Revisiting William Saroyan’s ‘My Name Is Aram’

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In a recent episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown, the late Anthony Bourdain travels with System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian to Armenia. Throughout the episode, Bourdain did what he does best. He sat at the dining table, engaged with locals, and indulged in a cornucopia of the country’s food, drink, and culture. In wake of the tragedy of his passing, many friends and fans have pointed to Bourdain’s curiosity and kindness in exploring the world, free of judgment, and his time in Armenia is no different. He is there to show his audience an unfamiliar country with a little-known history. What time remains in the hourlong tour he spends outlining Armenia’s history of geopolitical turmoil, primarily the genocide, the collapse of the USSR, and disputes with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

With limited time, Bourdain’s scattered Cliffs Notes on the genocide generally come to the same conclusion—that Armenians and the diaspora are still primarily characterized by the erasure of the country’s greatest catastrophe. Within the first minute of the episode, he opines, “Turkey, and relations with Turkey, and the Armenian people’s terrible history with that country being the central and defining issue of Armenian identity.”

Bourdain is not wrong, but this suggestion is one reason that My Name Is Aram, perhaps the best-known collection of short stories by the Armenian-American writer William Saroyan, is so refreshing. Originally published in 1940, Saroyan’s book of short fiction is full of humor and subtle insights on ethnic culture. The loosely connected stories follow the exploits of Aram Garoghlanian, a poor Armenian-American adolescent living in Fresno, California, among his extended family. Born in the United States, Saroyan avoids mention of the genocide in his stories altogether and instead focuses on issues of socioeconomic class, family influences, assimilation, and the dilution of ethnic culture.

For example, the collection’s opening story, “The Beautiful White Horse,” follows the moral dilemma Aram faces when his cousin borrows a horse for an extended period of time. Aram has always desired to ride a horse, but he also recognizes that his cousin (no matter the shades of gray) is stealing, an act that goes against their familial DNA all the way back to when their ancestors lived in the old country. Of the Garoghlanians, Aram narrates:
Most important of all, though, we were famous for our honesty. We had been famous for our honesty for something like eleven centuries, even when we had been the wealthiest family in what we liked to think was the world. We were proud first, honest next, and after that we believed in right and wrong.
Though his family now lives in poverty on the other side of the globe, Aram understands the value of these inherited traits. His moral lineage is tied to a more distant sense of ethnic identity. Thus he’s conflicted over following his personal desires—to ride the horse—or to adhere to the Garoghlanian reputation. His evolving adolescent understanding of what’s right and wrong—based on personal, familial, and cultural compasses—becomes a central theme.

However, Aram’s moral quandaries don’t stifle the stories. While Saroyan’s prose often emphasizes unadorned sentences similar to those of contemporaries like Ernest Hemingway, it has a much more lighthearted and comical quality. The bare-bones nature of the writing isn’t meant to exude austerity but instead reinforces the straightforward thoughts and plights of Aram and his family. The simple constructions—though Saroyan does occasionally interject complex, luminous sentences—are designed to project a sort of unembellished, working-class intellectualism. Saroyan’s style also allows jokes to build throughout each story, especially when the punch line is in regard to Aram’s class or ethnicity.

In “The Presbyterian Choir Singers,” an old woman convinces Aram and his cousin to help her move an organ and forces them into singing psalms, but she keeps messing up their names. During this flub, Aram mentions that the name his cousin offers the woman is already incorrect anyway. Of his cousin, Aram explains, “As a matter of fact Pandro’s name was Pantalo, which in Armenian means pants. When he had started to school his teacher hadn’t cared for, or hadn’t liked the sound of, the name, so she had written down on his card Pandro. As for his cousin’s name, it was Bedros, with the b soft, which in turn had been changed at school to Pedro. It was all quite all right of course, and no harm to anybody.”

