‘Conversation is life, language is the deepest being’: The Names by Don DeLillo

“People everywhere are absorbed in conversation. Seated under trees, under striped canopies in the squares, they bend together over food and drink, their voices darkly ravelled in Oriental laments that flow from radios in basements and back kitchens. Conversation is life, language is the deepest being. We see the patterns repeat, the gestures drive the words. It is the sound and picture of humans communicating. It is talk as a definition of itself. Talk. Voices out of doorways and open windows, voices on the stuccoed-brick balconies, a driver talking both hands off the wheel to gesture as he speaks. Every conversation is a shared narrative, a thing that surges forward, too dense to allow space for the unspoken, the sterile. The talk is unconditional, the participants drawn into it completely.”

Much is said about Don DeLillo’s master works. People who have read DeLillo have read White Noise or Cosmopolis, the hard-core attempt Underground and do or do not succeed, make it or don’t, the 800+ page behemoth which is great, or isn’t, much depends on opinion (it is obviously great). These are the obvious works. But The Names. The Names for me is DeLillo’s master work, it is the book which launched DeLillo (rightly) into the spotlight, preceeding his great run: White Noise, Libra, Mao II, Underworld. It is the start of something extraordinary, if you like DeLillo’s style, the book which, for me, encapsulates everything that makes DeLillo transcendent, magnificent. It is a book I feel is not often enough talked about. It is the book where DeLillo found his form.

The Names is about language. It’s about travel. It’s about Americans abroad – how they see themselves, how they are seen, how it is reflected back on them, the role they play, how they see themselves from a different perspective. It is about how they interact with the world, about being outside your own language, about the power of words, about tourism, about travel, about how it all changes you. It is about religion. It is about speaking in tongues. But the core is language. It is about names and naming, the power of words. It is extraordinary how little is accidental. Ostensibly we follow James (Jim) Axton (Axstone, as he is referred to later, not accidentally, by a member of a language cult, a nameless cult, a cult with a secret name) a ‘risk analyst’ – a job title which is necessarily, pointedly vague – based in Athens whose job is to collect data for an American bank, a vague entity which does something in the region about which James / Jim (jim being a letter in the Arabic alphabet) is wilfully ignorant. Much revolves around the American diaspora in the area, a collection of bankers and analysts who collect data and dispense loans and interfere, deliberately or inadvertently, in the political tenor of the region. Jim is separated from his wife Kathryn, though she, too, is in Greece living on a small island with their son Tap, working on an archaeological dig. Tap is writing a novel based on the early life of the dig leader Owen Brademas, a mysterious and deep man who encounters a cult, a language cult, living in the caves on the island. There is a murder, and the cult becomes important, pivotal, in fact to the rest of the story. The extent to which language pervades is extraordinary, nothing is accidental. Tap and Kathryn speak a language called ‘ob’ which involves inserting ‘ob’ into the words so, for example, if I wanted to say ‘tell me a story’ in ob I would say ‘teobll meob oba stobory’. It is a way of obfuscating ordinary language, making it mysterious or exclusionary, secret language. Is it a coincidence that the name Owen Brademas shares the initials of ob? I think not.

“Nameforms are an important element in our programme, as you know. What do we have? Names, letters, sounds, derivation, transliterations. We approach nameforms warily. Such secret power. When the name is itself secret, the power and influence are magnified. A secret name is a way of escaping the world. It is an opening into the self.”

The book swings around two poles. There is the language, the power of it and its significance. It’s no accident, I think, that Jim the writer (ex-writer), now risk analyst, struggles to learn Greek. Cannot speak it, or can barely speak it. But it is also about America in the world, particularly the way American money influences and changes the world. It is a subject DeLillo grapples with. He is not, I think, blind to the ills of America in the world, and yet it is an issue which is balanced against the innocence (or not) of those that go out and interact with, change the world. These quotes give a flavour of the conflict:

“America is the world’s living myth. There’s no sense of wrong when you kill an American or blame America for some local disaster. This is our function, to be character types, to embody recurring themes that people can use to comfort themselves, justify themselves and so on. We’re here to accommodate. Whatever people need, we provide. A myth is a useful thing. People expect us to absorb the impact of their grievances. Interesting, when I talk to a Mideastern businessman who expresses affection and respect for the U.S., I automatically assume he’s either a fool or a liar. The sense of grievance affects all of us, one way or another.”

 “I’ll tell you what this is all about. It’s about two kinds of discipline, two kinds of fundamentalism. You have Western banks on the one hand trying to demand austerity from a country like Turkey, a country like Zaire. Then you have OPEC at the other end preaching to the West about fuel consumption, our piggish habits, our self-indulgence and waste. The Calvinist banks, the Islamic oil producers. We’re talking across each other to the deaf and the blind.”

