A Perfect Title: The Jump-Off Place into Wonder

When searching for the perfect title for her work, Barbara Kingsolver explains this defining process, or possible dilemma, in the back of her latest novel The Lacuna: “A good title holds magic, some cognitive dissonance, a little grit between the teeth, but above all, it is the jump-off place into wonder.” Authors, like Kingsolver, map the quest for the perfect title in order to urge and inspire the reader, while offering just enough insight as to the work’s content and details. As Kingsolver puts it, “Titling a book is not like putting a coat of paint on a finished house. It’s like finding a skeleton key in the grass, then devising locks, building them into doors. The key allows entry into every part of the house.” Although sometimes a long and grueling journey to the perfect name allotted for the work, authors select the title that best exemplifies and showcases their stories, their tales, their experiences, their own discoveries, trials and lessons that will have the most effective, desiring, moving impact on their audiences, whomever they may be. This effective, desiring, moving impact is relevant in all of the works presented over the course of this semester, the works earning the name of the “jump-off place into wonder.”

The first work that exemplifies the effectiveness of the perfect title is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. The progression of the book follows the most significant, life-changing events in the life of the character Alexander Portnoy and his struggle of growing up Jewish while trying to assimilate into American culture, as he recalls his personal versions of them to his therapist. As most of these recollections negatively impacted Portnoy, the chapters, indicating specific detailing of these vivid events, are composed in the form of one long, vibrant, fuming rant. With each chapter and experience building in both anger and discovery as the book moves forward, Portnoy’s rant also becomes more severe and takes the form of a complaint, until he explodes in the final chapter of the book:

“Crawl through life then, if I have a life left! My head went spinning, the vilest of juices rose in my throat. Ow, my heart! And in Israel! Where other Jews find refuge, sanctuary and peace, Portnoy now perishes! Where other Jews flourish, I now expire! And all I wanted was to give a little pleasure—and make a little for myself. Why, why can I not have some pleasure without retribution following behind like a caboose! Pig! Who, me? I am whimpering on the floor with MY MEMORIES! My endless childhood! Which I won’t relinquish—or which won’t relinquish me! Which is it!” (pg. 271).

When Portnoy finally reaches his breaking point and strives for resolution, the book concludes with the following punch line:

“So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” (pg.274).

In order to highlight the understanding and humor of this punch line and in order to leave the reader thinking and reflecting on the work in its entirety well after reading the last pages of the book, strategizing the function of an effective title is crucial and beneficial. Portnoy’s Complaint is effective because it leaves the reader questioning, without having to know what the book entails: Who is Portnoy? Why is he complaining? About what is he complaining? And most importantly, does he have reason to complain? Is his complaint justified? Can the reader sympathize with Portnoy? Roth furthers the title’s perfection by captivating and holding the browser’s attention by including an off-the-wall definition of Portnoy’s Complaint in the first pages of the book:

“A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature…”

Ultimately, leaving the reader pondering: Portnoy’s Complaint? Never heard of it. Could I possibly have it? Sounds interesting enough.

Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer, in the film “Annie Hall,” is much like Alexander Portnoy. The course of the movie portrays Alvy Singer’s trials in life as a Jewish man submerged in a world of Gentiles in New York City. Similar to Portnoy, Alvy is sarcastic and bares his soul, confessing everything, as if to his analyst (the audience):

Annie Hall: Oh, so you see an analyst?
Alvy Singer: Yeah, just for fifteen years.
Annie Hall: Fifteen years?
Alvy Singer: Yeah, I’m gonna give him one more year, then I’m goin’ to Lourdes.

