The Names

ISBN: 0679722955
ISBN 13: 9780679722953
By: Don DeLillo

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About this book

Set against the backdrop of a lush and exotic Greece, The Names is considered the book which began to drive "sharply upward the size of his readership" (Los Angeles Times Book Review). Among the cast of DeLillo's bizarre yet fully realized characters in The Names are Kathryn, the narrator's estranged wife; their son, the six-year-old novelist; Owen, the scientist; and the neurotic narrator obsessed with his own neuroses. A thriller, a mystery, and still a moving examination of family, loss, and the amorphous and magical potential of language itself, The Names stands with any of DeLillo's more recent and highly acclaimed works. "The Names not only accurately reflects a portion of our contemporary world but, more importantly, creates an original world of its own."--Chicago Sun-Times"DeLillo sifts experience through simultaneous grids of science and poetry, analysis and clear sight, to make a high-wire prose that is voluptuously stark."--Village Voice Literary Supplement"DeLillo verbally examines every state of consciousness from eroticism to tourism, from the idea of America as conceived by the rest of the world to the idea of the rest of the world as conceived by America, from mysticism to fanaticism."--New York Times

Reader's Thoughts

Kristoff Tilkin

't Blijft een raadsel waarom er van Don DeLillo slechts mondjesmaat vertalingen verschijnen: sinds het fantastische trio 'Witte ruis' - 'Libra' - 'Mao II' geldt de Don namelijk als één van de topchroniqueurs van de American Dream en zijn uitwassen, en toch is alleen zijn magnum opus 'Onderwereld' uit 1997 nog in druk. Enfin: verwacht van ons geen waterdichte samenzweringstheorie, wij melden u liever het verschijnen van 'De namen' (Manteau), een meer dan geslaagde opstap naar 'Witte ruis' uit 1982.Verteller James Axton werkt overdag als risicoanalist voor een schimmig bedrijf, na de werkuren drinkt en filosofeert hij over politiek met andere expats ? bankiers, industriëlen en kaderpersoneel van multinationals die heen en weer pendelen tussen Karachi, Tripoli, Caïro, Beiroet of Amman, steden die volgens een van Axtons vrienden 'terroristische babyboxen (zijn) of anti-Amerikaans of het zijn gigantische lappen economische en sociale en politieke ravage.' Toch zijn ze zich hyperbewust van hun eigen rol in het kruitvat van het Midden-Oosten: 'Al dat bankieren, die technologieën en dat oliegeld veroorzaken een onbehaaglijke stroom door de regio, een ingewikkeld stel afhankelijkheden en angsten.'Terwijl Axtons huwelijk verkruimelt en zijn hoogbegaafde zoon van 'm vervreemdt, komen hij en archeoloog Owen Brademas in Athene een sekte op het spoor die zo nu en dan een oude of zieke bewoner van een afgelegen dorp vermoordt. Een motief lijkt te ontbreken, en dat confronteert Axton en Brademas met hun angsten, waaronder de diepgewortelde (en volgens DeLillo op en top Amerikaanse) angst om anoniem te sterven: 'Het vooruitzicht verontrustte hem dat de media niet zouden berichten over de opstand of terreurdaad waarbij hij zou omkomen.' Het duo raakt geobsedeerd door de sekte en reist de leden achterna, in de hoop hun code te kraken. Die ziekelijke neiging van mensen om patronen te ontdekken in de chaos van alledag is trouwens een rode draad in het oeuvre van DeLillo (én in 'Zwerm' van Peter Verhelst). Voor Owen is het zelfs een manier van overleven: 'Ik heb het gevoel dat ik tegen mezelf beschermd ben zolang er in de tastbare wereld een toevallig patroon valt waar te nemen.'Flitsende actiescènes hoeft de lezer in 'De namen' niet te verwachten, de kracht van de roman zit 'm eerder in de gesprekken tussen Axton en zijn ex, zijn kennissen en minnaressen, en in de rake typeringen over de samenleving. Zo verpulvert DeLillo het idee dat de globalisering van de wereld een dorp maakt: 'Wat is de wereld toch groot. (?) Met elk feit dat we erover te weten komen, wordt hij groter. (?) Het is één en al verwikkeling. Het is één gigantische kluwen.' In dat opzicht is 'De namen' ook een roman over onbehagen - het onbehagen van de late seventies en de vroege eighties, toen de world as they knew it op losse schroeven kwam te staan, getuige de vele naamsveranderingen: Perzië werd Iran, Rhodesië werd Zimbabwe, Congo werd Zaïre. En de roman is na twintig jaar nog niks verouderd, want sinds nine eleven en de war on terror is er alweer een waslijst aan zekerheden onderuitgehaald ? om er één bij naam te noemen: wat vroeger 'vrijheidsstrijder' heette, heet tegenwoordig steevast 'terrorist'.Mogen wij tot slot DeLillo's Nederlandse uitgever vriendelijk verzoeken om ál zijn boeken in druk te houden, zodat wij ons zendelingenwerk bij jongere vrienden en kennissen jaar in jaar uit onverstoord kunnen voortzetten? Dank!


