Thursday, July 22, 2010

Frankie, Alpha, Matthew, Names, Power, and Squee

December 14, 2007

To: Headmaster Richmond and the Board of Directors, Alabaster Preparatory Academy

I, Frankie Landau-Banks, hereby confess that I was the sole mastermind behind the mal-doings of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds
.

So opens one of my favorite books of all time, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart.

Recently I mentioned Marie Rutkoski's super fun post about good book boyfriends, bad book boyfriends, and what you can tell about a potential book boyfriend from his name. Marie and I got into a conversation over there about our favorite male character names and what they mean -- which, of course, devolved eventually to Spike, Angel, Jayne, and Mal, but anyway -- then, this past week, I reread The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I can't BELIEVE that I forgot about Alpha and Matthew when I was e-chatting with Marie! Talk about two larger-than-life boyfriends with names that matter.

This is the place in the post where I pause to say that if you haven't read this book, plan to, and don't like spoilers, STOP READING. STOP READING THIS INSTANT. This book is a treat, and I don't want to ruin it for those who haven't read it yet. Especially since all I'm going to do is blather inanely and it is NOT WORTH HAVING A BOOK SPOILED FOR THAT.

Also, just so we're clear: I don't know E. Lockhart and I don't know how she chooses her character names. The following is my textual interpretation, not my attempt to guess at her process.

Okay.

Let's start with Matthew. Matthew is Frankie's boyfriend. Such a nice name, Matthew, isn't it? A nice, reliable name, for a nice, reliable, charming, popular, attractive, delightful character. Right? What does the name evoke?

Well, Matthew was an apostle; Matthew the apostle was one of The Guys. He even wrote a gospel, i.e., was one of the storytellers who tells us how it went down with The Guys. Except that he actually didn't, he just got the credit for it. The Gospel of Matthew was written near the end of the first century, and the true author is unknown. (My theologian dad for the win!) And what does it mean to write a gospel anyway? Doesn't it mean that you have power over what is known about people; power over how the truth is perceived; power over what things mean? Also, what does it mean to be one of The Guys? Well, no doubt it means a lot of things, but one of the things it means is that when the Holy Spirit comes down to designate the first priests, His Holy Flameyness is going to choose you. And definitely not any of the women, even though they're just as loyal and capable.

Ahem. Are you still with me?

Now, I don't mean to slander Matthew the apostle. I'm sure that he was a lovely guy who spread kindness, deserved happiness, suffered appropriately, always used his turn signals, etc. Also, I'm aware that I've accused him of both not writing a gospel and of writing one. Just -- bear with me, please, if you would, because one of my points is that the best characters contain contradictory qualities, and what I'm really trying to focus on is that Matthew -- or the guy we call Matthew -- had power. Power that had to do with being a chosen member of an exclusive (male) society; power that had to do with deciding on the truth that was to be known by others.

Enter Matthew Livingston, the son of a newspaper magnate and the co-president of a secret all-male society (the Basset Hounds) at a boarding school for the privileged in Massachusetts. Such a nice guy, so generous, such an outstanding citizen, right? I mean, he actually is. Matthew Livingston is going to grow up to own newspapers, spread the word, and do good things in the world. It's just too bad about the lying, the condescension, the sexism, the almost unconscious assumption that he be king of the world, and the exclusionary loyalty to his secret male society -- all of which make him a terrible boyfriend for a dynamo like sophomore Frankie Landau-Banks.

Okay, now that I've said a few things about Matthew, can I finally talk about Alpha?

Hello, name that speaks volumes. Alpha's real name is Alessandro Tesorieri, which is also a name that speaks volumes, but let's stick with his nickname for now. How much aggression and cockiness does a guy have to display, how much of an obvious alpha dog does he need to be, to end up with a nickname like Alpha? On the outside, Alpha and Matthew -- seniors, best friends, co-presidents of the secret Basset Hounds, and the boarding school's natural kings of popularity -- are foils for each other. Where Matthew is a decent, gorgeous, wealthy, welcoming, upstanding guy from an upstanding family, Alpha is: a guy with a reputation for treating girlfriends like crap; cute, but kind of ordinary-looking, "medium height and sandy haired, with a barrel chest and a baby face"; at school on scholarship, because his mother doesn't work and has just been dumped by the wealthy boyfriend who was supporting her; dismissive of people not in his immediate circle (his "dogs"); and fatherless. Alpha has magnetism and social power. Alpha is a bad boy with an eyebrow-raising background and a bad reputation. Alpha always has a girlfriend, and she is always referred to as the she-wolf, no matter who she is at any time. Alpha is a jerk, and it's not really a secret.

