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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Names (1982) by Don DeLillo

Photo of the Vintage Paperback edition of The Names, by author Don DeLillo.  DeLillo's early books were republished after the smash success of Underworld.
Book Review
The Names (1982)
 by Don DeLillo

    Don DeLillo is another over-represented author from the first edition of the 1001 Books list: six books, three of which were dropped in 2008, including The Names, his seventh novel.  Any time you make a list that extends backwards in time, the list makers will over-represent the importance of recent events vs. older events.  It's a bias which favors the present over the past.   Essentially 30% of the 1001 Books list is novels written between 1980 and 2006, a twenty six years period in a date range between 1700 and 2006.  So 8% of the timeline occupies a third of the number of titles in the 1001 Books list.    For most of that more recent time period, critics and authors were actively debating whether the novel, as an art form, was "dead."

   Criticisms of the 1001 Books 2006 list aside, I do enjoy Don DeLillo.  I read Underworld in hard cover, and I made some feints towards his back catalog- I remember an unread copy of Mao II haunting my apartment during law school.  The DeLillo of The Names is recognizable as the same DeLillo of Underworld, a man obsessed with the intersection of the 20th century white people relationship novel and the newer concerns of authors like Bellow and Pynchon, authority and control, and the way that influences those same relationships.

  In The Names, the setting is Athens at the turn of the decade from the 1970's and 1980's.  Jim is a freelance writer who works for corporations, writing annual reports and promotional materials.   His soon-be-divorced wife, Kathryn, is nearby on a Cycladic isle, volunteering her time with a moribund archaeological dig while she minds their 9 year old son, a precocious fellow whose main occupation in The Names is the writing of a "non-fiction novel."

   Jim take a new job with a shadowy outfit that specializes in "risk management" on behalf of nameless "large corporations" in the Near East.  Jim's job is to liaise with the local operatives, and obtain his own confidential information from his friends in the Athenic expatriate community.  The quotes used above hint that all is not what it seems with his new gig, but he spends little of the book on that topic, instead becoming obsessed with what may be a series of "alphabet inspired" cult murders taking place near various sites in the Near East.  Like many contemporary novels that dwell in a Pychonian air of mystery, the ending is never as significant as the writing would seem to demand.   Ultimately, the conspiracies and unseen machinations of the late 20th century novel function as a visible mirror to the unresolved tensions of the characters. 

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