DeLillo is a tough author at times, he can also be fantastic. Underworld is a masterpiece and i loved that. Fortunately or unfortunately, that was the first DeLillo I read and ever since I have been trying to rediscover the brilliance of that novel. Nothing has matched it, but a lot have been interesting: white noise, libra, falling man and now The Names. I think he is such an American writer and I like that about him.the names made me think and seems remarkable that it was written in the early 80s - so much of it seems very ahead of its time.

Scott Gates

“A shaved head would do wonders for this group.”Parts of The Names read like a tract of linguistic idealism. One of the characters, Owen Brademas, (who is obsessed with alphabets, the shape of words, and a cult that kills people based on their initials’ matching place names) posits that ancient structures were erected, tombs built, in order to have a place for the words. “The river of language is God,” he says, which is pretty close to Nietzsche’s “Without grammar, God is not possible” (or was it the other way around?).Lurking throughout the book is the Wittgenstein-ish idea that there is no meaning behind words or events but just the speaking of the words themselves, an act itself. The same character referenced above wants to run the hadj (yes, how Western) in spite of the fact that he does not believe in God. Belief is irrelevant, it’s the act that counts etc. etc. I guess that’s pretty much standard existentialism, isn’t it.More so than in any other Delillo novel, it doesn’t matter at all who is saying any given thing. There are a lot of different characters, and a fair amount of time is spent making clear who is who, yet each is wholly defined by the comments he/she makes over drinks. I think this was done purposely. Late in the book the narrator concludes that when people visit a sacred place, the main thing they have to offer is language. And this is for sure the most talk-ridden Delillo book. "Americans choose strategy over principle every time and yet keep believing in their own innocence. . . . The Americans learned to live with the colonels very well. Investments flourished under the dictatorship." The usual story of the US stomping out democratic uprisings and supporting ruthless militants when it serves its interests (i.e., when the leader will do whatever the US wants).So there’s some real prescient stuff on the way world hates the US. The narrator (to alleviate guilt?) talks of the US’s position in the world in mythic terms, with the US serving as a needed archetype for the rest of the world’s fears. The characters in The Names are risk analysts, investors, economists, actuaries, spies, operatives; aloof from the turmoil and grievances of the regions they’re involved in, they dabble in them and move on. They scout out places of political turmoil and violence to see if corporations’ investments are safe; they have interesting conversations over dinner. They hoard rugs for profit and talk about the interesting things that happened to them the last time they were in Tehran. Kind of repulsive.But these people are offset by the borderline lunatics of the book: the narrator, James Axton, and Owen Brademas. In literature, as often in life, it’s best to support the lunatics. It’s clear Delillo does. These two concoct whole other narratives for the regions they visit, and while maintaining your usual Delilloan ironclad grip on clear thought they push their thinking to out-of-bounds places. There is the tendency to draw profound conclusions from pretty much anything phenomena throws at them. “Everything is connected.”When Delillo’s name is on a book you can bet your ass the writing will often be astounding. Throughout, often when you don’t see it coming, the writing will reach a crazy pitch. Plus the structure of The Names is just weird. It makes you feel as if you’re not quite thinking about it the right way, and that if you did you’d see the book differently.


Mao II and The Names are tours de force of elliptical language, bracingly visceral imagery and the post-art centered world where terrorism is the new means to the hearts and minds of the masses. A deep melancholy stains every page and the climaxes are at once hushed, claustrophobic and explosively open. I'm not sure if my contradictory reviews make me or Delillo more Buck Mulligan, but either way, it's all here.


I would hesitate to call this book a thriller, though it appears, from the surface that one could. James Axton, risk analyst, expatriate American living in Greece, is fascinated with a cult that appears to be murdering people, choosing them by the intials of their names. The book is complicated, more so because the plot evolves in the background of intense character development. I found it difficult to read, at times bordering on tedious, but nevertheless, I'm impressed because it is not easy to sustain so many characters and keep them all interesting. The crew of American and British expatriates that Axton hangs out with, the archaeologist, Owen, that his estranged wife works with, and most of all, Axton's son, Tap, who is six years old but is writing a novel that is based on Owen's life. It's fascinating, because Delillo ends the book with an excerpt from Tap's novel, and he confesses in an interview in the New York Times that he based Tap on Atticus Lish, the young son of a friend of his. Parts of Tap's novel are borrowed from Atticus' own book, leading Delillo to confess, wryly, "In other words, I stole from a kid". Despite Delillo's immense oeuvre, this the first book by him that I'm reading. It's interesting because is politically plotty, but simultaneously a rather fine study of human relationships and families - Axton and his estranged wife, Axton and his son, Owen's solitude, parents, children, lovers, marriages. Underneath it all, Delillo's narration seems to convey a sense of the real solitude of human beings, the internal lives that play out in our heads. In other words, not a book to read alone at 3 a.m., but a book to read, nonetheless.

