Where There’s a Will: Escaping (or Embracing) the Facts of Your Birth

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I’d been away from home for a week, working. Over breakfast, and out of idle curiosity, I asked my five-year-old son to tell me what he thinks I do for a living. ‘You make books,’ he said, playing with his porridge.

‘Well…’ I began, and stopped myself. His answer was understandable, I supposed, since he knows about the stories I’d published and about the book I’m trying to write. Understandable but awry.

‘Well…’ I started again, before stopping a second time. I sat and sipped my tea. Whether my son knew it or not, he was actually right. In its own way, my employer is the biggest publisher in the land, pumping out two million titles a year. I just hadn’t thought of it that way before.

‘Spot on,’ I said to my son. ‘Your dad makes books.’

What’s the simplest story you can think of? No, not Hemingway’s six-word classic, ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’, which probably isn’t even Hemingway’s. I’m picturing the modest passport, and the spare biographical details those slim volumes contain.

Name, sex, date and place of birth – now therein lies a tale. Think of Homer’s heroes, for instance, and the thrills and spills their lineage bequeaths them, as they try to live up to their names, and to being both Greek and male. (Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, has it really bad.)

Think of almost any pre-modern story, in fact, and note how its characters strive to meet the expectations laid upon them at inception. Expectations encoded in the facts of their birth.

Identity – it’s part of our inheritance as humans. An inheritance that, in recent times, we’ve come to resent and reject. Today, we change our name and gender at will; today, we fudge our age and our origins on a whim. Which is why the modernist (literary) text – yikes! – is invariably about escaping our ancestry by trying to ‘make a name’ for ourselves, however ugly or empty the new one might turn out to be. For, as Eliot puts it in ‘The Wasteland’,

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images . . .

All this (and more) brings me to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, which I happened to read during my recent time away. Its hero, Tom, yearns to be a ‘living, breathing, courageous individual’, not a ‘cringing little nobody from Boston’. He hates the reality of his impoverished existence, and he’ll do almost anything to escape it – he’ll even alter his identity by becoming Dickie Greenleaf, the son of a rich industrialist.

Sadly, I know how he feels. There have been a few people in my life who, I’m ashamed to admit, have known me only by the wrong name. (I mumble, you see.) I’ve never corrected them – then or since – because I prefer to be seen as someone other than myself. Call me a coward or just call me Will, as one of them used to do.

It’s kind of ironic, then, that I now work for the Passport Office, helping to make those shrewd little books that authenticate identity. Like Tom Ripley, I’ve tried hard to escape the facts of my birth, and yet they’re still with me, a kind of passport, perhaps, to another life – possibly even my own.

Just don’t tell my son about my real job or he won’t want to grow up to be like me. Then again, maybe he Will.

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