By Don DeLillo
In November, Scribner published Don DeLillo’s first collection of short stories, The Angel Esmeralda, with nine pieces drawn from as far back as 1979. The fact that the stories are generally rather bad is almost irrelevant: the book is important because it raises and perhaps definitively settles an important question about this most important American writer: is his a long or a short game?
On the first side of the question stands the Big DeLillo Novel. All of the major works on which DeLillo has built his reputation are territorially rapacious books, tracing circles of perspective around subjects as weighty as Science, Celebrity, the Crowd, and the Cold War – chapters in some Summa Postmodernica. The shorter, tighter novels he has favored since 1997’s monumental Underworld have received generally disappointed receptions. And who even notices the short stories? The official tally of sub-novelistic works published by DeLillo in the course of a half-century-long career is only twenty, and the best of these, “Pafko at the Wall” and “The Angel Esmeralda,” were taken up and absorbed by Underworld.
On the other side of the question, though, stands the Little DeLillo Sentence. Despite the big novels, the basic unit of DeLilloan literature, the scale on which he seems to consciously work, is not the volume or the chapter or the paragraph, but only the lowly sentence – and usually a short sentence. “Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year.” “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” These are first sentences totally unconcerned with the novels they begin, too syntactically self-amazed and semantically broad to generate any conventional novelistic momentum. Momentum, in fact, is something that DeLillo’s novels seem to actively resist. They are best characterized not as plots but as conglomerations of sharp, individual perceptions, each competing for the limited attention of the reader. Like James Joyce with Leopold Bloom, DeLillo works through his typical protagonist to produce the transcript of a distractible urban consciousness. The Lee Harvey Oswald of Libra is exemplary: “He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years… Workmen carried lanterns along adjacent tracks. He kept a watch for sewer rats. A tenth of a second was all it took to see a thing complete.” DeLillo’s atomic sentences, bound only covalently to their neighbors, are the stylistic signature of the species of modern attention he records.
In this sense, DeLillo might seem a writer especially suited to short fiction. One might wonder whether the big novels his sentences are bound into are misleading. The Angel Esmeralda may not be his first collection at all – perhaps all his books are best read as collections of short stories. Take Underworld: isn’t the book much less some monolithic account of the Cold War than it is a collection of shorts about Nick Shay, and Nick’s brother, and Cotter Martin, and Klara Sax, and Lenny Bruce, and J. Edgar Hoover? Between the big concepts of the novels and the discrete units on which they are built, have we put too much emphasis on the concepts?
The two weakest stories in The Angel Esmeralda illustrate the terms of this question all too nicely. Either could pass easily as a malicious DeLillo parody. One, “The Runner,” seems to lampoon its author’s neurotic inability to screen the basically uninteresting from his litanies of observation. It’s about a man running around a park.
Traffic skimmed past. The girl took bread in fragments from her father and pitched them over the rail, holding her hand open like someone signaling five. The runner eased across the bridge. There were two women thirty yards ahead, walking along a path that led out to the street. A pigeon quick-stepped across the grass when the runner approached, leaning into his turn. The sun was in the trees beyond the parkway.
And so on. A little plot does emerge, but any potential force it has is overwhelmed by the story’s dogmatic refusal to appropriately divide its attention. So, even as a child is abducted before his eyes, the runner falls into meditation on the social construction of the park’s closing time:
He looked back as he ran, seeing the old couple rise from the bench, unaware, and then the car on the grass, out of place, and a woman standing on a blanket looking toward the car, her hands raised, framing her face. He turned forward and ran past the sign that said the park closes at sundown, although there were no gates, no effective way to keep people out. The closing was strictly in the mind.
In the context of, say, the consumerist orgy of the modern supermarket, DeLillo’s equal-opportunity perception, his gaze as fractured as the ommatidial eye of an insect, can seem like an evolutionarily appropriate tool. In the context of an evening jog, it just seems like attention deficit disorder.
The second parodically bad story in this collection, “Human Moments in World War III,” seems designed to burlesque DeLillo’s opposite inclination, toward flights of philosophical grandiloquence. Set in outer space, where two astronauts are engaged in the thermospheric work of gathering intelligence on “laser activity” down on battle-scarred Earth, much of the story is impossible to read except as self-parody: “The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.” “Vollmer says that people are not enjoying this war to the same extent that people have always enjoyed and nourished themselves on war, as a heightened, a periodic intensity.” “A quality of purest, sweetest sadness issued from remotest space.” And the climactic paragraph:
The view is endlessly fulfilling. It is like the answer to a lifetime of questions and vague cravings. It satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars, whatever obsessions eat at the night side of his mind, whatever sweet and dreamy yearnings he has ever felt for nameless places faraway, whatever earth sense he possesses, the neural pulse of some wilder awareness, a sympathy for beasts, whatever belief in an immanent vital force, the Lord of Creation, whatever secret harboring of the idea of human oneness, whatever wishfulness and simplehearted hope, whatever of too much and not enough, all at once and little by little, whatever burning urge to escape responsibility and routine, escape his own overspecialization, the circumscribed and inward-spiralling self, whatever remnants of his boyish longing to fly, his dreams of strange spaces and eerie heights, his fantasies of happy death, whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings – lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space – all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.
