For a long time I stayed away from the acropolis.
So opens an early-ish DeLillo novel, The Names. I have read many other books by Don DeLillo – probably at least 10. This is the first book that, at least as far as I can remember, I thought about the opening line the whole time. Like it was an “opening line,” something the author had contrived to serve as an overture, a fixed point of reference from which I could judge the meanings of later words and sentences. Just like, of course, the acropolis itself serves as such a reference point in city of Athens. That duality – the observation that words serve as reference points for other words, and also that objects serve as reference points in geographical areas – as well as the sense that there is something strange about this parallel, something out of joint about it, is, in a lot of ways, the “big idea” of this novel. I’m sure that sounds either horribly pretentious, overly simplistic, or (most likely) both. And the jury’s still out (at least, my personal jury), I think, on what exactly is the point of DeLillo’s enterprise. It’s one thing to do some hand-waving and use the word “postmodern”; it’s quite another to actually stay to explain what that means, and why it’s worth our time. Whenever I try to talk to my father about DeLillo novels he says something like “I like my novels traditional,” the clear implication being both that DeLillo novels are not “traditional,” and that there’s a problem with that. After a while, some sections of DeLillo novels do become formulaic.
The vague, somewhat philosophical dialogue between two members of the technocratic professional class. Clipped less-than-sentences that lack main verbs. Appositives, rephrasing, sets of three.
Single phrases forming their own paragraphs.
Ambigious section breaks, scenes unspecified, unknown, undrawn.
“The dogs, they use their urine. Extract it.”
“To an American, it’s always a question of extraction.”
“Trahere – to drag. Ex – out of.” Sparse dialogue markers.
“Catholic to your core. Whatever your critics say.” That was John. He spoke in Italics.
“Are we having another?” Statements that don’t respond to each other, meet perpendicularly, skew lines.
He set his cigarettes on the table. This meant we were serious. A certain tension in his palm. The lighter centered, flicked, then re-centered. Strategic monogamy. The waiter approached, a half-gesture tossed his way. It’s what we come to expect. The question of how it all hangs together. Niklaus let out a breath. Exhaled. Ex halere. The Latin. Language as actuarial tables, the risk of meaning.
Ok, I’ll stop the parody. I hope you could tell that’s what that was.
I did like this book, in spite of those formulae. I’m tempted to read this novel by trying to decode it, maybe going back and re-reading it and every time the word “name” is used, reading that sentence, and searching for some common thread or something. Before that though (something I probably won’t ever do) I will say – the first thing I thought of when I read that sentence was – well – Proust, obviously. Longtemps. For a long time. The first word of Proust’s 3500 pages. “For a long time I went to bed early.” And what’s the chapter title of the second major section of that first volume? “Place names. The place.” So I don’t think I’m barking up the wrong tree. I’m a little rusty on the Proust, but what I remember was, the narrator was saying he went to bed early so that his mother would have to leave her company downstairs and kiss him. He’s postponing the end of his childhood maybe, or avoiding social life, or just attempting to relive a unity he will never rediscover, or maybe he will, just not until Temps Retrouvre. I’ve read basically zero scholarly anything about Proust, but I can say I read every word of the novel itself. I figure this puts me in a reasonably small crowd – I mean honestly, how many people do you think have read every word of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu? 10,000? I guess that’s a side issue.
Anyway, what we have in Proust is the ultimate in the whole “modernity as the nostalgia for lost origins” thing, even more demonstratively than in Joyce I think. Certainly more psychologically. Since I pretty much have to use Bahktin’s language now to describe everything, I’ll say, you cannot imagine a greater monological novelist than Proust.
But back to DeLillo. In some way I think The Names is the anti-Proust. It’s shorter, obviously (339 pages), but whereas Proust’s narrator searches for his origins and his mother and lost time, DeLillo’s narrator (who is similarly coy about his name – at least as far as I can remember, it’s not revealed for more than 100 pages) refuses to go to the acropolis. He wants to be different from his friends who have found its meaning, used it to help them tie Athens together, come up with generalizations about the Hellenistic influence and so on. That’s the sense I got anyway. He both liked that he hadn’t been there and also liked knowing that others knew he hadn’t been there.
