She hung the canvas on the wall of the studio. I’d seen her start paintings dozens of times, but for some reason – perhaps because of how things turned out – this one has stayed with me. The canvas was square, a little taller and wider than her reach. The surface was primed bluish white, thick enough to mask the texture. Despite its bulk the frame was empty, a window onto snow.
So opens the novel The Names of Things, by writer and anthropologist John Colman Wood.
The Names of Things explores fieldwork in the deepest sense of the word, the transformative effect of moving our lives to another place, often a strange place, for months or years at a time. What work does the field do on us?
The novel is also the story of a journey, a seeking of truth or at least revelation, and the inevitable gaps and betrayals and transcendence such journeys can bring.
Set in a windswept wilderness menaced by hyenas and lions, The Names of Things weaves together the stories of an anthropologist’s journey into the desert, his firsthand accounts of the nomads’ death rituals, and his struggle to find the names of things for which no words exist.
Wood examines friendship and marriage, two of our most basic human relations, and how they – like fieldwork – work through the encounter with the other, strange than familiar than strange again. While we might think much of that work happens through knowing – through having the names – Wood shows us how much skill and experience and emotion play into our understanding of this life.
John Colman Wood is a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina Asheville. As he writes there, “I snuck into anthropology late. When I finished college, I got a job as a newspaper reporter and spent the next ten years writing stories about crime, politics, public policy, science, poverty, the environment, and even a few circuses.”
John Colman Wood also has a new blog, Im/placed: “My writing – as all writing – plays the edge of fiction and nonfiction, truth and invention.”
To end, another glimpse of this remarkable novel.
The silence woke him. The sheep and goats were quiet. It was like they’d all died. He raised his head. Small stock were never quiet, not even in the middle of the night, not en masse. Everything was at rest. Even the air was still. He could hear Ali breathing deeply over by Elema’s tent.
He lay his head down and turned on his back and looked up at the black cloud forms against the stars. He remembered that the wind often slowed or stopped in the middle of the night before it started up again an hour or so before dawn. It was the same midday. He thought it had to do with being far, in the earth’s rotation, from the edge of light and dark.
Link to Ashland Creek Press’ site on The Names of Things