Two of the nine stories, then, take hard-line positions along the DeLilloan dichotomy. The rest land somewhere between the park and the planet, between DeLilloan perception and DeLilloan panorama, and end up strained by the tension between the two. In DeLillo’s novels, there is usually enough space for the book’s train of minute observations to build up into a whole fit to match the book’s big concepts. Such a balancing act comes to seem impossible in the cramped space of these short stories, where audacity abuts mundanity, without any cooperation between the two.
In “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” a pair of college freshmen ponder a mysterious professor during a bleak winter on an almost deserted campus. In the hands of a more modest writer, the atmospherics natural to the situation could be put to powerful effect. DeLillo’s mind seems almost immediately beset by cabin fever, and his characters veer wildly between his customary poles. First, they bicker over his winter wear: “This was the day we saw the man in the hooded coat. We argued about the coat — loden coat, anorak, parka.” This goes on for several pages.
“A loden coat doesn’t have a hood… It’s a parka or an anorak.”
“There’s others. There’s always others.”
“There’s duffel bag.”
“There’s duffel coat.”
“Does the word imply a hood?”
“The word implies toggles.”
“The coat had a hood. We don’t know if the coat had toggles.”
But the professor inspires loftier inquiry, too:
What did he mean by ‘things’? We would probably never know. Were we too passive, too accepting of the man? Did we see dysfunction and call it an inspired form of intellect? We didn’t want to like him, only to believe in him. We tendered our deepest trust to the stark nature of his methodology. Of course there was no methodology. There was only Ilgauskas. He challenged our reason for being, what we thought, how we lived, the truth or falsity of what we believed to be true or false. Isn’t this what great teachers do, the Zen masters and Brahman scholars?
The story careens from anorak to Zen and back in seconds, without any fruitful middle ground. The debate over sartorial lingo recalls the scene in Underworld where a priest force-marches a young Nick Shay through the names of every part of a shoe, the eyelets and the aglets and the grommets. In the immense space of that novel, the moment was made poignant by graceful counterpoint with the book’s thermonuclear themes. “Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word.” The collegiate quarrel of “Midnight in Dostevsky” reads almost as if written in embarrassed reaction against the enthusiasm of Underworld, doing everything it can to make the quotidian petty again, and the “important” just sententious.
A story that has received positive attention in many reviews is “Hammer and Sickle,” in which a Madoff-style corporate convict watches his daughters on TV, delivering a financial broadcast for children that begins to sound increasingly Bolshevik. There is comic potential in this histrionic concept, but the story concludes as crude farce, as the girls’ market report degenerates into ridiculous chanting (“Stalin Khrushchev Castro Mao.” “Lenin Brezhnev Engels – Pow!”) and their father ascends a freeway bridge to overlook the capitalist metaphor below:
Why don’t they crash all the time? The question seemed profound to me, with the first touch of dawn showing to the east. Why don’t they get backended or sideswiped? It seemed inevitable from my elevated perspective – cars forced into the guardrails, nudged into lethal spins. But they just kept coming, seemingly out of nowhere, headlights, taillights, and they would be coming and going all through the budding day and into the following night.
The problem isn’t just the somewhat fustian gesture of seeing all of Free Enterprise in a traffic jam. The problem is that DeLillo has already succeeded in more or less just that – but that to do so he needed the length of the novels White Noise and Cosmopolis, which took the time to invest the metaphor with enough specific detail to elevate it from an affected conceit to a living situation. What is done in these stories is usually done better in one of the novels. The best piece is the eponymous one – and that, of course, was good enough to become part of Underworld. To anyone familiar with DeLillo’s novels, these stories come dangerously close to looking like throwaway exercises.
To dismiss the collection as a mere literary refuse heap, though, a sweeping-together of shavings from the novels, would be to forget the enormous importance DeLillo has long placed on waste. In Underworld, which includes a “waste theorist” and takes garbage as its major theme, waste is a means for mapping the hidden passions of a civilization: “Waste is the devil twin. Because waste is the secret history, the underhistory, the way archaeologists dig out the history of early cultures.” In isolation, the stories of The Angel Esmeralda are relatively inert. In the context of DeLillo’s career, they assume a new significance, illuminating the underhistory of their author.