Aidan Watson-Morris

its couple of noticeable flaws mar a masterful novel, but ambition necessitates risk. in many ways anticipates the airtight white noise.


First the positives - Delillo packs his 1982 novel with interesting fact / opinion on subjects such as the CIA, terrorism, multinationals and being an expat. Some of the descriptive passages are superb - marred slightly by what seems an attempt to avoid cliche by playing with grammatical form. It's my first Delillo and I've never finished a Hemingway. This book reminded me of Hemingway - the narrator / writer seems eager to remind us he's not only a heavyweight intellectual but he's macho too. Also, he has lots of friends - with the consequence that most of the characterisation is thin. I also find him excruciating on relationships / kids - but then maybe that's the point. The whole idea of writing a 'great novel' or 'great American novel' makes the writer seem 'try hard' I think. It's still a solid read though but for me it's more like a series of sketches that don't pull together and some are a lot better than others.

Mike Gilbert

Generally, I try to write my reviews closer to the completion of the book. Two things caused the delay this time: the holidays and more intriguingly, I did not know what to write. So, before I add another review for different book, I suppose I had better write something.Perhaps I should start with some facts to get me started.(1) This was my second time through this book.(2) I have read several of Delillo's novels, start with my English professor's recommendation for White Noise during college. That was a good - but not great novel. The same can be said of Mao II> and Cosmopolis. After The Names, I probably like them best in the order listed.(3) I left it in seat back pocket (8A) of a US Airways commuter flight to Boston and elected, a week later, to return to the bookstore a buy another copy. My plan to save money on books and reread some of my favorites was foiled by a 6:00 am flight.The best part of The Names is Delillo's language. The descriptions of Europe and the Middle East blend beautifully with his phenomenological rumination on language. As a frequent traveller, the flavor of airport idiosyncrasies and the murals foreign streets and cafés that provide the novel's backdrop immersed me in the world Delillo's world. Uncannily, much of the dinner conversation revolves around the dangers to Americans abroad. Coups in Africa. Hostages in Iran. On second thought, perhaps, it is uncanny that it has not changed in thirty years.This, I believe, is critical for the reader. The primary motion of the plot , after all, involving a cult of killers, seems so distant that I believe the reader needs this tie to bind the reading experience coherently. Perhaps travel - specifically as an American to the cradles of civilization from Greece to India - is a determining factor in a reader's opinion of the novel. There is quite a polarity of opinions in the reviews I read. This could be someone's Freshmen paper.I digress.Once one digests the story, and looks and the subtext, which may or may not be thinly veiled, hit has a beauty to it. It proves questions that turn in the reader's mind, both at a conscious and subconsciousevel. Are we merely our names? Is dasein (existence) the sum of Sein (Being)? Or is there something more, something transcendent? And if there is, does the brutality of the cult's actions, the symbolism in the violence wrought upon the person-place-name, bring them closer to breaking down the modern world's collapse of Heidegger's dichotomy? Have we rendered the spiritual obsolete; something that only a return to a more base existence can reinstate? Must you enjoy early 20th century philosophy to enjoy this book as well?Or perhaps, Delillo would tell us that the simplicity of a young boy's re-telling of life on dust bowl farm is all that one needs to regain their Sein.In either case, I think that in few years, this will require a third read.

