There has been enough frivolity around here lately. I almost wish that I had read this week’s pick alongside Jan Merete Weiss’ These Dark Things. There are parallels in tone that I think would complement each other well. Then again, we have a nice segue from last week’s delightful wordplay as well.
I first read Don DeLillo’s The Names back during my undergraduate days, and I have re-read it periodically since then. I had a couple of professors in the English department who were very much mentors of mine. They were DeLillo devotees. Now that I think about it, they were also mystery devotees. Granted, most of what they read was of the noir and hard-boiled variety (Hammett, Chandler, anything about the dark underbelly of postwar US cities). But their interest in mysteries led me around as an adult to literary murder. So, thank you, Dennis and Nina!
Back to DeLillo.
James Axton is an American adrift. He lives in Athens, traveling here and there throughout the Middle East gathering data in his role as a risk analyst. His estranged wife and their son are living on Kouros, a Greek island many hours distant. Kathryn is a devoted amateur on an archaeological dig, and Tap is writing a novel.
Nothing much happens. James travels for work. He dines with his fellow expatriates and their associates. He visits his family. He talks late into the night over wine in candlelight, buffeted by warm, honey-scented winds. (Or donkey-scented, exhaust-scented, market-scented – so much depends on the where.) The Namesat times reads like a eulogy to every philosophically-minded adult’s dreams of what adulthood could have been like. (This is part of the reason I love it so much – Delillo wrote my dreams, and he did it in 1982.)
But where, you might be asking, is the murder? The murder is there. Faded far into the backdrop of the story. It appears that a mysterious group, a cult, a shadowy collection of filthy people who turned up on Kouros only to depart again, is murdering people at locations scattered throughout the Middle East. There is not so much solving to be done here as there is understanding. There is a why buried in the shifting sands and crumbling tablets.
Perhaps the most unsettling thing about this book is it’s timeliness. Despite the fact that DeLillo wrote The Names in 1982, his observations remain prescient. Air-travel, risk analysis, the relationship of the US to the rest of the world. It is a surprising reminder of just how much the post-9/11 world really does resemble the pre-9/11 world. Give James a Blackberry, have Tap write his novel on a netbook, watch Kathryn record find details on a tablet - it could all be happening now.