There were times in this novel when I wished DeLillo did plots. The Names is set up, brilliantly, like a thriller. An American in Athens with a shadowy job, a risk analyst for a company that insures multinational companies against the hazards of political upheaval, and part of an international subculture of equally shadowy executive figures benefiting from middle eastern turmoil hears about the existence of a death cult in the region of Greece where his separated wife and son are temporarily living. She is a volunteer at an archaeological dig. The opening hundred pages of The Names is dazzling, especially there’s some of the best travel writing you’ll find anywhere in literature.
Everyone in the novel is about to fly somewhere else. Teheran, India, Beirut, Cairo, Cyprus, Turkey, Kuwait, Pakistan, Jordan, Zaire. Places that aren’t safe, places where there’s money to be made. There’s the sense most of these people are parasites. They are people who pride themselves on their sophistication. And yet, ironically, the novel begins to backslide more and more towards the primitive. It drops any aspiration towards plot and becomes more and more esoteric. It becomes a novel about language. About the roots of language and the darkness language seeks to edge us away from. A narrative about narrative itself. The narrator collects narratives. And almost everything narrated is second-hand, a distillation of the original experience. We learn about people and things twice, “the second time in memory and language”.
“How do you connect things? Learn their names.” The death cult choose their victims by name. The initials of the victim’s name have to match the initials of the place where the murder is to take place. Of course a thriller writer here would have made sure the novel’s narrator’s name matched the name of the place he was heading towards. But DeLillo isn’t interested in Hollywood.
If you’ve tried DeLillo before and haven’t warmed to him then probably you won’t like this much either. Reasons? Firstly all the characters talk in the same voice and are all without exception, a child included, more eloquent and intelligent than anyone we’re generally likely to meet. They are all at one with the general cadence and fabric of the text itself. Secondly, DeLillo is very much an impressionist; he’s not a realist. And this is among his most impressionist novels. Libra and White Noise are probably as close as he gets to realism.
It’s astonishing this novel was published in 1986 because it predicts much that has happened in the Middle East so far this century. The death cult can even be seen as an eerie forerunner of ISIS- not Islamic or political in nature but backward looking, primitive in its simplistic dichotomies, its adherence to misrepresented ancient texts.
I can’t say I understood exactly what The Names was getting at. As a novel it remains a bit of a blur in my mind. But the writing at times is absolutely stellar.