Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 20, 2008

Don DeLillo, _The Names_

I STARTED READING Don DeLillo with White Noise, and have kept up since, with an intermittent ambition to go back and read the pre-White Noise novels.  The first two I went back to pick up on were Great Jones Street and End Zone -- both likeable, but neither would have made a convert of me had I read them at the time they were first published, I suspect.  The Names, however, strikes me as DeLillo at his amazing best.

The prose is breathtakingly good.  This short paragraph, for instance:

"Star fields, ruined time.  Nearby a man with a flashlight and donkey hauling garbage in black bags.  The hill was empty depth against the streaming night, the medieval sky in Arabic and Greek.  We drank dark wine from Paros, too full of night and sky to use the candles."

The state-of-the-nation stuff, always one of the most compelling aspects of any DeLillo novel, is also strong:

"'America is the world's living myth [says narrator James Axton, a "risk analyst" who collects data for an insurance company that underwrites terrorism insurance for various international corporations].  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 is either a fool or a liar.  The sense of grievance affects all of us, one way or another.'"

Check that copyright date: 1982.  Uncanny, no?  

James is trying to reconnect with the wife from whom he is separated and their son, and is side-tracked by his curiosity about a murder cult that picks its victims according to some pattern of alphabetical coincidences.  Both situations are opened up by DeLillo so as to seem bottomless, infinite in their ramifications, and neither reaches any definite closure -- are we in DeLillo territory or what?  

Got to get more.  Ratner's Star, perhaps?

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