Three-A-Week (3.2): Nino Cipri’s “The Shape of My Name”

Published March 2015 at Tor.com.

(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)

I finished “The Shape of My Name” and immediately rushed to the start to read it again. Like any good time travel story, there’s the promise here of plot significance that only reveals itself on a second or third read, and I wanted to savor those things, certainly. But mostly I ran headlong into a second reading because I couldn’t let go of the story. There’s an invitation to know more of these characters that is intoxicating. Important elements are given the barest treatment in the story, just gestured at, and it becomes impossible to read passively. I felt like I was taking part in the story as I was reading it, forging connections between timelines and characters that are just barely conjured by the narrator. There’s something of a puzzle in this story; there’s a sense that the fractured pieces of the relationship between Heron and his mother (Miriam, I think her name is) are all there, all waiting to be gathered together and stitched slowly back together.

There’s more important stuff to talk about, but I just want to take a quick moment to say how really wonderful it is to see time travel done well and done for a purpose. This is one of those story forms that often seems cheap to me, done for a neat intellectual exercise or as a way to easily handwave plot complications. But here, the plot ties together with surprising grace and the mechanic of the anachronopede serves character in a way that’s hugely important. It’s really great.

The story is told as a letter to Heron’s mother, an epistolary account of who he’s become. A letter of introduction. And this becomes so important, both for the narrator and for the audience, because we get to see and be part of the process of Heron’s self-realization. The story has small phrases here and there crossed out, which makes this a letter still becoming, something not yet fully realized, and the audience gets to see that. This sense that Heron is in the middle of something, is becoming who he truly wants to be, is figuring out if he can forgive his mother, is figuring out where and when he belongs–all of these things in potentia leave traces of themselves in the crossed out phrases, the edited memories and language. Much like Heron’s leaps through time, the narration itself is the product of disparate times and moments and even selves.

There’s this super interesting moment in the story where Heron sees himself from the future. It’s brief, only a glimpse of a not-quite-recognizable person talking to his mother before he’s swept away upstairs. Because the story is so well done, and because it’s so clear that the reader is in good hands, I knew implicitly that this was an important moment. And later on when I realized who that person was, it was something neat to think back to, but it was also sort of troubling. The story is told in the past tense, and as I mentioned above, we get the sense that it’s still very much an alive, growing, developing thing. I read through this moment of past to-be Heron meeting present Heron and it struck me as either a missed opportunity or something really tragic. As a really impactful moment, it seems to go by quickly and without any real comment. Even the description that Heron gives of his later self (“I only caught a glimpse of the man standing in the corner; he had thin, hunched shoulders and dark hair, wet and plastered to his skull. He was wearing one of Dad’s old robes, with the initials monogrammed on the pocket. It was much too big for him.”) is so sparse as to be kind of unremarkable. In the structuring of the story, this seemed to be a plot point buried early to pay off later. But it’s not really a plot element; it’s a character element and I wasn’t sure if the small space given really set it up to pay off as much as it might have.

However, the other reading I can see is that Heron (who is not Heron as this point but has not yet found his name and is still being identified [at least by his mother] as female) can’t yet recognize the person he is going to become, and all he can see is a man looking a little off-kilter and wearing a robe he doesn’t quite fit into, which is maybe telling all on its own. It’s really sad to compare Heron’s experiences from either end of this moment; he’s unable to really recognize or see himself both as a child and as an adult, and those missed connections are both orbiting around his mother, who doesn’t truly see or recognize the man she meets or the child she carries upstairs. It’s a powerful moment the second time around, and thinking about it like this actually really makes me appreciate and understand the brevity and sparsity of the first iteration. Yeah, I think I see it now.

These things make me think of this brilliant and sad quote from the story: “You loved Dad, but your love kept you hostage. You loved me, but you knew that someday, I’d transform myself into someone you didn’t recognize.” It’s beautifully written, but it ends up being only partially true. Heron certainly transforms into someone unrecognizable to his mother, but the sad truth of the story is that he was never recognizable to her, not really. She fought so hard to see him as the daughter she wanted him to be that she never really saw the son he was. It’s heartbreaking.

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