Mariano Hortal

Publicada en de los criterios más usados hoy en día (y de los que más desconfío) a la hora de recomendar un libro es ese vocablo, tan descriptivo y a la vez manido, que se incluye en frases como: “este libro te engancha desde el primer momento y ya no lo puedes dejar“; sí, el vocablo al que me refiero es “enganchar”.No ya por las connotaciones asociadas a la adicción que pueda tener, sino porque este grado de “enganche” suele ser inversamente proporcional al tiempo gastado en leerlo: si alguien se “engancha” a un libro suele leerlo en tres sentadas, sin dormir prácticamente y, a continuación, busca como sea otro libro de las mismas características. ¿Esto es malo? No, claro. Que un libro te dé ganas de leer es bueno. El problema es que otro tipo de lecturas no te “enganchen” y la frustración origine que abandones otros libros más retadores.Según uno lee y lee libros se da cuenta de muchas peculiaridades. Una de estas es el ritmo de lectura. Evidentemente, unos libros se leen más rápido que otros, todos los que leemos lo notamos. Es parte de su personalidad, cada libro exige una forma de leer: velocidad, atención, … algunos te solicitan calma, reflexión, una atención total cuando estás en su lectura. Otros te piden marcha, velocidad, atención más dispersa. En el caso de Don Delillo nos encontramos con lecturas sosegadas, tranquilas, reflexivas. Él mismo lo comenta en su estupenda novela Body Art (2001):“Se llevó a la boca una cucharada de cereales y olvidó saborearlos. En el intervalo transcurrido desde que se llevó la comida a la boca hasta el desdichado instante en que lo tragó hubo un momento en que perdió el gusto.”Si extrapolamos está metáfora a la literatura podríamos decir que, hoy en día, falta un poco saborear los libros, centrándose la mayoría de lectores en el hecho de “tragar novelas” sin más reflexión.Delillo escribió Los Nombres tras su experiencia vivida en Grecia, por la contraportada (“asesinatos rituales de una secta obsesionada por el lenguaje“) podríamos deducir que se trata del típico best-seller conspirativo, paranoico y cargado de acción e investigación. Pero, muy al contrario, es un simple pretexto, ya que el objetivo es estudiar el lenguaje (“Era el propio alfabeto. Les interesaban las letras, los símbolos escritos que formaban una secuencia fija“) y los límites de la cultura afectados por el uso del lenguaje.Pasando por los diferentes ambientes que nos propone en diversas localizaciones (una isla del Egeo, el Peloponeso griego, un desierto en la India..), la persecución de la secta que origina estos asesinatos rituales desembocará en el estudio deconstructivo del lenguaje y sus implicaciones en la cultura y en la identidad de la persona; así, el escritor habla en el capítulo del desierto, ya llegando a la parte final del libro que “en el desierto todo cuenta. La palabra más simple contiene un enorme poder. Cada sonido corresponde únicamente a un signo. Ahí reside la genialidad del alfabeto. Simple, inevitable.” En una memorable y desconcertante coda, todo se desmonta, el lenguaje es fallido como expresión, como signo de identidad, es necesario reinventarlo (“Haz lo que tu lengua te diga que debes hacer. ¡Entierra el antiguo lenguaje y libera el nuevo“) para definirnos nosotros mismos.Todo ello realizado con la calma de la que hablaba en el principio, deleitándonos con lugares paradisíacos y con el monólogo interior de los personajes, hay miedo a la muerte, y superioridad por tener ese conocimiento. Hay crítica de la sociedad que nos rodea, hay maestría para expresar todo esto.Delillo es uno de los mejores escritores actuales, el postmodernismo en su plenitud, si estás dispuesto a dedicarle tiempo, ese tiempo que sus novelas requieren, parafraseando al escritor: a “no olvidar saborear sus novelas”, es más que probable que no te decepcione, muy al contrario, será tan estimulante que, posiblemente, no quieras parar de leerlas.


this, my first endeavor into delillo's earlier work, was highly enjoyable. the names is a more evenly dispersed novel than many of his more recent books. while i appreciate both styles, this approach allows delillo to expand his story and his characters in tandem. in novels like falling man and the body artist, the focus tightly captures related characters and the central thread that tethers them. but in the names, a few semi-overlapping storylines allow the characters to become better developed even as the stories remain somewhat nebulous. the central character is a classic delillo protagonist, and many familiar themes pervade the book - terrorism, fascination with obscure art forms, troubled/broken family. also familiar is the consideration/exploration of americanism. while perhaps less omnipresent than in later novels, james axton (protag) ponders many american ex-pat concerns as well as the perception of americans by short, this is a good, loose novel about intelligent people with strange jobs adrift in the world. recommended.


I started off liking the book, but about halfway through I was bored and annoyed by the characters' distanced, anthropological view of themselves and each other. Every connection explored was done so through intense analysis, but seemed to lack true feeling. It became really hard to care about any of the characters since they seemed so blase, even when discussing emotional ties. That combined with a meandering plot that was based more on mood and worldly observations than a narrative arc, made the second half of the book a drudge to the finish. Although I could appreciate the quality of the writing, the book made me at turns depressed and annoyed at such calculated distancing and witticisms.


Thank you Mr. Graye for recommending this book as my next Don DeLillo read, as I navigate thru his body of work, this being my fourth. There are few authors who have received the gift of perfecting every sentence laid down, absolutely right in the place they belong, throughout the length of the entire novel. Of course DeLillo is one of these artists, and he doesn't disappoint here. Sheer perfection throughout. Honestly, uhhh, well, no, never mind. Some things are better left unsaid, left to the imagination. Burp.

