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?”

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...

(The entire section contains 1106 words.)

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