Books We Love: All The Names They Used for God

All The Names They Used for God is a debut collection from Anjali Sachdeva, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The collection features nine stories of varying lengths, styles, and plots, albeit all sharing unusual and idiosyncratic elements. What links these stories is previewed by the title. Every character uses a different name for the ‘gods’ in their lives, and they are all let down by these gods. Sachdeva is interested in what happens when one’s life does not turn out as expected. When things are broken, how do you pick up the pieces and move on?

Though without any explicitly contemporary settings or obvious attempts to tie in current events, this collection is very political. The stories depict how people react when a system lets them down, through oppression or negligence. Sachdeva’s answer seems to be that the most important way you can resist an unjust system is by finding some way to reclaim your agency—even if you are doomed. “Killer of Kings” follows John Milton and his angelic muse as he tries to write Paradise Lost. The muse works for God and is obviously troubled about the unequivocal praise heaped on her boss, but she has seen Milton’s political pamphlets and hopes he can add some nuance to the story. Finally, she convinces him to write the devil as a sympathetic character, and after this gets removed from her post; Milton never sees her again. In the eponymous story, “All The Names They Used For God”, we meet two girls who have escaped an Islamic terrorist group’s clutches. These two characters were victimized by others’ beliefs and had their lives upended for it. The twist is that the kidnapped girls learn a way to control men just by looking at them, putting them into a sort of trance wherein they’ll do anything the girls say. They regain their power by being in control of the wills of the men which they’ve been subjected to for years. Promise, the main character, decides to let her ‘husband’–one of her kidnappers whom she has been hypnotizing and basically torturing–go, and the husband asks her, “Where do I go?” The story concludes with the lines, “He waits for me to tell him what I want, what to do. What comes next. And who knows the answer to that?” It seems like what Sachdeva is saying here is that when you’re released from the thrall of an oppressive belief, or an oppressive force keeping you down, the hardest thing to do is to reassert your agency because how do you figure out what you want?

Now, Sachdeva’s message is not that resistance will result in triumph because none of these characters really triumph, but we get the feeling that sometimes a triumph of an individual’s will can be important nonetheless. Not all the characters are sold on this idea (and maybe not even the author herself). This point is most clear in the story “Manus,” wherein the world is taken over by alien blobs called “the Masters” who want to replace everyone’s hands with mechanical appendages called “forks.” This sounds weird, and a lot of the stories in this collection are very strange, but Sachdeva is a subtle writer, and the strangeness seems natural because of her subtlety and her ability to create convincing characters. The story follows Aaron whose girlfriend Yvette is about to get her hands replaced. She escapes, and in an act of rebellion against the Masters, she chooses to get dismembered and reattached to a group of people. Because of this, she becomes a revolutionary hero. When Aaron sees this, he’s conflicted: “I felt a completely unrevoluntionary longing for the woman these girls would never know, the one who examined vegetables as if life depended on it and mixed blue into green in the palm of her hand.” What is more important? For Yvette to make this big political statement reasserting her agency? Aaron would have prefered for Yvette to enact a more private resistance with him, through their relationship, submitting to their fate with the ‘forks’.

One of the challenges of politically engaged writing, especially in 2018, is how to make it feel relevant when the moment is changing so fast. Sachdeva provides a masterclass in how to do it subtly by focusing on the will of her characters in the face of the ruins of their lives. She is not overtly political at any moment, but if there is a message to be gleaned from this collection it’s that the most effective form of resistance is accepting your fate, no matter how bad it might be, but on your own terms.

Harold Rogers