Ian Paganus

Designated DriverHave you ever got the impression that, when an author started a book, they had no idea where it would go or how it would end?That they would just slide into the front seat and let the book take over?This is not such a book.Instead, I got the impression that DeLillo was so firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat here that he wouldn’t have got out if a crew of firemen arrived to rescue him from his burning vehicle.It was win or die, so he had to pull out all stops.When he started, he had the finish line in sight, and when he arrived at the finish line, he made sure that he had come full circle back to where he had started.Seventh Heaven“The Names” was DeLillo’s seventh novel.His previous works had enjoyed modest critical success, but hadn’t really made any commercial impact.This book is generally regarded as the one that launched his career.Originally published in 1982, I first read it in 1987, when it was repackaged after the relative success of his next novel, “White Noise”.It is still the DeLillo book by which I judge all others, but it’s also the one that I recommend as an entry point for anyone who hasn’t read him yet.While it deals with later concerns like cults, terrorism, modernity, security and the plight of America in the world, it does so in a more overtly humanist manner.These issues are the backdrop for the very personal frailties and stories of the protagonists. First Among ProtagonistsThe narrator is an American, James Axton, who is based in Athens at the beginning of the 1980’s.Someone who is quite capable of writing fiction and screenplays, he makes a living writing reports and memos about the economic, social and political situation in the Middle East for the North East Group, a corporation that issues insurance policies against the risk of terrorist activities.He has to identify and assess the risk of terrorist activity, which brings him and his employer to the attention of the CIA.At heart, he is a lonely sad expatriate, a man living apart.He isn’t writing the works he is capable of.He is estranged from his wife and nine year old son, his native America and the Greek society around him.He survives in a world of similarly jaded expatriates who have made Athens a European base for business sorties into the Middle East.Like his own, the other expatriate marriages are stressed and vulnerable to adulterous affairs.This is very much a late twentieth century European version of “The Quiet American”.The Poor Norseman and the Acropolis At the beginning, James defines himself in relation to the Acropolis.He is overawed and daunted by this renowned, exalted building perched on a somber rock and surrounded by tourists.He rationalises that he prefers to wander in a modern city, even though it might be imperfect and blaring compared with the beauty, dignity, order and proportion of the Acropolis.He personalises it as a monument to doomed expectations, as if its existence will confront him with his own inadequacy and the madness of the society around him.Like his peers, James constructs an elaborate sense of self-importance around him that he uses to conceal his loneliness and unhappiness.He is not the stuff of a typical fictional American hero, yet bit by bit he pulls down the construct around him and by the end seems to have seized control of his life.In order to do so, he has to learn from the tumultuous people and events around him.The Women in His Life“The Names” is not a sexually explicit novel, but it does bounce around in a slyly erotic manner.Over the course of the novel, James negotiates comfort from many of the women in his community, whether married or not.Of the women he flirts with, some appear to be good long term friends, some appear to be content with a Platonic attraction and one, Janet Ruffing, a banker’s wife and freelance belly dancer, he imposes himself on so insistently that I can’t think of any better word for it than rape.It is strange that this last relationship almost goes unremarked upon. If it had occurred in a Romansbildung of a much younger character, perhaps his conduct would have been excusable in the name of fiction.However, it is almost as if this rape is intended to symbolize a growing capacity to assert himself within his overall getting of wisdom.This, for me, is the one major, but inexplicable, failure of tone and sensitivity in the novel.Owen Brademas, Epigraphic Detective Perhaps the most important mentor for James is his wife, Kathryn’s, employer, an archeologist and epigrapher.In the twilight of his professional life, he is fascinated by language and its origins in marks, inscriptions, symbols, characters, letters and alphabets.He examines how these systems developed, almost as attempts to make a mark or impression on life, then as a method of recording details of grain, livestock, possessions and wealth.So language wasn’t just concerned with communication within a tribe, but was a major tool, a lingua franca, designed to facilitate trade and commerce between tribes.The Significance of LanguageTo enable communication, alphabets and words had to have commonly accepted meanings and significance.A sign must have a signifier and a signified.An image must have a connection that is commonly recognised.This recognition passes from person to person, but also from generation to generation.Images and words convey the memories of one generation to another generation.Language keeps alive memories and experiences and wisdom.Therefore, language became an important repository for social and cultural meaning.The Language of PowerLanguage has always been more than a vehicle for individual or personal expression.Like the Acropolis, language is a social construct that has its own beauty, dignity, order and proportion.Unlike the Acropolis, it is a vehicle for a dynamic relationship between people.Just as language connects people and things or people and other people, it defines, manages and controls the relationship between the two.It allows people to discover the world and, having done so, it allows them to relate to it.However, inevitably, the relationship involves elements of power, control and persuasion.Thus, it is the fundamental mechanism through which politics operates.Which means