Wednesday, April 04, 2012

book review: The Names by Don DeLillo


Language, specifically the names of things, is a theme from all angles in this book which manages to unsettle the reader until the last word.

In a nutshell the story follows an American former journalist, now risk analyst, who is living in Greece. James is separated from his wife but they start the story in close proximity working at an architectural dig on a nearby island. The dig is looked after by Owen Brademas a figure who is central to the plot although rarely takes centre stage.

Language comes into the tale straight away because it is a barrier. James is learning Greek but ends up telling lies to the doorman in his building because he doesn't know the right words to describe what he is really doing.

Likewise the communication breakdown in his marriage is exacerbated by his habit in the past of listing his faults and then reciting some of them in strange voices.

What words stand for is something that obsesses Owen and starts to run off on James and then in turn on his film making friend who hears of a cult that kills people that are named in the locations they are murdered. For instance Maud Kolo in Milton Keynes. For a while I thought that the main character James was destined to be dragged somewhere that matched his initials and killed but you come to understand he is more of an observer.

He is trying to read the language, both written and in signs and body language, and come to conclusions rather than becoming the story himself.

As a result he is in an ideal position to watch the ex-pat community, breeze through Greece, Turkey, India and beyond as he gathers risk data and even meet and talk to the cult about their activities.

The book is not always easy to get through and there were times you felt that the hunt for the cult was one that might not be worth the effort. As James heads for India and collects more stories of random deaths you start to suspect that there is no great mystery behind it after all.

Perhaps that is the real lasting impression here, that you can look for meanings too hard in things and sometimes language and words can not really be used to justify base acts of brutality.

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