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THE NAMES by Don DeLillo


by Don DeLillo

Pub Date: Oct. 18th, 1982
ISBN: 0679722955
Publisher: Knopf

James Axton is an American free-lance writer working out of Athens as a part-time "risk analyst" for a shadowy conglomerate selling political-risk insurance, mostly to large companies fearful of having a foreign base of operations collapse on them (just as Iran is doing right then, in the novel). His wife Kathryn lives separated from him, with their precocious son Tap, in primitive conditions on a Greek island; and James' Athens social life consists mostly of the cafe-society of sharp and jaded Americans like himself, not bohemians but business-people schooled in the multinational machinations of large banks, in airline etiquette, in "the humor of personal humiliation." In the book's best scene, for instance, James seduces (by means of urgently lewd and pressuring talk) a young corporate wife who has just performed a salaciously innocent belly-dance exhibition at a party. And as long as DeLillo stays within this class of the edgy and expatriate, bis novel is fine--gritty and adhesive. But then, as he has done in other fiction, DeLillo introduces a cloudy, false-seeming thriller element, one with obvious metaphorical intent, but little inherent (or even coherent) suspense: James, along with a gratuitous film-director-friend character, winds up trailing a murder cult from Greece to Jordan to India, a cult which kills individuals whose names line up, in initials, to those words inscribed on a holy stone. And, as before, one senses DeLillo's lack of genuine interest in his plot, his far greater commitment to philosophical digressions: "A freedom, an escape from the condition of ideal balance. Normal understanding is surpassed, the self and its machinery obliterated. Is this what innocence is? Is it the language of innocence these people spoke, words flying out of them like spat stones? The deep past of men, the transparent word." The central motif here, then, is the essentially semantic nature of reality; and the larger theme is, as usual with DeLillo, the foulness of modern life--its sullying, cheapening progress. But while other DeLillo books (even the weaker ones) have presented that theme with an insistent, disturbing blade of glittering scorn, this time there's more somber meditation . . . while only a few scenes flare. And so, though a great talent remains on display in those glimpses of plastic/expatriate lifestyle, this ambitious essay-novel is characteristically uneven--and un-characteristically dullish as well.