that it can be abused.Within mass society, language becomes an instrument of oppression.The Language of ReligionThis abuse extends beyond the civil sphere.Starting with the crucible of the Middle East, there is inevitably a role for language within spirituality and religion.It connects people and God. However, it also defines Good and Evil, and defines our relationship with them.We cannot engage with Good and Evil, except though the vehicle of language.It shapes and moulds our responses to moral issues, especially in emotional terms.Owen tells Kathryn:"Masses of people scare me. Religion. People driven by the same powerful emotion. All that reverence, awe and dread."And, as if by explanation, he states:"I’m a boy from the prairie."Like James in awe of the Acropolis, he believes he has a simple worldview. He’s self-contained and not given to surrendering his independence to the powers that be.He believes that you can lose your individuality in a crowd:"Was it a grace to be there, to lose oneself in the mortal crowd, surrendering, giving oneself over to mass awe, to disappearance in others?" Later on, Frank Volterra, a filmmaker who is captivated by and interested in filming Owen’s story, says:"It is religion that carries a language. The river of language is God."Language is a facility granted to us by God.By the same token, language is a container that holds and transmits that reverence, awe and dread.So, ultimately, language has positive and negative aspects.And “The Names” is DeLillo’s chosen vehicle for exploring them.Reducing Language to WritingSpoken language is just sounds. In order to speak or communicate, we must make a noise:"I liked the noise, the need to talk loud, to lean into people’s faces and enunciate."Yet, too much noise, too little order, too much randomness, and the noise becomes a cacophony of incomprehension.Language must be “subdued and codified” (again, the concept uses the language of power and control).DeLillo first uses this term when he reveals that Owen has been thinking of the English archaeologist Rawlinson, who wanted to copy and analyse the inscriptions on the Behistun Rock, which contained three separate languages, Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian.This enterprise allows him to work at the level of meta-language.Until the stone is deciphered, until the code is broken, it is just a riddle.Rawlinson must apply intelligence to the task, in order to discover the intelligence within or at least on the surface of the rock.He cannot establish a connection with the past, he cannot create a community, until he has managed to decipher the code.Ironically, DeLillo ensures that all the time Owen is being watched by an intelligence community of one description or another, whether it is James or the CIA or the local security forces."All the noise and babble and spit of three spoken languages had been subdued and codified, broken down to these wedge-shaped marks. With his grids and lists the decipherer searches out relationships, parallel structures. What are the sign frequencies, the phonetic values? He wants a design that will make this array of characters speak to him."An Array of CharactersEarlier, Owen mentions that the word “character” comes from a Greek word, which means “to brand or to sharpen” or in the case of the noun “an engraving or branding instrument”.In English, he points out that the same word is used not just for a mark or symbol (like a letter in the alphabet), but a person in a story.You could extrapolate that those original marks or symbols might actually have represented real people.Interestingly, the same English word is used to describe the quality or characteristics of a person, their “character” and the “mark” they will make on the world.So language is a tool that enables us to tell stories, to create our own worlds and to populate them with people.In more advanced societies, story-telling takes the form of novels and film.Just as Rawlinson and Owen are trying to decipher riddles, the challenge for an author like DeLillo is to create “a design that will make this array of characters speak to him”.Frank Volterra follows in Owen’s footsteps, trying to make a film that will capture and describe the story.Fiction and film are designed to make a lasting impression, they are the wedge-shaped marks scratched out by this generation that future generations will examine to learn about us and themselves.Naming NamesAt the simplest level, the concept of the “Names” is that language consists of giving “names” to things or images or signs. But we need codes to understand the allocation of a name to a sign.Many of these codes were carved in stone, intended to last a thousand years.Just as these codes, when broken, reveal their meaning, we also learn that many of the inscriptions were codifications or codes of law and usage that were intended to regulate and manage trade and commerce.They supply guidance, directions and commandments as to how things should and must be done.Originally, they were primarily intended to work for the benefit of merchants and consumers.However, language took on a life of its own as a tool of power and control.You could even speculate that language is the power and control and that people are the vehicle it uses to achieve its purpose.The risk in all codes and laws is that they become too prescriptive and inflexible.They can ossify or, ironically given their origin, turn to stone.So there comes a point when the code attracts not awe, but resistance.A Cult Defying LanguageIn DeLillo’s hands, the resistance comes from a cult of fundamentalists.They see language as an instrument of oppression and they begin to attack it by killing people.Obviously, most people are the carriers of language, so if you murder someone you destroy their capacity to use language.Yet, this seems so arbitrary. It makes an enemy of everyone.Owen sets out to find “a pattern, order, some sort of unifying light” to explain their conduct.Owen and James discover that all of the victims are old and infirm, (almost) ready to die, some having lost their memory and therefore their connection with the past, themselves and those around them.Kathryn even speculates that the cult is sacrificing these people to God as a plea for