The Names

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056

What Wallace Stevens would call the “mythy mind” of contemporary technological culture, whether embodied in football, advertising, mathematics, or rock music, is the theme of the six previous novels to which Don DeLillo signed his name (one additional book was published under a pseudonym). The Names should not disappoint those devoted readers who have come to expect wit, sophistication, and ambition from DeLillo. It, too, is a study of and in semiotic patterns, the baffling complexity of the codes which constitute and comment on our world. Language itself is at issue in the international setting where DeLillo places his characters, frustrated exegetes all.

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The Names focuses on a group of multinational businessmen who are based in Athens but who daily travel to various assignments in Africa and Asia. Effectually expatriated from the advanced industrialized nations which provide their passports, they and their families make up an intricate subculture unto themselves. The narrator, James Axton, is a former technical writer who is an associate director of risk analysis in the Middle East for a conglomerate known as the Northeast Group. He is responsible for preparing detailed reports on the probabilities that corporations doing business in a number of volatile developing nations will be successful. His is a context of petroleum politics, the Iranian revolution, Greek-Turkish enmity, and terrorist eruptions. Axton has accepted this position primarily in order to be near his estranged wife Kathryn and their nine-year-old son Tap; Kathryn has impetuously taken Tap with her from Toronto to participate in archaeological excavations in the Aegean.

While visiting Kathryn and Tap on the island of Kouros, James learns of an enigmatic bludgeon murder of an obscure old man. Owen Brademas, the elderly supervisor of the archaeological project, provides him with enough details to pique his curiosity, and both Axton and Brademas become convinced that this death is related to others exhibiting an apparently similar pattern, all of which are expressions of some esoteric ritual. In quest of clues to solve the riddle, Brademas and Axton separately travel throughout the region, to the southern Peloponnisos, to Jerusalem, and to Lahore. It is while sitting in Jebel Amman that James Axton comes to the realization that a bizarre cult has been systematically sacrificing isolated individuals whose initials are the same as those of the place in which they happen to be. The words Ta Onómata scrawled on a rock lead him to conclude that the group calls itself “The Names.” The password of members with whom tenuous contact is made is “How many languages do you speak?”

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The world in which such queries are made is a perilous stage, on which, despite the best-informed estimates of risk analysts, DeLillo’s players chance unexpected, violent death; it is also an elaborate linguistic system that resists one’s efforts to decipher it. Axton, Brademas, and the others travel through an environment echoing with and shaped by phrases in a multitude of languages that they never fully master. Brademas’ vision is of a language that becomes an even more opaque metalanguage, of “a self-referring world, a world in which there is no escape,” and it seems to Axton, as he writes up his actuarial data while Kathryn composes her archaeological reports and Tap precociously works on a novel, as if everyone is compounding the babel: “Everyone is writing away. Everyone is scribbling.” The text of The Names appropriately concludes with an excerpt from Tap’s mannered nonfiction novel on the life of Owen Brademas, a passage in which Tap portrays Brademas as a boy in a rural Midwestern church, bewildered by his first experience of glossolalia. The tongues in which DeLillo’s other characters speak, however, are no more lucid. Axton achieves only partial success in tracking down and interpreting The Names, a society which considers using both him and the filmmaker Frank Volterra to express itself to the outside world but whose actions ultimately are its eloquence.

Axton’s realization, delayed by a failure to interpret oblique hints from his supervisor, George Rowser, that he has unwittingly been working for the Central Intelligence Agency, leads him to resign abruptly from the Northeast Group. Perhaps related to his inadvertent, clandestine activities is the fact that early one morning while jogging in Athens he surprises some men attempting to murder banker David Keller. Axton speculates that this is the work of a Greek nationalist named Andreas Eliades and that it is a case of mistaken identity; the intended victim was not Keller but rather Axton. This conjecture, however, is never confirmed. Axton concludes his text with the assertion: “Our offering is language,” and that cryptic language does not admit of definitive explication.

Axton begins The Names by declaring his refusal to confront the ambiguous ruins of the Acropolis, and he concludes his narrative with a visit to that inscrutable shrine. Kathryn, meanwhile, has returned to Canada to work at the British Columbia Provincial Museum. The Axton marriage, like so many other relationships in the novel, is a symptom of universal drift. James and Kathryn remain neither married nor divorced but rather in the ambiguous status of “separated.” In this novel of rootless modern commercial travelers, connections are uncertain and patterns moot. Perhaps a conspiracy can account for ostensibly random occurrences, but just as plausible is the possibility that apparent runes are simply inarticulate, disjointed ruins.

In The Names, DeLillo takes a risk not sanctioned by the Northeast Group. In depicting a diaspora of exegetes devoid of a binding code, he has fashioned a fragmentary, episodic narrative that is perhaps a consummate embodiment of his themes or perhaps just an aesthetic failure. If some elements seem merely portentous rather than significant, perhaps that is a consequence of skepticism about the very enterprise of signification, yet many isolated passages seem to be forced mystifications and not engaging mysteries. The Frank Volterra plot leads nowhere, and an erotic encounter with the discontented wife of another businessman is discordantly unconvincing. The brisk, elliptical style suggests the rapid montage of Volterra’s films, as it resumes the techniques of DeLillo’s earlier works. The DeLillo cult should not be disappointed by this further demonstration of his skills at creating a lively, demanding text. Critics who have long referred to him as a promising talent on the threshold of a major work can justifiably continue to do so.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 50

Harper’s Magazine. CCLXV, December, 1982, p. 70.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 7, 1982, p. 3.

The New Republic. CLXXXVII, November 22, 1982, p. 32.

The New York Review of Books. XXIX, December 16, 1982, p. 46.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 10, 1982, p. 1.

Newsweek. C, October 25, 1982, p. 117.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, August 13, 1982, p. 117.

Time. CXX, November 8, 1982, p. 89.

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