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Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, The Emperor's Children

“Don’t call me Bootie,” he said as he retreated back into his bedroom. “It’s not my name.” (15)

In a novel so closely attuned to the subject of personal identity, to the space between the real and the perceived, we might ask ourselves, like Juliet: what’s in a name? More specifically—in the case of Frederick “Bootie” Tubb—what’s in a nickname?

The word “nickname” comes from the Middle English compound word ekename, meaning “additional name,” itself derived from the Old English eaca, “an increase.” About a century after the first known usage of the word ekename, something happened: a transformation took place. From the misdivision, or “wrong division,” of the syllables in the phrase “an ekename” came a sort of linguistic metamorphosis—the space between the words, shifted, just slightly, created something fundamentally different, something new: “a nekename.”

I should correct myself if I made it seem as if suddenly, all it once, after one hundred and some years of use, the word ekename spontaneously metamorphosed into its new form. The truth of the matter is that words don’t simply change by “wrong division” all at once. This sort of transformation, this sort of revolution, is a process. It requires the complicity of more than just one or two people; it requires that we make a mistake, and then make it again, and again, until our perception changes what is real to us.

The other thing I should correct here is the sense that this transformation resulted in the creation of something “fundamentally different.” On the one hand, the transformation from “an ekename” to “a nekename” is in the purest and most original sense of the word nicknaming: the noun, here, is subject to a real addition of material. But if we think about the transformation from “an ekename” to “a nekename” a different way, we can see that linguistic “wrong division” is ultimately about shifting, not adding to, the raw material of language, and that what’s transpired here straddles the strange space between real and perceived addition. Nicknames—and names more generally—threaten if not to add then to at least reshape or refashion an identity. The great irony—the great paradox even—of so many nicknames is that they add, reshape, or refashion by a sort of subtraction. Consider the way so many nicknames are constructed through the addition of a diminutive suffix.1

Take Frederick Tubb’s nickname: “Bootie.” On top the addition of the diminutive suffix “-ie,” the nickname Bootie, taken with the last name, “Tubb,” conjures Frederick’s—well—fat ass. This is a different sort of diminution through addition: the nickname emphasizes an aspect of Bootie/Frederick Tubb’s physical identity in a way that threatens to demean and devalue him.

There’s much made of Bootie/Frederick’s weight throughout The Emperor’s Children. He himself remarks on his weight repeatedly over the course of the novel—but it’s through the eyes of the novel’s other main characters that we can come to recognize the full significance of his weight and it’s relationship to his name. Both Bootie/Frederick’s cousin Marina and Marina’s friend Julius, two characters whom Messud depicts as constantly toeing the line between self-awareness and self-consciousness about their own and other’s physical attractiveness, make remarks throughout the novel that suggest Bootie/Frederick is particularly fat, even obese. Julius goes so far as to bring up Bootie/Frederick’s weight to his face: “I’d never pictured my tenant as fat” (246). Through the eyes of Marina’s friend, Danielle, though, things look a little bit different; Danielle, on more than one occasion, comments about the harshness and imprecision of her friends’ estimation of Bootie’s weight. The reader cannot help but wonder—knowing this character only through these textual accounts of him—the degree to which Bootie/Frederick’s name affects, even threatens to subsume, his identity.

There’s actually remarkable point of comparison for this in The Emperor’s Children—a character whose identity has been subsumed by a nickname related to his weight. Speaking with Danielle and Marina, Ludovic Seeley inquires after a name dropped casually into the conversation:

“Who is Fat Al? A departed house pet?”

“Close. My almost fiance. Once.” Marina made a face, waved her arm. “Off in the ether somewhere now…”

    Seeley bit his thin lip. “Was he actually fat?”

    “Depends on your standards. Looking at you—I’d say you would have called him fat.”

    “He was fat,” said Danielle…“He wasn’t obese, but he was definitely fat.” (179). 

It’s worth considering the way that Marina, here, recognizes the role of subjective perception in identity-making, and that Danielle, who repeatedly comes to defend Bootie/Frederick against accusations of objective fatness, here comes out to make a claim about the reality and stability of Fat Al’s physical identity.

We should remember at this point that one of the motivating factors for Bootie/Frederick’s decision to leave his mother’s home in upstate New York was to escape his nickname: “He would go somewhere where nobody would ever call him ‘Bootie’...” (61-62). A curious decision, then, for Bootie/Frederick to move to New York—to move in with family that knew him principally by his nickname. That said, even at this early point in the novel, Messud has set some precedent for this decision: “Frederick Tubb lay in the bath, carefully holding his book above the water with both hands...Bootie looked around him, sighed, feeling at once safe and oppressed in his bath, wanting to stay there all afternoon and wanting to escape forever at the same time…” (56-7). There’s an extent to which Bootie/Frederick’s decision to move to New York, to move in with the Thwaites, represents his decision to both to stay and escape himself. New York becomes for Frederick/Bootie it’s own kind of lukewarm bath—it’s own kind of purgatory or space between.  This is not the first time we’ll see Bootie in the bath in The Emperor’s Children. In this, Messud seems yet again to call attention to the way that our names threaten to anticipate, even previse our identities: Bootie/Frederick Tubb.

