’ Imperceptible Mutabilities, Dr. McCoy gave us a Latin phrase to help us understand the name change that occurs in the characters. This phrase is mutato nomine de te fabula narratur which means with the name changed, the story applies to everyone. I have been noticing things in Big Machine regarding the character’s names and once receiving this phrase I decided it was finally time to unpack the significance behind all these names.
When Ricky asks Peach Tree for his name, he says “call me Peach Tree.” Ricky replies “I mean your real name” to which Peach Tree challenges with “why? Are you going to file a police report?” On first reading this, I thought it was just another funny line among others in this book. In a similar way, Sunny prefers to go by the name Sunny and the scholars honor her request. We find out later from the Dean that their “real” names are Percy and Beatrice. My interpretation of this situation is that Peach Tree and Sunny used nicknames as a form of protection upon entering a new social situation. Both have histories like Ricky’s, and they know how vulnerable your name makes you. This vulnerability is seen when the Dean calls upon them by their names to stand up, stripping the power that they had to name themselves. There is also a power in ambiguity and being unknown to others. We see this in how the Dean (who is depicted as the head of the Washburn estate) gets to go by his title: “Dean.” This allows him to keep his personal name to himself and distance himself from the scholars.
The next time naming stood out to me was with Adele Henry. The other scholars were curious about her, so they searched her almost empty office. In her desk, they found an envelope with her name on it. Despite knowing her real name, they decide to start calling her “The Gray Lady” because of her entirely white hair. They talk about her hair “as if this summarized the trouble with Adele Henry.” Two things interest me about this. One, they decide to give her a name that she does not consent to (like the Dean calling Peach Tree and Sunny by their birth names). And two, they name her based on her white hair which we now know does summarize the trouble with Adele Henry. Additionally, in small group discussion, we decided that “The Gray Lady” was a reference to the New York Times which is relevant to the scholars searching through the papers each day.
Another place where (mis)naming seems important is in the interactions between Ricky and Claude. We find out that Claude is an ex-cop which is significant to Ricky, a black man with a history. Claude first calls him Adele because he “thought maybe it was foreign… French or African.” It is made clear that he makes this mistake intentionally. He then refers to him as Larry because he was told “the plus one was a ‘Larry.’” By referring to him as a Larry, Claude isn’t just mistaken in his name, he is labeling him as a type of person. He continues to call him Larry after being corrected which is a general form of disrespect and like with the Dean, an attempt to claim superiority. This applies to the Latin phrase in that Claude is assigning a story to Ricky by calling him Larry and assuming what type of a person he is. When his name changes from Ricky to Larry, the story applies to everyone.
Finally, Solomon Clay’s given name is revealed to be Maurice Storch. I know that in the Bible Solomon is a wealthy king, but I don’t know much beyond that. Based on the importance of the other names in the book so far, I am sure the name Solomon was chosen for a reason. What do you all think? Additionally, when are “real” names important? Only in a police report like Peach Tree says?