Book Review: My Name Is Will by Jess Winfield

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One of the best things about Shakespeare is that he isn’t a sacred cow – rather, he is more like the last carcass in a shortage. Every bit of his body of work can be put to use in some way – his writing finds extended life in everything from parody to purist portrayal, allegory to animation. You must forgive this slaughterhouse imagery – in the brilliantly blasphemous My Name Is Will, we find the young Shakespeare in much similar circumstances: chasing daily after hens in his father’s butcher shop, which are promptly decapitated, divided, and dined upon by his family.

We also find him, invariably, disarming the tunics off medieval lasses, lost in the arms of a hallucinogenic trip or taking up arms against persecution. But the teenage William isn’t the only one whose misadventures with politics, women and drugs we encounter. Enter William Shakespeare Greenberg, aka Willie, American graduate student in 1986 California, who’s having trouble getting his thesis on his namesake finished. His distractions include his professor’s alluring assistant Dashka, an unfettered relationship with the activist Robin, Oedipal issues and making sure that he gets a giant psychedelic mushroom delivered and paid for without getting incarcerated.

Cleverly juggling the plot between William and Willie in alternating chapters, My Name Is Will finds the two young men at stages when they are about to come into their own. Both are at turning points with women – will duty or desire make the decision? Professionally too, both linger at the threshold of their destinies. And both are deeply engaged in the politics of their time. As with all eras in which those in power wield it without moderation, the counterculture thrives – and both Will and Willie are fortunate to be a part of these dissident environments, and indeed it shapes their fates.

And there is drama aplenty – serious cliffhanger-style drama at that. Winfield is astute in his construction of the novel, leaving protagonists dangling so precariously between chapters that the book is rendered utterly unputdownable. With its ingenious, engrossing narrative style and its generous servings of sex with a side of wit, the book strikes a winning note.

William finds himself in the possession of a sacred relic that leads him to uncover a clandestine network of Catholics in the authoritarian Protestant Elizabethan regime (centuries later, Willie’s thesis postulates that Shakespeare was secretly Catholic). Willie has his own sacred relic – the giant mushroom, which he too must ensure gets delivered into the right hands – at the risk of losing his own freedoms under President Reagan’s crackdown on illicit substances. Though running on different trajectories in space and time, at points, largely owing to the transcendental effect of the said illicit substances, the two lives entwine and intersect.

My Name Is Will is a delight from start to finish. Its puns are deliciously bawdy in true Shakespearean style – Winfield never overshoots the humour, and in fact the most audaciously wicked joke in the book is such a subtle one it might escape a less dirty-minded reader.

Also to the author’s credit, the impressive amount of research into the Bard’s works and milieu that clearly went into this novel, as well as his own extensive study of the texts, never overbears on its entertainment value. And rare is a funny book that raises legitimate questions about civil freedoms, free speech, moral policing and government (even twenty and four hundred and twenty years after its protagonists struggle with them), without losing its punchlines to polemics. My Name Is Will is a terrific novel – funny, incisive and original. Despite its irreverence, or perhaps because of it, it captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal and comes closer to greatness than many self-proclaimed tributes.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

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