For Aram, the name change is all part of the frivolous nature of formal education and being American. No harm is done because the change is necessary to fit in. Saroyan’s humor is most acute when navigating these moments of otherness. He makes the ethnic ambiguity of Armenian Americans a relatable experience much because he avoids outright didacticism. This collection strays away from the tragedies that befell Armenians and the diaspora rather than bearing down on them as focal points and in doing so filters cultural confusion through a different lens entirely.

Some moments take on a more contemporary resonance. When a store clerk asks Aram, his cousin, and a friend where they’re from, his friend defends them by dodging the true underlying inquiry. Aram relays the speech, “We’re all Californians, Joe said. I was born on G Street in Fresno. Mourad here was born on Walnut Avenue or someplace on the other side of the Southern Pacific tracks, I guess, and his cousin somewhere around in that neighborhood, too.”

Yet even in his defense, Joe again points to class. Aram and his family are from the wrong side of the tracks, where it’s suggested a poorer, more ethnically diverse population resides. It’s clear Aram understands his family’s poverty when he is a young boy, but by also linking these stories over Aram’s adolescent years, Saroyan creates an abstract coming of age as well. Aram not only learns more about his family and ethnic identity but also about the different people around him in Fresno and beyond.

The collection’s closing story, “A Word to Scoffers,” signals Aram’s departure into the wider world. While en route to New York, he talks with a religious man who assures Aram travel won’t change his point of view. “You won’t find any truth there. I been there six times in the last thirty years. You can go hopping around all over the world and never find anything because that ain’t the way you find out anything. All you got to do is change your attitude.”

It’s an optimistic ending, one that points to the permanent aspects of Aram’s identity. He can leave his family behind for larger adventures, but he can’t shed the cultural upbringing that defines him. In these short stories, Saroyan subverts many of the commercial expectations of Armenian-American literature by leaving the trauma of the genocide at the periphery. Yet My Name Is Aram, through the collection’s open-minded narrator, pushes for a more tolerant future. Likewise, the Garoghlanian family is eclectic enough to capture many recognizable moments of being Armenian-American and the complexities of ethnic enclaves that continue to exist today.

Iris Murdoch and the Limits of Language

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Artists are often mythologized for their neuroses—picture James Joyce scrambling to the printer with corrected pages of Ulysses or Orson Welles toiling over his unfinished feature length of Don Quixote. Following the release of his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye West continued tweaking the supposedly finished product for several weeks. Track titles and lyrics changed. New guests appeared throughout the album and some songs were divided into new tracks entirely. West tweeted that Pablo was a work of “living breathing changing creative expression,” giving critics ample room to ponder the plastic nature of art and the definition of completion. Pablo became more than a well-received addition to West’s eclectic discography—it also became an experiment on the revision process itself.

Modern technology has made it possible to hone published work on an ongoing basis. Whereas one cannot edit typos or misinformation from print in real-time, Internet content is rife with constant revision and deletion, both by artists (writers, videographers, graphic designers, etc.) and publishers. The public stream of information and opinion is in perpetual update, so that the final product is often never, in fact, final. While many editors are hesitant, if not flat out resistant, to altering published work, certain exceptions are granted as new information becomes available; the wiggle room for limitless amendment lends itself to the indefatigable 24-hour news cycle, because accuracy is subject to change.

When Iris Murdoch published her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, she seemed to recognize the inherent permanence of her creation. The book is padded with graceful examinations of the imperfections of the written word. Indeed, the book’s title, a direct reference to the restrictions of language, also hints at the author’s own feelings of being trapped, caught beneath the confines of the finished manuscript.

She not only gives credence to the idea that a finished product gains value simply in its own completeness, but also warns that—while flawed—language is the best tool we have for shaping universal understanding. No matter its complexity, language never serves as a perfect representation of sentience, but it does make the world navigable.

While Under the Net is considered a picaresque novel, following the exploits of down-and-out writer Jake Donohue as he tries to find housing and make a living in London, Murdoch deftly weaves complicated ideas about nominalism and the philosophy of universals throughout the text, making the value of language central to Jake’s dilemma. Jake’s adventures send him rubbing shoulders with mimes, translators, and fellow novelists, all of whom reveal different perspectives on art, communication, and mediums of representation.