divine intercession in a world that they believe has gone wrong.Perhaps, they are a doomsday cult trying to forestall doomsday?Occult PracticesOwen questions it, because he has met them and doubts whether they worship a divine being:"They weren’t a god-haunted people."They are interested in “letters, written symbols, fixed in sequence”.He suspects that they want to return to a simpler world, where symbols are purely derived from nature, where letters are mere pictographs representing only “everyday objects, animals, parts of the body”.Frank learns that they oppose the order of language, the way it has become both law and order:"The alphabet is male and female. If you know the correct order of letters, you make a world, you make creation. This is why they will hide the order. If you will know the combinations, you make all life and death."Take Your Name and PlaceJames learns that the cult chooses victims whose initials match the first letter of each word in a place-name."The letters match...Name. Place-name."They are placing people in the real world. Then killing them.The act of murder silences the victim. Owen learns from a former cult member:"When we came into the Mani [peninsula], we knew we would stay. What is here? This is the strength of the Mani. It does not suggest things to us. No gods, no history. The rest of the Peloponnese is full of associations. The Deep Mani, no. Only what is here. The rocks, the towers. A dead silence. A place where it is possible for men to stop making history. We are inventing a way out."A Cult with No NamesThe cult appears to be a genuine cult with no name. They will not reveal it to anyone.Ironically, James finds one incidence of where they have created their own marking.It’s a rock inscribed with the words “Ta Onomata”, which he suspects might be the name of the cult."Do you know what it means? “The Names”."They define themselves by the name of their enemy.By marking the name of the enemy on pottery and smashing it, they will bring about their enemy’s death. And perhaps their own."You...want to hurt your enemy, it is in history to destroy his name…the same harm [as if] you cut his throat." The Politics of Empire DeLillo treats language as a symbol of a process that subdues and codifies people.It can also have a special place in the subjugation of peoples, the politics of empire:"We can say of the Persians that they were enlightened conquerors…they preserved the language of the subjugated people. Is this the scientific face of imperialism? The humane face? Subdue and codify?"In the contemporary world, DeLillo’s subjects include “money, politics and force”, the topics of James’ reports and memos."For a long time, [Greek] politics have been determined by the interest of great powers. Now it is just the Americans who determine."Americans “learn comparative religion, economics of the Third World, the politics of oil, the politics of race and hunger”.They have learned that “power works best when it doesn’t distinguish friends from enemies.”Like language, this imperial approach is destined to attract resistance, in the form of terrorism.“The Names” was written at the time of the Iran hostage crisis in 1980.Terrorism has become more powerful and refined since then, but there is much in DeLillo’s novel that preempts both real world politics and the concerns of his future novels. Even James realises that, "If America is the world’s living myth, then the CIA is America’s myth."Ultimately, "The final enemy is government."The Coded Matters of IntimacyIf the novel was just concerned with global politics, it would be enough.However, DeLillo extends his gaze to personal and family relationships.James is no hero, but he does embark on a hero’s journey, learning from others and his own discoveries.It’s a collective effort that reconnects him to his family.When we first meet him, he is alienated, although nowadays we would probably diagnose him as depressed.Deep down he seems like quite a charmer, but he is a “reluctant adulterer” who has “an eye for his friends’ wives and his wife’s friends”, just two of “27 Depravities” he lists about himself.He has failed to pay attention, failed to concentrate, failed to focus, failed to treat his family seriously, he has lost the words needed to make a family life happen.Ultimately, as he learns about language, he rediscovers the language of love.But first he must acknowledge that he has made a mistake.Kathryn’s “every dissatisfaction, mild complaint, bitter grievance” was right, although it is amusing that he can only see this retrospectively.He can only acknowledge that Kathryn was “retroactively correct” (i.e., “she is right now, but I was right at the time.” I must try this out on my wife, F.M. Sushi, next time I apologise).Memorising the FutureThis retroactivity involves memory.Once again, James is influenced by Owen, who believes that memory is: "... the faculty of absolution. Men developed memories to ease their disquiet over things they did as men. The deep past is the only innocence and therefore necessary to retain."It is a reminder that we have been good and that we can be good again.Language is the beginning of doing good:"This is what love comes down to, things that happen and what we say about them."It’s not enough to be awestruck by the wonders of the world, because we will sometimes encounter what his nine-year old son, Tap, describes as something “worse than a retched nightmare. It was the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world.”James finds Tap’s mangled words exhilarating: "He made me see them new again, made me see how they worked, what they really were. They were ancient things, secret", [but most importantly] "reshapable".We have to add some love, some light, some colour of our own.Acropoliptic VisionWhen James finally conquers his fear of the Acropolis, this is what he has come to realise.There are crowds, tourists, families, none of them alone, making a noise, all speaking their own language, "one language after another, rich, harsh, mysterious, strong". "This is what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant or slaughtered rams. Our offering is language."Ultimately, this is DeLillo's offering to us: language that is rich, harsh, mysterious, strong.