During his time in New York, we come to know Bootie/Frederick as a character just as concerned and aware about appearances, just as concerned and aware about the uneasy relationship between reality and perception, as his cousin Marina and uncle Murray:

“Again reading, or at least pretending to, his paperback drawn up to his nose as if to parody his myopia, he wondered how he looked, on the bench near the park’s edge, to the Latina mother who did not smile, to the hurrying joggers, to the dawdling girls—always the women, he was aware; conscious that he didn’t imagine the men saw him at all—and as he wondered, furtively peering over his pages to see if he was being seen, and of course, too, to see, because therein lay all his interest (how dull novels were, after all; even this one, this Tolstoy, though it was better than most)” (150).

When Marina spies him on the bench and remarks, “aren’t you the bookworm,” the reader might imagine Bootie/Frederick’s self-conscious delight, but also, perhaps, a certain anxiety, as he hears the phrase less as a statement and more as a question, a challenge on the identity he’s attempting to cultivate: “are you not the bookworm?” When Marina points out that the bench on which her cousin is reading is “the perfect place for Dad to spy on you from his study,” Bootie “shuffle[s] his hands, his book, [makes] as if to stand.” This feels particularly crucial—the performative aspect of this would-be movement. The reader can and should wonder whether Bootie/Frederick might have chosen the spot precisely because of the sightline from Murray’s study, whether Bootie/Frederick, reading, or not, out in the park, just wants to be seen—to be perceived.   

As Meghan O’Rourke points out in her review of Messud’s novel, it’s Bootie/Frederick “who comes closest to articulating the book’s take on the events of Sept. 11 and the relationship between perception and reality:”

“It was an awesome, a fearful thought: you could make something inside your head, as huge and devastating as this, and spill it out into reality, make it really happen. You could—for evil, but if for evil, then why not for good, too?—change the world” (439).  

This, it occurs to me—this ability for thought to affect identity, to affect, even, flesh—this is the power of naming.

After experiencing the attacks of September 11th from just blocks away in lower Manhattan, Bootie/Frederick boards a bus for Miami. Three days later, he’s back in a bathtub: “[this] felt truly like his new beginning. A baptism. He’d decided to take a new name, to shed the agonies of the old.” The overt reference to christianity, the baptism, feels somehow overshadowed by the more implicit christian reference— to Christ’s resurrection after three days of being dead. If this renaming is to be a sort of rebirth, the stake’s, for Bootie/Frederick, are high. He wants to get his name right:

“Ulrich was to hand, of course, from the Musil: not so far from Frederick, but pleasingly irreducible in comparison. As for a surname, he’d never cared for Tubb: Who would, or could? It was tempting to take Thwaite: he felt entitled to it, felt he could make of it what it ought to be. But then again, it was not new enough. New: there was a name. Ulrich New. What did he know? How to be New” (440).

“Great geniuses,” Frederick/Bootie says repeatedly throughout the novel, quoting Emerson, “have the shortest biographies. Even their cousins know nothing about them.” The trick Bootie seems keen on pulling off at the end of the novel, is to abridge his biography by assuming a new identity—by assuming a new name. But name’s, Messud’s novel asserts, always come with a history: the nickname “Bootie,” apart from all of the resonances I’ve mentioned over the course of this short essay, is a distinct, if again diminutive, echo of Frederick’s deceased father “Bert.” The name “Frederick” comes from the German for “peaceful ruler”; the youngest character in Messud’s novel, the character who most closely resembles, through his actions, the child in the Hans Christian Anderson story from which the novel derives its name, might in a way also be the emperor himself—outing himself. The name upon which Bootie/Frederick eventually settles, “Ulrich,” develops this sense of self-exposing and unmasking even further. It is a name that Bootie feels is “pleasing irreducible in comparison” to “Frederick.” But the name “Ulrich,” unbeknownst to Bootie/Frederick, is German for “heritage”—our inheritance, our history, our biography. In this, it seems that “Ulrich New” is less of a new name than a nickname, a nekename, an ekename, not a “new heritage,” not a “new identity” but an additional one—not a bridging of the space between our name and our identity, not an abridging of it either, rather, a shifting of the space that always exists between the reality of our names and the perception of our identities.  


1 This sort of nicknaming is particularly prevalent in specific, often hyper-masculine communities. I’m often surprised (and delighted) by particularly specific and exhaustive Wikipedia lists, such as this one, of ice hockey player nicknames, which effectively demonstrates the prevalence of the diminutive nickname within that community.