08 June 2009

Ur-story: The Death of Meaning (Part 1)

Jacobus, James, Hamish, Seamus, Jaime, Jamie, Jimmy, Hymie, Hamie, Ham, Shem, Jim, Gem.

Vladimir Nabokov famously said:
"It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass." Vladimir Nabokov, "Good Readers and Good Writers," in Lectures on Literature pp. 5-6.
The latest novel to send that telltale tingle up my spine is The Names, by Don Delillo. I remember reading it soon after it was first published. I remember some of the characters. I remember some of the images. I remember the sense of mystery and foreboding. I remember not being quite able to put my finger on what was going on. But, mostly, I remember that, after a certain point, the novel grabbed me by the spine and did not let go until the very last page. It lingered in my imagination all these years. It also solidified my appreciation of Delillo's artistry—it made me a fan.

Immediately after The Names (1982), Delillo published arguably his four most important novels: White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997). That's a line-up you can stack up against just about anybody's run of four novels. The Names tends to get overshadowed by this incredible series of novels, swallowed up in the veritable critical cottage industries these four books have spawned. Still, one can make a pretty strong argument that The Names sets the table for their reception, prefiguring some of the themes. And it remains one of my favorites of his books. Perhaps it's time for a re-evaluation.

After the laser intensity of Carpenter's Gothic, The Names is like a palate cleanser or, better, a decompression chamber. At first. There is context. There are explanations. There are character descriptions. Characters have histories. There are settings, meaningfully depicted. The action is almost languid. The dialogue is direct—though, make no mistake about it, original. There is continuity. Compared to the Gaddis, the language is lush, practically lyrical—though not overwritten. Where the Gaddis feels focused and systematic, The Names comes across as the proverbial Jamesian "large loose baggy monster." Until the last chapter, that is.

And what a last chapter it is. At first, it seems almost superfluous. A gewgaw, a bauble. Nearly illiterate. But, upon reflection, it is absolutely essential to the text. It pulls the diverse strands together in a profound way. But, I get ahead of myself.

The first substantive choice the writer has to make deals with form: What form will my book take? Delillo seems to have located The Names formally somewhere between The Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness, with a little smidgen of Helter Skelter thrown in for good measure. In The Names, James Axton is Nick Carraway to Owen Brademas's Jay Gatsby. And Brademas is Marlow to the unnamed [?] mysterious, murderous cult's Kurtz.

It helps to understand this going in, because the narrative works mostly by indirection until its rousing denouement.

The next choice the writer has to make is a technical one: Who is best positioned to relate the relevant facts of this narrative? Delillo has chosen to tell The Names from the unreliable, first person POV of one James Axton (a/k/a Jim), an ex-pat American centered in Athens. He is separated (though not divorced) from his wife, Kathryn, whom he still loves. She has custody of their son, Thomas a/k/a Tap. Jim is, or has been a freelance writer. He describes his current job as a risk assessor for a large, multinational insurance company. He travels all over the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Northern Africa gathering facts in order to determine the risks to businesses seeking to invest or set up operations in those countries.

In an interesting, ironic subplot, he is mistaken for a CIA agent by a mysterious Greek who is having an affair with one of Axton's friend's wives. This Greek, Eliades, is either an intelligence agent himself or a revolutionary journalist seeking to expose the operations of the CIA in support of the corrupt, brutal Greek junta of colonels. (See Richard Welch) We never find out which, though it hardly matters: the damage has been done. As it turns out, Axton turns out to have been an unwitting asset of the Agency because the information he has been gathering about all these countries has been sold or otherwise turned over to the CIA by his corporate bosses. And, just as the raw data Axton digs up is turned into coherent, operative intelligence in the hands of the Company, so the facts of his narrative cohere in our minds, creating a meaning he is incapable of grasping.

Only twice (by my count) does the narrative stray from Axton's POV, once when Brademas is relating his last encounter with the cult in India and then in the last chapter where we read a brief chapter of Tap's "non-fiction novel" about Brademas's youthful encounter glossolalics in Iowa. And in both of these instances, Axton gets out of the way and lets the speaker/writer speak for himself, a Delilloan nod to the free indirect style.

[to be continued]

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