Between 1982 and 1988 there were three important American novels published, all of which concerned the subject of language: The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace, Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, and The Names by Don DeLillo. All of these books, in their own distinct styles, attempt to show the pragmatic consequences of the loss of meaning, particularly through the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wallace opts for a comic rendering of the theories of Wittgenstein, while Markson attempts to apply the philosophy to everyday life (although that everyday life is being lived in a post-apocalyptic and deserted world). DeLillo’s novel, in its dealing with terrorism and America’s place in the world, has been given even greater weight in recent years.
The Names is about a group of Americans living in Greece. James Axton is putatively a ‘risk analyst’ for an insurance company but unknowingly works for the CIA. He has moved to Greece to be near his estranged wife and son, the former working on an archaeological dig site with Owen Brademas, an academic with an obsession with finding strange languages written in ancient stone. Axton unwittingly discovers evidence of a ‘language cult’, a violent and murderous group who are dedicated to studying the alphabet. The cultists’ murders link the victim’s name to the name of a geographical location, hinting at a deeper meaning behind the crimes.
As the novel progresses, meaning becomes more difficult to locate, both for the characters and the reader. DeLillo relates this loss of structure to true terror, not the ideological terrorism with which we are more familiar. One character says of the cult: ‘These killings mock us. They mock our need to structure and classify, to build a system against the terror in our souls. They make the system equal to the terror. The means to contend with death has become death.’
DeLillo also tackles ideological terrorism, but from an unexpected angle. Axton, in his role as a ‘risk analyst’, is not employed to stop terrorist attacks but to ‘cost’ them. In the novel, terrorism is just a part of international business, and the violence must be factored in to the running costs. Through this theme, DeLillo questions America’s role in global turmoil as one character illuminates: ‘America is the world’s living myth. There’s no sense of wrong when you kill an American or blame an American for some local disaster. This is our function’.
But through these deliberations on terrorism and America’s global identity, the novel always returns to the theme of language and the loss of meaning in the symbols we use to communicate. The language of the narrative is also important, as DeLillo opts for a sturdy, simple style. DeLillo explains this in a 1988 interview: ‘there were periods in Greece when I tasted and saw and heard with much more sharpness and clarity than I’d ever done before or since. And I wanted to discover a sentence, a way of writing sentences that would be the prose counterpart to that clarity.’ But even this clear narrative cannot avoid the inevitable deterioration of meaning, the novel ending with the rough, almost invented, language of Axton’s son’s juvenile story telling.
The Names is a complex novel, but necessarily so. It is, after all, about the consequences of when the structures we use to apply meaning to the world fall apart. It’s a novel that invites the reader to think about the efficacy of our language in describing the complicated and messy experience of the world. But it’s also about how we need that language, the system that allows us to rationalise immediate dangers such as terrorism and war, the system that convinces us we are safe. With The Names, DeLillo gives us a glimpse of the alternative.
Don DeLillo, The Names (London: Picador, 1987)