a weekly column by Robert Westbrook
DeLillo Goes Greek
Once upon a time, and not so long ago, a certain type of American went off to live in Greece, in search of truth, beauty, and intoxication of a Dionysian kind: artists, writers, hipsters, drifters, the international lost and found. And a great experience it was to be there, too, though the majority have now safely shed their beach sandals for the return trip home.
The inspiration to go was partly literary - Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis inspired a generation of travelers, along with the movie, with its unforgettable scenes of Anthony Quinn dancing on the shores of Crete. Once you got there, there was the famous Greek light, a blazing sun in a blue sky that made every object in its path seem somehow profound. Frankly, the beaches weren't so bad either. It's all gone now, alas, transformed by waves of tourism and development that began circa 1980. Now there's a brown haze on the Mediterranean, and the beaches are so crowded with beer-guzzling kids on vacation from northern Europe that you can barely find a spot to set your towel down. It's sad to report, but today, if you want to visit anything resembling Zorba's Greece, you will need to find it in a book.
One such book is Don Delillo's 1982 novel, The Names, which I just finished. I have to admit, I've always had a problem with DeLillo. He's a fabulously good writer with an unusual knack of being able to put our modern sensibilities into words, our science fiction lives of technology and alienation, in bestsellers such as Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and most recently The Body Artist (2002). The titles themselves give you an idea of his style. He's on the cutting edge, culturally speaking, but he's bleak, as arid as a desert. And sometimes that's hard to take.
It's a personal matter, our individual tolerance for reading a really depressing book, no matter how well it's written. With DeLillo, I've often found myself reading thirty or forty pages, full of admiration, and then putting his novel down, never to return. The Names, however, is a very finished and (best of all) finishable book, probably a good place to start with this author if you've never read him before.
The Names takes place in the mid-1970s, with the plot more or less a mystery: a body has been found on a Greek island, and eventually we meet a deadly though somewhat literary cult that has done the dirty deed. The mystery, however, is the least convincing part of the book. What's wonderful here is how well Delillo captures the international expatriate set, as well as the memory of that not-yet-ruined Greek place and time. He glories in language, rather than plot. Listen to his description of air travel: "It's just another terminal, another country, the same floating seats, the documents of admission, the proofs and identifications . . . Air travel reminds us who we are. It's the means by which we recognize ourselves as modern."
prose is pertinent, interesting, and provocative. The stories he tells
are almost beside the point, not what you go to a book like The Names
for. Frankly, it'll probably be a while before I'm ready to immerse
myself again in Don
Delillo's world, but he's definitely worth a serious look for
any adventurous reader.
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