But you know what else Alpha is? He's a boy who, oddly enough, knows what it's like to have no resources of one's own and be what I believe is known as a "kept woman" -- because that's what his mother has been for his entire life. Every luxury he's ever experienced has been at the condescension of a man (not his father) willing to support his mother and her child-out-of-wedlock, but not live with them or marry her. He's a boy who knows the stress of all that money suddenly disappearing. At a hoity-toity New England boarding school where wealthy graduates are funneled into Ivy League colleges, Alpha is a little bit of a faker, and knows it. Unlike Matthew and the other members of his secret boys' club, Alpha can't afford to get into too much trouble, because he doesn't have a daddy who can buy him out of the trouble he gets into. Unlike Matthew, Alpha, for all his cockiness, is vulnerable.

And there are other things about him, too. I think it's pretty clear that he loves his mother, in all her complexity and crazy-makingness. He also loves Matthew, almost in the same starry-eyed way Frankie does -- and knows it about himself. And while he's at the top of a complex social order, he can also see the order, see its cracks and flaws, the ways in which it's unjust, the ways in which it hurts people. It's hard to have perspective when you're up really high, but Alpha has it. Maybe because he's aware of how easily he could fall off.

But, I was talking about boyfriends before, wasn't I? Here's the thing: Alpha is known for being an addictive but destructive boyfriend (you know the type). But in the best books, it's not a question of who would make a universally good boyfriend and who would make a universally bad one. I can see Alpha making a bad boyfriend for a lot of people, maybe even for most people. But what about for someone who's just as powerful and ambitious as he is, has just as clear a perspective on society's workings and hypocrisies, and is just as determined to make something of it? Alpha is the only person in the book who sees Frankie, and I think she could take him. To be honest, I think she might be a little too much for him, and I think they both know it. Alpha needs a few years of continued financial insecurity -- and of introspection -- to grow up, and decide who he wants to be and what he wants to accomplish. At the end of the book, Alpha is leaving for Harvard. I love LOVE LOVE to imagine that Frankie will also end up at Harvard someday, where she, and the new, improved Alpha, will meet up again, clash, war, play power games with each other, and TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

(Okay, maybe that's not everybody's idea of a good romantic relationship. ^_^)

By the way. I've been blathering about boys and boyfriends, but really, this is all about Frankie. Frankie is the reason this is one of my favorite books of all time, and I'm not even going to try to describe her, because E. Lockhart wrote a book-long description of her, and really, that's the way you should meet her. Frankie doesn't need a boyfriend. I think she'd like one someday, maybe, but one of the best things about Frankie is her resilient self-respect. I think she learns, over the course of this book, that if she is going to have a boyfriend, it needs to be someone worthy of her, who sees and loves her vulnerabilities and her power. Matthew isn't worthy. Neither is Alpha at the book's end; Frankie is no one's she-wolf. "She wanted something more than Alpha. She did. Something much more." What Frankie wants is a bigger life; Frankie wants to change the world.

Frankie, by the way, is named after her father, Franklin, who'd "wanted a son to name after himself." So ironic that when Frankie grows up to be powerful -- with exactly the kind of power Franklin admires in men -- Franklin is disappointed in her. Ashamed of her, even. And you know what I love about Frankie? Things like that hurt her, but they don't stop her.

Also by the way, I'm not saying Frankie is perfect, or without vulnerabilities, or even that her ambitions are unqualifiedly good. I'm just saying that... she's complex, in a whole lot of ways that work perfectly for me as a reader. I started this post squeeing about book boyfriends and their names, but can I turn my squee now to books? Books like this one that serve up complex, fascinating characters who really can't be summed up in a blog post.