Since the typical stylistic mechanism of a DeLillo novel is the compounding of fleeting, isolated perceptions into towering, totalizing revelations, it is elegantly fitting that the typical DeLillo plot concerns a tightly circumscribed character working his way out onto wider platforms, up to “elevated perspectives.” David Bell of Americana, DeLillo’s first novel, leaves the solipsistic confine of his office for a road trip across the country, video camera in hand. The novelist Bill Gray of Mao II leaves his Salingeresque seclusion for geopolitical intrigue in New York, London and Cyprus. Libra’s Lee Harvey Oswald grows out of an impoverished childhood in the Bronx and New Orleans to assume his position on the world-historical stage. For him, “The purpose of history is to climb out of your own skin.” The ascendant trajectory of these novels, building pyramids from bricks of perception, is what allows them to successfully resolve the microscopic and the macroscopic DeLillos. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1993, when asked whether his own Bronx childhood influenced his fiction, DeLillo made a similar point about his own career.
It showed up in early short stories. I think it translates to the novels only in the sense that it gave me a perspective from which to see the larger environment. It’s no accident that my first novel was called Americana. This was a private declaration of independence, a statement of my intention to use the whole picture, the whole culture… This was a subject that would allow me to develop a range I hadn’t shown in those early stories – a range and a freedom.”
For DeLillo, the fiction of minutely recorded consciousness is only a means for expanding out, into ever-greater freedoms. From the perspective of that freedom, though, DeLillo remembered with nostalgia the smaller-scale writing he had rejected. “I was well into my twenties by this point and had long since left the streets where I’d grown up. Not left them forever – I do want to write about those years. It’s just a question of finding the right frame.”
He would soon find that frame in Underworld, whose best sections depict an Italian-American childhood in the Bronx. But the stories of The Angel Esmeralda prove that he never stopped searching for an alternative in the form of the short story. While his novels describe expansions into freedom, these stories describe retractions into confinement. In “Creation,” the collection’s earliest story, the caprices of Caribbean weather and airlines trap a man in an endless loop between his hotel and the airport, awaiting an eternally deferred departure. After running his prescribed circles around the park, the runner of “Runner” simply returns to his apartment building. The protagonist of “Hammer and Sickle,” of course, is literally imprisoned. The astronauts of “Human Moments in World War III” might seem like an exception, but the guilty consciousness one of them evinces about his “elevated perspective” is actually the collection’s clearest statement of its intentions:
I try not to think big thoughts or submit to rambling abstractions. But the urge sometimes comes over me. Earth orbit puts men into philosophical temper. How can we help it? We see the planet complete, we have a privileged vista. In our attempts to be equal to the experience, we tend to mediate importantly on subjects like the human condition. It makes a man feel universal…
The passage is a perfect little apologia for DeLillo the totalizing novelist of late global capitalism. And The Angel Esmeralda is a corresponding offering of penance. The stories it contains represent brief stints as the sort of writer he refused to be, one working in smaller, more intimate spaces. In “The Ivory Acrobat,” a series of earthquakes in Athens petrify an American woman, who withdraws more or less permanently into the shelter of her apartment. “The world was narrowed down to inside and outside.” From there, she envies an American man she has befriended, who continues his life outside, unfazed. “You’re the loose-jointed one, performing in the streets.”
If it is fair to extrapolate from this situation, and to see in the man DeLillo the novelist, author of the city, and to see in the woman DeLillo’s alternate, feminine self, author of interiors, then it is fitting that two of the later stories, “Baader-Meinhof” and “The Starveling,” written in 2002 and 2011, concern men from the city stalking women back to their interiors. In the first, a stranger in an art museum follows a woman back to her apartment without quite being invited. The second depicts the devoted rounds of an obsessive New York City moviegoer. The story, evenly divided between the dark enclosure of his theaters and the bright expanse of his city, begs to be read as an allegory for DeLillo’s usual fictional method. Tickets are bought for the shadowbox perceptions of the cinema, but the journey in between these perceptions, the peregrination through a wide and writhing city, becomes the real spectacle. Until, that is, he notices a woman frequenting the same movies. Recognizing a kindred spirit, he follows her home, to (where else?) the Bronx.
In both these stories, the women rebuff the men, who are sent back out into the city. But not before these men have achieved a temporary propinquity – anxious, uncertain, and even menacing – but nonetheless intimate.
This Angel turns out to be DeLillo’s “devil twin.” If its stories are disappointing, they at least disappoint significantly: their imbalance signals a sharp intentional swerve from the cosmological ambition we expect from DeLillo, down to the cloistered fiction he repudiated to arrive at his novels. In the title story, a pair of nuns tracks an orphaned girl in running sneakers, who evades them in the ruined cityscape of the Bronx. For DeLillo, the act of writing a short story represents an effort to catch this Esmeralda, and to fix her tiny frame in the center of his expansive, distracted attention. The basic hopelessness of such an effort is suggested by the book’s final sentence: “If he blinked an eye, she would disappear.”
Nicholas Nardini is a building superintendent in Cambridge, MA, where he is also pursuing a PhD in English Literature at Harvard University.