It’s impossible not to get a sense of déjà vu reading The Angel Esmeralda, the first book of short stories in Don DeLillo’s 40-year career. The themes here are echoes — of one another, yes, but even more, of the issues that have defined DeLillo’s writing since his first novel, Americana came out in 1971.
There’s the distance and immediacy of the image, which motivates the title story, as well as the taut, unsettling “Baader-Meinhof”, perhaps the best piece in the collection, built around the German painter Gerhard Richter’s “October 18, 1977” sequence at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. There’s the necessary contrivance of narrative, which is both insufficient and our only solace, an idea that infuses both “The Starveling” and “Midnight in Dostoevsky”. There’s the influence of media and terror, those twin axes of modern power, which fuel “Hammer and Sickle”, where, among other things, a wife sends increasingly radical messages to her incarcerated husband through the medium of television. It’s as if in putting together “The Angel Esmeralda”, DeLillo had decided to construct a primer, a guidebook to his literary life.
And yet, as is often the case with DeLillo, The Angel Esmeralda is not so easy to categorize. Its nine stories span more than three decades and encompass much of the author’s short fiction, making this in its way the least constructed of his books. DeLillo highlights that by organizing the collection chronologically, beginning with 1979’s “Creation” and ending with “The Starveling”, published for the first time this fall.
So what is The Angel Esmeralda, then, code or catalog? The answer is that it is both. DeLillo is among the most consistent of writers; his books are like installments in one ongoing novel, an inquiry into the confusion and intractability of contemporary life.
What seemed, at one time, prescient — the tension between pop idolatry and rock ‘n’ roll iconoclasm that marks Great Jones Street (1973), the recognition of extremism as a social force in Players (1977) and Running Dog (1978) — has become common currency.
Yet DeLillo was there first. I think of Mao II (1991), not one of his great novels, but a book that ten years before September 11 insisted “(s)tories have no point if they don’t absorb our terror,” a statement that could stand as an epitaph for our age. How, the unspoken corollary goes, can anything absorb our terror? Why bother with fiction, with literature, in such a world? For DeLillo, the idea is to reflect, in his characters and their situations, something of our reality, in which we exist, as a matter of course, at the end of our endurance, not necessarily in extreme situations but pushed to extremes nonetheless.
This is the case with nearly every story in The Angel Esmeralda, which features nine protagonists trapped by circumstances they can’t control.
“Human Moments in World War III” traces the experiences of two spaceship pilots, floating at an altitude of a hundred miles above a landscape where “(t)he banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.”
In “The Ivory Acrobat”, an American woman, a teacher at an international school, has to wrestle with the disruption of the 1981 Athens earthquake, and her fear not that things won’t return to normal but that they will.
“Creation” involves a man and a woman waiting, with increasing desperation, for a plane to take them back to civilization from a tropical resort island — a plane that never comes.
“You’re not alone,” the narrator tells his companion. “It’s all right, it’s all right. We’ll have these final hours, that’s all.” The implication, as a driver waits to ferry them to the terminal, is that these final hours are all they have, that they have reached their own terminus point, in which they have no choice but to live in a never-ending now.
What DeLillo’s getting at is a particular idea of suspension, one that implicates everyone. “She was deprived of sentiments, pretensions, expectations, textures,” he writes of his Athens schoolteacher, and her feeling of having been stripped raw recurs across the book.
In the title story, a nun — among the last to “fit herself out in the old things with the arcane names, the wimple, cincture and guimpe” — tries to save a 12-year-old runaway in the South Bronx; when the girl is raped and killed, the nun experiences a kind of visitation, leaving her to wonder, “(D)oes the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces, something holy that throbs on the hot horizon, the vision you crave because you need a sign to stand against your doubt?”
A similar quality motivates “Baader-Meinhof”, with its balance (or is that tension?) between art and experience. Here, a woman finds herself fixated on Richter’s hyper-realist paintings of the ’70s West German terrorist gang, dead in their prison cells by suicide pact. “What they did had meaning,” she tells a man she meets in the museum. “It was wrong but it wasn’t blind and empty. I think the painter’s searching for this.”
More implications: If the Baader-Meinhof actions weren’t “blind and empty”, what does that mean for the rest of us? And, by extension, what does it mean for the artist, whether Richter or DeLillo, who looks at terror as the substance of art?
This, in many ways, is the same question the nun is asking, made more resonant because DeLillo is addressing the issue of image, of representation, and how it changes our perceptions by filtering, or focusing, what we see. Such a notion emerges, as well, in his epic Underworld, published in 1997, a year before “Baader-Meinhof,” and the 2010 novel Point Omega part of which also revolves around a show at the Museum of Modern Art. As DeLillo noted in 1997, “(T)his is the way we know much of what we know in this culture at this time… It’s as though… reality is being consumed.”
That’s a visionary notion, and it sits at the center of The Angel Esmeralda, as it does throughout DeLillo’s work. As for the stories, some are more realized than others — “Midnight in Dostoevsky” and “The Starveling”, especially, seem a little forced, despite what they have to say about the contradictions of narrative — but that’s only to be expected from 30 years of odds and ends.
More to the point is that in this collection, as in his novels, DeLillo challenges us to see a world defined by our projections, a world in which the only reality is the one we create. Or, as he asserts here: “In our privatest mind… there is only chaos and blur. We invented logic to beat back our creatural selves.”