Enters Annie Hall, the character for which the movie is named. Annie Hall is the exact opposite of everything Alvy Singer stands for, is and could ever be, or ever wants to become. He falls in love with her anyway, all the while trying to morph her into his idea of perfection, while using her as the basis to self-discovery in order to get to the bottom of what he thinks is wrong with himself, why he can’t accept who he is, and why he drove away the woman whom he loves from their relationship. A 2004 article from the University of California Press, Closely Watched Films: an Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique, weighs in on the impact Annie Hall’s character has on Alvy’s road to self-examination, magnifying his inability to maintain a relationship with her and his inability to accept her, leading to his eventual downfall:

“Annie Hall can be viewed as the equivalent of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which also features a Jewish man with relationship problems who tells all in a series of flashbacks to his analyst. Allen calls into question the authenticity or adequacy of Alvy’s confession, not only by having Alvy’s self-analysis end inconclusively, but also by foregrounding the fictional, reconstructed quality of Alvy’s memories of his past.”

Because of the effect Annie Hall has on the main character in the movie, “Annie Hall” serves as an efficient title for the film. Not only does Alvy’s journey to finding the basis of his self-discovery revolve around Annie Hall’s character, Annie Hall is a character of novelty, interest and appeal in her own right. A woman’s name as the title of the movie sends the audience wondering: Who is Annie Hall? What has she done? Why is she so important, and to whom? Does she deserve to be important?

Stella Suberman’s family memoir The Jew Store shares the same effectiveness. Although set in more recent times, Suberman recalls her journey of traveling back to the town where she was raised as a Jewish girl in a predominately inferior atmosphere. Her story is a tale of Jewish assimilation into American culture, and Suberman illustrates gritty and raw, but relatable, real-life experiences, happenings and situations of her family and the spiraling controversies surrounding them, created by the superiors of the town. The Bronson family’s only chance for perseverance and the only chance of earning respect from the dominant group was to seek identification somehow with that group. In her father’s mind, this meant rising to the occasion, bringing something to the table and partaking in something beneficial for the entire town, in this case, opening Bronson’s Low-Priced Goods—The Jew Store. Suberman crafted this controversy both heart-wrenchingly and nostalgically, practically creating the Jew Store as a character in its own right, leaving it, and the people involved, lingering in the reader’s mind. ForeWord Magazine alludes to this idea:

“The Jew Store exposes ideals that tear families apart…and inevitably hold them together. It takes a close look at the political, economic, and societal thinking of the early twentieth century. Best, it is a rare golden-key opening to the determinations of survival and how one’s most serious determinations can ruin lives. It is a vivid representation of Jewish life in the South. It is wonderful.”

With the Jew Store’s “character” holding as much meaning as it does, not only in the memoir, but in past society where Jews were regarded as “Others,” and even in present society today, the title is chosen and applied to revere and explore the significant meaning behind its namesake. And the title stands out for a number one reason—when a reader picks up the book, one only imagines the relevance behind such a racy and controversial name like The Jew Store. Shedding bold light on a controversial topic still tip-toed around today, one can only assume the story is just as, if not more, racy and controversial, and definitely one worth telling. Especially, one worth reading.

The Family Markowitz by Allegra Goodman shares the same theme of Jewish assimilation into American culture, surfacing the same intricately woven controversies that bubble within another Jewish family—the Family Markowitz. And like any family, Jewish or non-Jewish, the Markowitz family is messy, gritty, controversial, intense, explosive and raw. They hold nothing back from one another. Feelings are hurt, promises are broken, fights outburst, tempers flare:

“Hmm,” Rose says, “and who is performing the ceremony?”
“The Junior Chaplain at the College.”
“You’re having a priest?” Rose asks. “But no one told me about this—”
“Ma, we discussed this in Washington!” Ed exclaims. “I told you ten times about this wedding.”
“Ed, I want to go home,” Rose says. “Call me a cab. I want to go back to Heathrow.”
Sarah gulps down her wine the wrong way and starts to choke. Susan thumps her on her back.
“No, we’re not doing that now,” Ed says. “You’re not going, and that’s just it. I’ve had enough, Ma.”
Rose begins to cry. “What would your dear father say to this?” she asks. “Did I bring you up to give you away to a priest?
Just tell me, Henry, what change has occurred in you to bring you to this?” (pgs. 86-87).

