The Names by Don DeLillo

The Names, like many of Don DeLillo’s novels, is at once fascinating and bewildering. Exploring a wide range of themes including travel, language and family, The Names is a densely detailed and philosophical work. Spanning a broad sweep of locations and introducing a large cast of characters, the novel can sometimes be overwhelming – each page is packed with detail, and every sentence seems important. There is often a sense of detachment on the part of the narrator, as well, that can be isolating and off-putting for the reader. However, The Names leaves an imprint on the mind once finished. It is the kind of novel that stews in the subconscious once put down, and stirs up questions about the nature of life, and the way in which language shapes it.

First published in 1982, The Names is one of DeLillo’s earlier novels. Broken up into four parts, The Names is set predominantly in Greece, although the story moves back and forth across a range of settings. The protagonist and narrator is James Axton, an expat living in Athens. His job description is slightly vague – he works in risk analysis, advising companies on the danger of operating in certain countries. Axton travels extensively for his job – to places like Turkey, Kuwait, and Cairo. Axton’s wife Kathryn – from whom he is separated – lives on a sparsely populated island in the Aegean Sea with their son Tap. Kathryn is volunteering at an archaeological dig, while teenage Tap is working on a novel. Axton – formerly a freelance writer – has taken the job in Athens in order to be close to his family. While visiting the island Axton meets Owen Brademas, the director of Kathryn’s dig, and a man with a keen interest in language and ancient alphabets. Axton is fascinated by Brademas, and by a cult that Brademas meets on the island. The cult is carrying out strange ritual murders, moving from place to place. Axton finds himself caught up in their story, almost in spite of himself: “My life is going by and I can’t get a grip on it,” he says to Brademas in India, towards the end of the novel. “It eludes me, it defeats me. My family is on the other side of the world. Nothing adds up. The cult is the only thing I seem to connect with. It’s the only thing I’ve been right about”.

The Names is very concerned with conversation, and the use of language. Axton’s life in Athens is all about eating and talking – long dinners, long drinking sessions, and conversations with other expats that run deep into the night. On the island, also, he talks at length and with intensity to Owen. With his wife he talks about “commonplaces”, safe subjects like family and work. With the concierge at his apartment he speaks awkward Greek, and studies verb tenses with his secretary. The cult, too, is tied up with language – “how many languages do you speak?” the members demand of Brademas. Axton feels connections with the cult – he sees the pattern (initials of victims matched with initials of the towns where they are killed) and feels the pull of language at his own name. Kathryn and Tap speak in a made-up language, and Tap is writing a novel full of misspellings that Axton finds beautiful. It is language that draws Axton to the cult and to Brademas, who is haunted by a childhood memory of attending a church where people spoke in tongues. It seems Axton is looking for meaning in language, and, perhaps, for God.

The Names also glows with detailed observations. Set against a background of exotic – and sometimes dangerous – locations, there are plenty of descriptions of sights, sounds, smells and tastes. The Names is also concerned with expat life, and with the experience of being a “perennial tourist”, constantly confronted with new experiences but unable to really consider or think deeply about any of them. “You’re able to drift across continents and languages,” Axton muses, “suspending the operation of sound thought.”

While The Names is on the one hand a novel of ideas, it also presents the beauty and poetry of language itself through the richness of its descriptions. It is an effort to examine the way language shapes our lives, and how we are entangled in it, even when we don’t always understand what it means.

Other novels by Don DeLillo include White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997).

Don DeLillo, The Names, Picador, 1987.

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