Houses are hungry. They never get their fill of gobbling up time and money. This week I set to demolishing a sturdy set of honeycombed shelves a previous owner had stuffed into our master bedroom's closet, then plastering and painting over the ruined wall behind them. While wielding putty knife and paintbrush, I listened to Simon Avery's "Bury the Carnival," a fascinating surrealist take on Pinocchio. In it, a reporter for an underground newspaper tries to learn the truth about a mysterious carver of life-sized marionettes. But she faces danger from the powers that be, a mystical oligarchy that "controlled the country’s political and economical climates with an almost despotic rule," that employed "towering men in cruel masks and robes who would steal into people’s homes while they slept to spirit them away for incarceration or torture," and that had "priests [who] sermonized about moral virtue and the traditional order of things." Their name? The Puritans.
Wait -- the Puritans? Why associate a fractured and oft-oppressed 16th century theological movement with a tyrannical centralized government? Why lend the name of people who relished propositional philosophy to characters who practice magical arts? I think the answer is simple. Avery wants to emphasize that his bad guys are conformist, rigid, frosty, and the title of "Puritan" seems to bit the bill. Never mind that the real ones were considered radicals by the Church of England. Never mind that they included Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists as part of the club. Never mind that Puritan poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost contains some downright steamy scenes. The connotation still sticks.
At this point, let me provide a quick clarification: I’m not offering an apology for Puritanism, nor an accusation of Avery or his story (which is truly well done). The titling of his villains works in its context because the word’s meaning has shifted, has come unpinned from its historical reality. Just check Webster. The point isn’t that a particular word changed, but that words in general change, and writers play a part in such tectonic shifts. Not only do words build our stories, but stories build our words -- or tear them down. Yes, readers are hungry. And, yes, readers never tire of gulping down new narratives. But let’s choose our diction with as much care as we choose our characters and plots, refusing to crack the foundation of our craft. After all, words matter.
(Picture: CC 2007 by Darwin Bell)