“He asks her the names of things, ship parts, equipment, and later they walk across the lower dock to trace the system of ropes and anchor chains” (134)
Sentences like this float through the book. They punctuate passages or come in the middle of them. There is never a grand theory of “the names” propounded. We also encounter the words in Greek, scrawled as graffiti seen though the eyes of the narrator: ta onomata.
There are certainly diverse styles and genres operating in The Names. At first it’s an “American abroad” novel, with the sort of typical Jamesean fixation on the conversational and social habits of groups of expatriates, and their encounters with their old world counterparts. Then it’s also a getting-through-a-divorce novel. We’re placed in medias res with respect to that storyline, left to imagine the stage of decomposition in which the narrator and his wife possibly-soon-to-be former marriage currently exists. And then it’s a “postmodern tone poem” or something, where the narrator’s child has his own language (it’s like Pig-Latin, but involves the syllable “ob”), and there’s another character whose archeological studies gradually morph into the purely linguistic study of the alphabets of different cultures, seemingly without regard to their meanings (his career, over time, moves from meanings to the letters themselves). Then it’s a travelogue, moving from Athens to Pakistan and then through India, each setting growing more foreign than the last (the final sequence in India was, for me, the most breathtaking, throwing the others into relief in a way I had not expected, a bit like the penultimate movements of “The Nutcracker Suite”). Then there’s also the self-reference thing, widespread in DeLillo (in Americana for example, his first work, it’s the protagonist), where one of the characters is doing something that allows him to reflect on the narrative structure of the book itself. In this case, someone’s making a documentary about some of the other characters – namely, the cult of serial killers at the core of the plot action. Which means yes – last but not least, this book is also a “thriller” about a cult of serial killers who select their victims (not giving anything away, it’s not all that “thrilling” anyway) because their names match the names of the places in which they live.
In a way all of those genre-aspects converge on the seemingly intentional elimination of meaning, or I guess to grab Lyotard’s term, metanarratives. The serial killers are bent on destroying arbitrary linkages that may arise between victims’ and places’ names. If we see language as this sort of gradually accumulating arbitrary mass of sounds, words and ultimately referents, the killers are denying would-be future cultural development by severing the sounds of the victims’ names from those of the places in which they dwell (or, seen the other way around, they’re forever linking them, given that the killings would most likely bring notoriety to the linkages). An arbitrary connection, to be sure, but that is one way language grows. Think of the simple word “okay” and its disputed etymology – “Old Kinderhook”? Some dead president’s signature that ended up attaching itself to the simple concept of routine acceptance? These killers try to wipe out the possibility of such an etymology each time they kill one of their unsuspecting and totally undeserving victims. They are enacting that “skepticism about metanarratives” that Lyotard says defines the postmodern condition. I guess.
When asked about “why” they do this, one of the cult members responds simply “the names, aren’t they beautiful?” Presumably the act of snuffing them out is also, then, in itself beautiful.
Well there, now that I think about it, there’s a lot going on in The Names. And besides all that philosophical-ish thought, there’s also the related feeling DeLillo books always give me – of comfort. Not comfort like “comfort food” or like the old couch you have that’s so worn out that you enjoy its oversoftness. This is more the comfort I experience from a fresh hotel room when I first walk in. When through the hallway you vaguely smell the chlorine from the pool area, and then upon first glance you see the neatly tucked sheets of the bed, the freshly folded fluff of the towels, the chill of the overly air-conditioned space, and the sense that, though you know it’s false, no one has ever been here before. Everything is hermetically managed and shaped, smells faintly of however the hotel has decided the room should smell, there are clean lines and arrangement everywhere you look.
But the other thing that’s there always in DeLillo, for me anyway, is the concomitant feeling of aloneness you get when you walk into such a hotel room. No one else is there and you are travelling on business. DeLillo’s sentences and paragraphs are starkly separate from one another, as are the characters about whom they speak, as though they’ve all been disinfected, wiped down and arranged just like required. That’s not a reaction unique to this book of course – I probably felt that most strongly when reading Falling Man – but I did have it.
I might, in the future, re-read all these books end to end.