I was only about halfway through the book when I had time to view the film, so I broke my cardinal rule of not watching the movie before reading the book. As I almost always like musicals, I was surprised that I didn’t immediately like Absolute Beginners. That doesn’t mean I never will, because often, I’ll return to a movie I didn’t like simply to discover what it was I didn’t like about it. However, I could tell right away why I didn’t like it—the movie didn’t fit the images I had created in my head. The colors felt too flashy. The characters a little too farcical. However, it was in watching it that I made an interesting discovery. As I was watching, I thought, “I truly don’t remember his name being Colin. How did I miss that?” As I had left my book at home, I read the Wiki for the movie and learned that because the narrator is never given a name in the book, the character was named after author Colin MacInnes.
As I’m sure many of you have figured out this semester, I have a thing for names, and as such, I’ve been thinking about this name issue for a week (as well as listening to a loop of David Bowie singing the words “Absolute Beginners,” as that’s all I can remember of the song, running through my mind). In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare asked us to consider “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (Shakespeare II, ii). But names are so much more than what we answer to. Names are the first form of identity we receive from our parents and the beginning of our own personal histories. Names often reflect our family heritage, our roots, our starting point. Names are the starting point of the identities we form for ourselves by either rejecting or embracing them.
In not having a name, that first form of identity, the narrator has the ability to be anyone he wants to be. He has the ability to code switch with the variety of people he comes across. I feel this is why I didn’t notice he had no name. We don’t know much about the identity of the narrator, but through his narration, we learn much of what he is not, who he does not identify as. We are focused on figuring out who he is not rather than who he is. By the end of the novel, even the narrator is not sure who he is while traveling hoping he can pass for “cousin Frank or someone” or simply as a name unticked on a checklist (284). Through all he has seen, he still hasn’t figured out who he is. That is, after all, the aim of being a teenager, isn’t it? Determining who we are by eliminating who we are not? Teenagers are merely at the start of the journey of self-discovery—the absolute beginning. Which is interesting that the narrator is not, in fact, a young teenager. He is nearing the end of his teenage years. He has learned much about people in his dealings with the many social groups he encounters.
Thursday night, we ended the conversation by discussing how the narrator, his father, his father’s history, and London all fit together, and how those factors led to the narrator never actually leaving London. After much consideration of this discussion, I remembered the first encounter with the narrator’s father. In this encounter, Verne, the stepbrother, tells the narrator that his father “stays because he’s afraid to go, and she keeps him because she wants the place to look respectable” (MacInnes 46). In looking at this line in light of the ending, we can see that the narrator, like his father before him, is afraid to leave London. He roams around the airport seemingly determined to leave, but at the last second, stays. We can continue seeing London as a character—and in the maternal role—and in that, we can see that London keeps the narrator—a young, middle-class, white male—because she needs him to keep the sense of respectability. The narrator must stay in London in order to keep Britain white. London in the role of parent, can be compared to the narrator’s mother with her “mounds of highly desirable flesh [. . . and] real brains” (37) and only using those brains to “make herself more appealing, like pepper and salt and garlic on an overdone pork chop” (37). London, much like the narrator’s mother, works hard to cover the flaws rather than fix the underlying issues.
I know this post feels a bit disjointed, but I’m going to try to pull it together here. In conjunction with the importance of naming and the role of parent, the only name the narrator is given is “Blitz Baby” (37). As I said previously, names are the first identity we each receive. Names are not something we choose for ourselves. Yes, we can choose to legally change them, but not until we’ve spent a good portion of our lifetime with those names. Name are given to us by our parents. As the narrator sees London in the role of parent, we must now ask who gave him the only moniker we read? The narrator’s mother calls him this name in reference of his entrance into the world during a blitz; however, does it come from London’s position in the war? Does London saddle the narrator with the moniker? By his mother giving him this name, we can see that it’s in a mocking tone. If we can see the name as coming from the city itself, we can read the name as a badge of survival. We can see his roots began deep and early within the underground of London. The narrator gains his identity from the position of his birth within London. The narrator’s name, Blitz Baby, defines his heritage, his point of origin, and quite possibly his ending point due to his reluctance to leave his home. He may not like the name, but he has embraced the home which gave it to him and his place within it.
MacInnes, Colin. Absolute Beginners. Allison and Busby Ltd., 1959.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Wernstine, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2010.