Like any family, Jewish or non-Jewish, the Markowitz family is also caring, loving, warm, gentle, humorous, deep seeded, and emotional. They sacrifice for each other. They take interest in each other’s lives. They do things they don’t want to do in order to make one another happy:

“Henry has seen and heard but never lived the place as he does now. He forgets everything else and does not realize that his mother has actually arrived and is standing at the back of the chapel, putting the cab change into her wallet, snapping her pocketbook shut.” (pg. 97).

The hidden gem in the title of Goodman’s work is the interchanging, puzzle-piece, family dynamic of which every family is a part. Every family experiences these dynamics in different forms and different dimensions, all reaching the same outcome, if ever reaching one at all, and all struggling to accept one another and change and find a way to move forward together, with one another. When a reader picks up The Family Markowitz, one is reminded of that family dynamic. One questions the family dynamic of the Markowitz family: What is it about the family that is so special? Why is the family of worth to read? Furthermore, the reader begins to question the dynamics and relationships of his or her own family: Are they anything like mine? Is my family normal? Can I relate to the Markowitz’s? Can I benefit from viewing all the family’s different dimensions by applying them to my own family’s experiences?

Dappling in the same, but different, area of dimension, is Katharine Weber’s novel Triangle. Weber’s novel tells the haunting, chilling tale of a woman’s first-hand experience of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York, where many workers either died from the fire or plummeted from the ninth story window to their deaths. Weber expertly mixes the woman’s, and soul living survivor’s, first hand account of the event with interviews, important dates, anniversaries and character stories in the present day, interweaving a major theme, story line and mystery within three major characters in the form of a triangle—a woman, her fiancé, and her sister:

“And then I looked at the window again and what did I see but Sam, he was a good man, such a decent man, and there was my sister standing beside him. And he helped her up and then she waited for him and he got up onto the ledge too, and he took her arms and he put them around his neck like to hold on in the ocean, and he put his arms around my sister, and they kissed each other, and then together they jumped.” (pg. 12).

As the book progresses, present day characters are introduced, identities are solidified, and special bonds between everyone relate and intertwine and interchange into revealing dimensions, similar to those of a triangle. Weber’s naming of the book brings into question the significance of these dimensions. Having three points, a triangle usually means trouble. Someone is usually left out, and controversy usually ensues. When looking at the book, the reader alludes to this theory and wonders: What kind of controversy does the book detail? Is it one of interest? Will such controversy be resolved? And, finally, can a triangle, itself, ever end? Even without Weber’s intention to provoke the audience into the world of dimensions, the title also appeals to the occurrences surrounding the actual fire disaster, considering the factory was called the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a historical reference and story for any reader who indulges in the subject.

All of these mentioned works fit into Kingsolver’s previous description of the titling process: “Titling a book is not like putting a coat of paint on a finished house. It’s like finding a skeleton key in the grass, then devising locks, building them into doors. The key allows entry into every part of the house.” In comparison to Kingsolver’s description, each story is like a house waiting to be unlocked, each with a unique story, each house unlocking as the work unravels. And each house contains a different key—the perfect title. In Portnoy’s Complaint, it was Alexander Portnoy’s discovery of himself through the use of ranting. Alvy Singer of “Annie Hall” found his key in the character of Annie Hall, herself. The key to The Jew Store hides in the shade created by the storefront’s windows on a sunny afternoon in downtown Concordia, where a family maintains its quest for survival. The key to the Markowitz’s family dynamic is found within the relationships among one another, while Triangle unlocks the door by challenging the ideas of dimension and enigma. And despite each story’s own different key, each key unlocks and fulfills the same intended goal—to allow entry into every part of the house, into every part of the story. This initial finding of the keys, in turn, leaves the visitor of the house, in this case the reader, at a jump-off place into wonder before having even entered the house at all. But with the right key and the perfect title, chances are, they will enter the house with curiosity and desire.

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