The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo (Pan Macmillan - August, 2012)
DeLillo is probably best known as the author that has given us such classic masterpieces as Underworld and White Noise. Since his first publication Americana in 1971, he has made his mark on literature with postmodernist epics of the highest order. His novels are simply a must-read for anyone who derives pleasure from what you might call ‘acrobatic writing’, this is to say writing that both challenges and rewards the reader by stirring the senses and igniting the mind. Not unlike a tightrope-walker he keeps the reader holding their breath as he moves, assured and artfully, above the abyss that constitutes human nature, and ultimately we can’t help but cling to his words as he crosses the white page towards an enriched perception.
For fans his first collection of short stories is a wonderful opportunity to gain an overview of the creative journey the seventy-five year old author has taken, as these stories cover the period from 1979 right up to 2011. But even if you are new to DeLillo’s work, this book offers truly unique pleasures. This is story-writing at its best and a celebration of a form that is often seen as inferior to the mighty novel.
On reading DeLillo we are reminded why in an academic context literature has been assigned to humanities. His ‘story-telling’ is not so much about the ‘story’ - what happens, and even less about ‘telling’ - how it happens, but these short pieces give an unforgettable impression of the characters’ inner landscapes; the entanglement with their desires, concerns, fears, hopes and disappointments. Even though these pieces are concise there is much freedom for the discursive. Within a few pages DeLillo manages to juxtapose the cosmic with the delicate by highlighting human interactions.
To me the piece 'The Runner' gives us a clue to the elements that bind this collection; the stories are almost like odysseys in miniature – from a run around the park, in 'The Runner', to a trip through space in 'Human Moments in World War III'. We are allowed a glimpse into the fleeting moment of experience shaped by the impenetrable laws of chaos that prevent us from taking the world we live in for granted. There is a light touch to his descriptions even though what is touched upon is often catastrophic, unsettling and deeply moving.
But despite the fleeting nature of these encounters there is a sense of timelessness and universality, a sense of order in this disarray, a sense of acceptance and even serenity. In 'The Ivory Acrobat' DeLillo artfully links past and present by making modern-day Athens sound like a Minoan colony. In 'The Angel Esmeralda' the 21st century Bronx is reminiscent of a besieged town in the dark middle-ages, where the high mortality of children is a lamentable but unavoidable fact. It is not so much that history repeats itself but that history prevails though the endurance of human nature.
The characters in these stories are largely reduced to witnesses but are not victims. They are observing life as it occurs while remaining overwhelmed by powers and forces far beyond their control. They are not only witnessing external circumstances - earthquakes, fiscal collapse - but they are equally impotent when it comes to their personal lives as if even their own desires were an alien force that renders them helpless. And of course all that is left after witnessing such disasters is to document them if only to somehow come to terms with the emotional aftermath; a role often assigned to art.
In 'The Angel Esmeralda' the children’s passing is commemorated through graffiti even though the tragic events can’t be prevented. In 'Baader-Meinhof' the protagonist daily visits a gallery displaying the poignant paintings of suicide victims and, as it happens, she is also powerless when she is faced with the threat of an intruder. It seems all she can do to defend herself is to retreat; hide away and observe.
'Hammer and Sickle' deals with tax evasion but again it is also about avoidance on a more personal level. Although Jerold was a high-flying businessman before being imprisoned for fraud, he is unable to turn his situation around or even to face up to his presence.
I didn’t want the men in the dorm looking at me, talking to me, spreading the word throughout the comp. I was learning how to disappear. It suited me, it was my natural state, day by day, to be phantasmal again.
My favourite story is 'Midnight in Dostoevsky' where two university students try to apply what they have learned, or think they have learned, during their lessons on logistics. It is a most amusing story about how a misunderstood approach to the speculative can lead to a complete alienation from reality. DeLillo is mocking a philosophical concept without ever betraying the good intentions of his characters. 'Midnight in Dostoevsky' reads almost like a kind of manifesto, a comment on language and the craft of writing. It reflects on how unknowable our world is and how inadequate words are in describing it.
DeLillo’s use of language is versatile, from imitating gang-slang to a rapper-style dialogue. He is a master when it comes to wording situations in an inventive and surprising manner. Let me just highlight two examples of this ingenious, almost surreal approach: 'then she dances away into a jacket and out of the door' and 'she lived inside a pause'. It is bold, daring, tactile, poetic and philosophical all at once. Maybe only true masters are granted the freedom to be so extravagant when it comes to language and I guess he had to earn such freedom.
Indeed this is the work of a great master who has shaped the literary landscape. To be fair, these stories are perhaps a hint melancholic at times but never melodramatic or self-indulgent. Instead DeLillo talks about survival. He embodies the voice of endurance - documenting what it is like to be human.