Wonderful brief appreciation of UD‘s beloved Don DeLillo in the Guardian, where Geoff Dyer reckons that if the Booker Prize had been open in the past to Americans, three of DeLillo’s novels would have won.

Yet Dyer doesn’t really get at why The Names is such a great novel. For that he’d need more space, because there are lots of reasons.

Above all, The Names is extremely beautifully written.

One recurrent tension in the book is between the white noisy, airy, superficial, radically present, restless life of postmodern Americans, and the deeper, grounded, realer life of pretty much everyone else. The Americans literally spend much of their time up in the air – they are multinational businesspeople, constantly flying from place to place. Here DeLillo evokes the feel of air travel:

At the boarding gate, the last of the static chambers, the stillness is more compact, the waiting narrowed. He will notice hands and eyes, the covers of books, a man with a turban and netted beard. The crew is Japanese, the security Japanese… He hears Tamil, Hindi, and begins curiously to feel a sense of apartness, something in the smell of the place, the amplified voice in the distance. It doesn’t feel like earth. And then aboard, even softer seats. He will feel the systems running power through the aircraft, running light, running air. To the edge of the stratosphere, world hum, the sudden night. Even the night seems engineered, Japanese, his brief sleep calmed by the plane’s massive heartbeat.

Where to start? With even the night seems engineered, no? Not only for its strange but true content, the way so many hugely powerful and transformative techno-moments are managed for us, their massive underlying powerful systems quieted and calmed for us (WhisperJet), their deformations of nature so radical that from their theater of simulacra they can seem to pull open the curtains of our very morning noon and night … But also for its poetry, the long ee sound eerily recurrent not only in this phrase but throughout the passage (the repetition of Japanese, of feel, and then, after seems engineered, brief sleep…). And note along with this incantatory word music the language of the spirit, prayer, loftiness (chambers, stillness, stratosphere) — “it doesn’t feel like earth.”

The character senses, is alive to, a certain affiliation between traditional spiritual experience and what he is being lifted into here; but the language of radical artifice, and of a kind of drugged drowsiness, makes clear that this experience is far from truly spiritual. It is empty, engineered.

The other side of the tension is DeLillo’s evocation throughout the book (most of which is set in Greece) of grounded existence, or, more precisely, the postmodern American’s yearning toward it. The main character feels it, sort of, when talking one beautiful quiet evening with his wife:

This talk we were having about familiar things was itself ordinary and familiar. It seemed to yield up the mystery that is part of such things, the nameless way in which we sometimes feel our connections to the physical world. Being here. Everything is where it should be. Our senses are collecting at the primal edge. The woman’s arm trailing down a shroud, my wife, whatever her name. I felt I was in an early stage of teenage drunkenness, lightheaded, brilliantly happy and stupid, knowing the real meaning of every word.

We sometimes feel our connections to the physical world. And again in a passage about Greece:

The sun, the colors, the sea light, the great black bees, what physical delight, what fertile slow-working delight. Then the goatherd on the barren hill, the terrible wind…. Look to the small things for your truth, your joy. This is the Greek specific.

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2 Responses to ““The Names is a prophetic, pre-9/11 masterpiece: a 21st-century novel published in 1982.””

  1. Tony Grafton Says:

    A wonderful post on an astounding, fantastic book.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Tony: Thanks. It took me a number of re-readings to like The Names. The first few readings, I found it obscure and turgid… It’s always a challenge, when teaching it, to clarify just what it is that makes it, as you say, astounding.

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