Notice by Name: Order and Disorder in Zulus

Percival Everett’s Zulus makes use of alphabetical methods of organization, especially labeling, extensively. One example would be that the chapters are abecedarian instead of chronological by number. A second example is in the use of names and its function in Zulus. Names function in society as a label because it identifies a person and allows people to pinpoint a specific individual. For example, if I wanted to get my friend’s attention in a crowd, all I need to do is yell out their name. Names hold importance because they are often the primary means of identifying someone; if I wanted to file a police report on someone, I would need their name to do that. This is also shown in Zulus: after returning to the city, Alice could only work after she obtained a new identity through the means of a new name. Names therefore allow society to maintain a sense of order because it’s a universal way of identifying people. It is then perhaps interesting that, despite their association with organization, we see names and labels repeatedly being changed and reflecting disorder in Zulus.

Alice, from the view of the baby in her stomach, reports seeing two things on the walls inside her stomach, both of which are an arrangement of letters. One of those arrangements is “MUTATO NOMINE” which refers to the changing of names. What happens when you change a name?

If names could be thought of as labels (as identifiers), then the changing of a name is essentially the changing of a label. Aside from Alice’s change in name, this is also shown at the beginning of the story with Alice’s job at the Division of Religious Adjustment. Alice’s job is to literally change labels; she changes the registered religious alignment of citizens in the city. Interestingly, she manages to convert one of the citizens into a “heifer” which she uses to label individuals who identify with a new religion she names “Dairyism.” According to Alice: “‘We heifers are dairyists and believe that God works in the cheese warehouses.'” In this way, at least initially, Alice creates a level of (perhaps momentary) disorder within society. Even though it might seem like Alice has maintained or increased order by creating another label (which allows another layer of organization), in reality she has created more disorder because she has allowed individuals to identify with an unknown concept. Dairyism wasn’t (at that time) identified and understood by the larger society as a whole; people going around identifying as heifers would then cause a level of confusion and disorder. This disorder is eventually lessened: Alice later sees a small group of people at the Division of Religious Adjustment holding signs supporting dairyism. This shows that society has gained awareness of Dairyism; however it’s important to keep in mind that we (the readers) are unsure as to what scale the knowledge of Dairyism was made public. 

We can also see traces of disorder when we apply the full phrase of “Mutato nomine” to the book. “Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur,” according to Merriam Webster, translates to “with the name changed, the story applies to you.” The phrase implies that, with the change of a name, a change of narrative is possible. A bit after we discussed this phrase in class, Dr. Beth asked us (not her exact words): “Who is stuck in this book when you’re done reading it?” When I heard this question, my brain for some reason completely bypassed the question and centered in on “when you’re done reading it” portion. I had realized: aside from Alice, the other shift of names in the book is us—the readers. This story can be opened by different readers, meaning different individuals with different names. This is important because although all of us in the class open and are shown the same text, we don’t all have the same Zulus narrative. Each one of us views a unique story because each of us note different things in Zulus. A good way of showing this is the the exercise the class participated in while reading Home where we (as a class) identified which line stood out to us; we all pretty much picked different lines. This is because we each notice different things about the story depending on who we are and our identity (our name); and then what we choose to pick up shapes our interpretation of the narrative. I can draw this back to our course epigraph: “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” I notice my interpretation of the book and notice that you can have a different interpretation of the story, yet I don’t know (or can’t know) what you’re noticing. We often think that having the same text, having the alphabet arranged in the same words, and having words arranged in the same order will provide for order and an equal view of the text. Yet each of our interpretations, our versions of the Zulus narratives, are different. None of it is the same across each individual, across each name. In that way, we have disorder. 

Although I can pinpoint this, I’m still unsure as to what bigger function the tension between order and disorder serves within Zulus. I’ll probably have to come back and do more reflection on this topic.

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