“I think it’s only in a crisis that Americans see other people. It has to be an American crisis, of course. If two countries fight that do not supply the Americans with some previous commodity, then the education of the public does not take place. But when the dictator falls, when the oil is threatened, then you turn on the television and they tell you where the country is, what the language is, how to pronounce the names of the leaders, what the religion is all about, and maybe you can cut out recipes in the newspaper of Persian dishes. I will tell you. The whole world takes an interest in this curious way Americans educate themselves. TV. Look, this is Iran, this is Iraq. Let us pronounce the word correctly. E-ron. E-ronions. This is a Sunni, this is a Shi’ite. Very good. Next year we do the Philippine Islands, okay?”  

Which leads me to the other thing which is compelling about DeLillo’s work. Its sense of prescience, of perception. DeLillo is an insightful writer, never more so than here in The Names. And the insight is universal. Written in 1982, the quotes about could almost be contemporary, they remain true, they remain insightful. DeLillo questions the joint influence and ignorance of America in the world. Of course he could be discussing any major world power – the British, the Dutch, the French, the Belgians, the Portuguese. Any country who has stepped out and changed the landscape of the world, taken it and claimed it as its own. And here:

“How big the world is. They keep telling us it’s getting smaller all the time. But it’s not, is it? Whatever we learn about it makes it bigger. Whatever we do to complicate things makes it bigger. It’s all a complication. It’s one big tangled thing.” She began to laugh. “Modern communications don’t shrink the world, they make it bigger. Faster planes make it bigger. They give us more, they connect things. The world isn’t shrinking at all. People who say it’s shrinking have never flown Air Zaire in a tropical storm.” I didn’t know what she meant by this but it sounded funny. It sounded funny to her too. She had to talk through her laughter. “No wonder people go to school to learn stretching and bending. The world is so big and complicated we don’t trust ourselves to figure out anything on our own. No wonder people read books that tell them how to run, walk or sit. We’re trying to keep up with the world, the size of it, the complications.”  

He could be talking about the internet, the influence of the internet. It is hard to remember when the world was mysterious, and yet mystery is exactly what DeLillo explodes in this extraordinary book. He shows the implausibility of connection, of interconnection, the blind faith that accompanies language, the sense that we can communicate with one another. How easily our sense of ourselves can become disconnected by a misunderstanding, by a different perception or perspective. And then there is the language itself. There is something extremely compelling in the way DeLillo writes. I am sure I am not the only person that feels it.

“Along some northern coast at sundown a beaten gold light is waterborne, sweeping across lakes and tracing zigzag rivers to the sea, and we know we’re in transit again, half numb to the secluded beauty down there, the slate land we’re leaving behind, the peneplain, to cross these rainbands in deep night. This is time totally lost to us. We don’t remember it. We take no sense impressions with us, no voices, none of the windy blast of aircraft on the tarmac, or the white noise of flight, or the hours waiting. Nothing sticks to us but smoke in our hair and clothes. It is dead time. It never happened until it happens again. Then it never happened.”

It is beautiful, it is empty, it is meaningless and meaningful. There is no one who can do with a list what DeLillo does with a list. He makes it a mantra, a prayer, a religious experience even when he is talking about the banal or ordinary.

I read The Names a while ago and I remember feeling like I had been through something, something unnameable. On reading it again, this sensation remained, it wasn’t a fluke. It is a book that builds and relaxes. There is a point when I felt like I was dropping off a mental cliff only to be pulled back at the last moment, and at the end, in the final pages before we read an extract of Tap’s novel (which is powerful in itself) I felt like the air had been sucked out of my lungs, deflated, like I had been emptied out. It is a strange sensation and I cannot yet articulate what it is that makes The Names so powerful, but it is. If I had to choose just one DeLillo book to take with me into eternity, this one would be it. It holds the whole world in its pages.

The Names is published by Picador

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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2 Responses to ‘Conversation is life, language is the deepest being’: The Names by Don DeLillo

  1. JacquiWine says:

    It does sound incredibly prescient for a novel written in the early ’80s. Based on my very limited experience of DeLillo, he strikes me as being a visionary writer, someone whose work can be read on several different levels – those layers of meaning are apparent in your heartfelt tribute to this book.

    • bookbii says:

      I think you’re correct in your perception, Jacqui, that DeLillo is visionary. Sometimes that falls flat, but not here. I’d say that there’s a convergence in The Names, except that use of such a phrase pre-figures Zero K, but it’s how I think about it. That the book perfectly aligns concept, story and delivery. He’s not to everyone’s taste, but it certainly is to mine!

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