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Saturday, November 19th, 2005


The Names (Vintage Contemporaries)

by Don DeLillo

The Best DeLillo You've Never Read

A review by Jill Owens

"The fear of sea and things that come from the sea is easily spoken. The other fear is different, hard to name, the fear of things at one's back, the silent inland presence."

Published a few years before White Noise, The Names is a very different kind of novel. Much less directly funny (although very witty, at times), somewhat darker, but just as skillful, The Names seems to be one of Don DeLillo's most underread works, at least by fans that I know. Simultaneously a suspenseful murder mystery, a meditation on family and loss, and a poetic exploration of language itself, The Names is an incredible book that will remind you of the range of possibilities the novel can offer.

Something about setting a novel in modern Greece seems to do wonders for good novelists. Perhaps the ancient ruins or the stark, revealing light, contrasted with the modern culture and potent political history, makes for particularly rich material. The Chicago Sun-Times compared this novel to John Fowles's The Magus, and there's some truth to that, in the mystery, the patterns and coincidences, and layers of symbolism and meaning. The Names is a skillful, prescient book; its exploration of terrorism and political instability connected with the search for meaning in history and language seems particularly relevant today.

James Axton, the narrator, is a "perennial tourist" -- an American political risk analyst working for multinational corporations primarily in the Middle East, Turkey, and India, and living in Athens, Greece. His wife, Kathryn (from whom he is separated), and son, Tap, are also in Greece, on an archeological dig. James's days and nights are spent in the company of other ex-pat friends, filled with conversation, wine, and the natural beauty of the country. Tap, a rather extraordinary nine-year-old, is writing a novel based on the early life of Owen, the chief scientist on the dig. The beginning of the book has a semi-idyllic, in-between feel, even for characters who are already used to being adrift in the world. Then one day a brutal murder occurs -- a feeble-minded local man is bludgeoned to death with a hammer -- on the small island where Kathryn is living, and then another, elsewhere, and everything begins to change.

DeLillo's language is precise and evocative, and wonderfully apt metaphors abound throughout the novel. The dialogue (and there is a lot of dialogue, as the characters often talk through the night) is amazing, as DeLillo's often is: playful, ambiguous, intelligent discourse about language, religion, and politics, which are all central to the ominous cult murders driving the book.

The Names is a book that makes you think and question deeply, even on re-reading. You may not come to any firm conclusions, but you'll find yourself examining the world more closely for hints, for other clues to the meaning and order behind language and desire. (A caveat: I often like Vintage Contemporaries cover art, but, unfortunately, this book's cover is truly awful. Ignore it, please. The familiar adage applies well, in this case.)

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