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This has to be the densest DeLillo novel I've read. There's a large cast of characters, multiple plot-lines, and some serious theoretical/thematic stuff going on, all in under 350 pages. The one thing DeLillo gets criticized for the most, it seems, is that he's prone to letting style run rampant, leaving his novels empty and vapid. I've never really felt this way about any of his books, though this one seemed to come the closest. All the characters are kept at a great distance from the reader, especially (or at least most importantly) the narrator, who we never really get to know, for all his hip DeLilloesque musings, which he (or else the author) uses to distract from what he's really feeling, what his real motivations are, his thoughts, his desires. In The Names, style dominates so fully that none of the characters, I'd say, are even real people, but instead are just vehicles for DeLillo's theoretical message, and plus his stylistic, poetic prose. Which, fine. The prose is absolutely top-notch here, and the theory is totally compelling. This is definitely a novel that warrants at least two reads. Still, there were times when I felt myself losing interest, due to the distance that DeLillo maintains between his reader and his characters. The most emotionally resonant aspect of the novel concerns the relationship between the narrator and his wife and son (and but because his wife plays only, really, a brief, developmental role in the novel's first section, it's the son who provides the novel with its real emotional gravitas). The son, like all of DeLillo's best children, is delightfully precocious, though here DeLillo keeps him somewhat vulnerable and childlike; unlike, for example, White Noise's over-the-top-but-still-amazing Heinrich. Still, the oddly named Tap is only nine, and he's writing a novel, which is . . . noteworthy? Anyhow, during the interactions between the narrator and his son, my ears perked up and my heart started beating again. I started to care on more than just a surface, aesthetic level. Tap is clearly what makes the narrator tick, emotionally speaking. Thus, I only wish these interactions would have been more frequent and less far-between.Here's an interaction (not between Tap & his father) indicative of what I'm talking about:"Everybody is like everybody else.""You can't mean that.""Not exactly. Not stated exactly so.""We overlap. Is that what you mean?""I'm not sure what I mean."It's worth noting the absence of dialogue tags; the novel rarely uses them. All of DeLillo's characters, not only within a single novel but throughout his entire body of work, sound the same, which is fine only because his dialogue is so riveting in the way it's both incredibly realistic and wonderfully, almost comically stylized. This was pushed a bit too far, though, in The Names. Here, we have two characters who could, really, be any two characters in any of DeLillo's books, but what's truly frustrating about the interaction is that one of the characters seems (finally) to want to really say something, to make a statement, and to establish a sort of identity for him/herself through this declaration. When that declaration is met with the slightest bit of resistance or skepticism (not that the skepticism is directed at the content of the statement; it's almost as if the second character is skeptical of any statement which would allow another character to establish that desired identity), the speaker immediately retreats into a neutral and safe ignorance. We're left, once again, with a character who's unable to take a stand, make a statement, become a real person. The conversation becomes another hip bit of DeLilloesque poetry, a (dare I say) vapid interaction between two detached, aloof characters. Sure it's enjoyable on an aesthetic level, but it's hard to sustain a novel on aesthetics alone.The overall theme of the novel is language—not written language or spoken language per se, but the means by which we, as humans, communicate. The narrator travels to multiple exotic locales, ostensibly on business but not really doing anything besides walking around making observations. There's a subplot about a series of cult murders, but this never really seems to go anywhere, and in any case, it didn't really interest me (again, I would like to read this again). Everything fits together really well, thematically, and DeLillo manages to say a ton about language without directly being like, This is a book about language. And the book's final section is . . . some kind of wonderful.I seem to be pointing out a ton of flaws in this book, which, I guess the only thing I can say in its defense is: Don DeLillo wrote it. If you're a fan, this is worth reading. It's dense, it's saying something, it's full of poetry. Read it slowly, though. Don't expect to fly through it like you would a Mao II or a Cosmopolis. There's a lot going on here, which is why I'll go back to it in good time.

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