Murdoch lays this groundwork on several levels, both through direct plot work and more abstract considerations. Most prominently is Jake’s self-prescribed falling out with a close friend, Hugo Belfounder, because Jake is afraid Hugo will hate how he is depicted in Jake’s fictional novel, The Silencer. Clever title aside, The Silencer is Jake’s attempt to recreate lengthy intellectual conversations he had with Hugo while they were both subjects in a medical experiment. Hugo believes language is intrinsically corrupt, and, after The Silencer’s publication, Jake avoids him due to resounding feelings of guilt.

As a fireworks manufacturer, Hugo’s occupation is also of symbolic importance. Jake opines, “There was something about fireworks which absolutely fascinated Hugo. I think what pleased him most about them was their impermanence. I remember his holding forth to me once about what an honest thing a firework was.” Like a casual conversation, a firework’s ephemeral nature results in its details fading into the darkness. It’s Murdoch’s sly demonstration that she is not only interested in language as an imperfect attempt to recreate thought, but also in the inherent lying and generalizing that comes along with being a writer.

It’s unsurprising then that Murdoch’s most direct theorizing takes place at the meta level within dialogue found in The Silencer. This layering grants Murdoch a certain level of distance from the prose itself, deflecting any fault in language to her fictional protagonist. In the passage given, Annandine, a thinly veiled version of Hugo, explains to Jake’s stand-in, Tamarus:
‘What I speak of is the real decision as we experience it; and here the movement towards truth. All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself, and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try, as it were, to crawl under the net.’
Tamarus, on the other hand, believes language is a necessary social currency for civilization. In this debate—dialogue in work of fiction found within a work of fiction—Murdoch is perhaps providing clues to her own insecurities and artistic compromises as a debut novelist. Time and time again, she appears to forewarn readers of the flaws she sees in her own work. Ironically, Under the Net would end up being one of her best-received novels.

Of course, one of the tragic realities Murdoch also appears to recognize is that this burden weighs heaviest on the author herself. When Jake finally confronts Hugo near the work’s end, expecting to be harangued for his betrayal, Hugo instead says, “I forgot, really, what we talked about then, but it was a terrible muddle, wasn’t it? Your thing was so clear. I learned an awful lot from it.”

Jake thus learns that Hugo’s memory of their conversations is as fleeting as his own. In this regard, it is primarily the author who knows what ultimately didn’t make the page, the musician who knows what tracks were cut from the album, or the director who knows which scenes didn’t make the final cut. The same could be said for visual artists, chefs, and anyone tasked with bringing a creative vision to fruition. That is to say the divergence of artistic vision and conception is often a deeply personal matter.

Murdoch’s fascination with language is particularly important in the ever-evolving landscape of communication today, for the themes in Under the Net dig at the core of contemporary attempts to defy archaic limitations on language. Paramount to this inquiry is the philosophical exploration of universals and generalizations. One could argue Murdoch attempted to assuage any potential negative criticism of Under the Net by denigrating the system necessary to the novel’s existence. Words simply don’t do justice to any memory, argument, or work of fiction concocted in the mind. Language is an inadequate but necessary solution for addressing our disparate versions of reality. Yet, if there is an unlimited set of resources available for this creation, along with malleable means of publication, then hypothetically artists could continue revising work for a lifetime in hopes of coming closer to perfection. But the long-term risks of consistent tinkering are aesthetic dilution, overwrought vision, and disparate focus. In other words, the project might become too extensive and ponderous to remain cohesive.

On some level, perpetual revision and authoritarian artistic control limit these stakes and extinguish the value and integrity of criticism. Consistent workshopping of a published project becomes a tiresome attempt to achieve universal subjective approval. Murdoch suggests that criticism is an inevitable part of any form of creation, and that accepting the limits of language is a reciprocal contract between the artist and audience.