America, From the Margins: A Review of Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmeralda

Reviewed in this essay: The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, by Don DeLillo. Simon & Schuster, 2011.

The latest from American writer Don DeLillo is a sparse but rewarding short story collection, the first of his career. While it may not offer a radical departure from the major preoccupations of such era-defining novels as White Noise (1984) and Underworld (1997), The Angel Esmeralda nonetheless serves as a reminder of its author’s uncanny ability to tap into the dominant currents and contradictions of a given cultural moment. For DeLillo, the milieu in question is virtually always that of contemporary America, its all-consuming anxieties and desires, its modernity and underlying sense of disconnection. Inseparable from DeLillo’s vision of America is his unmistakable voice, grimly ironic and laced with flashes of the blackest humor. His language is both unabashedly stylized and natural; it is direct but essentially malleable, always ready to accommodate itself to the rhythms of an ever-shifting idiom.

In contrast to the dazzling breadth of his best novels, the way in which they seem to capture a whole culture’s mythology of fleeting images and codes, reflecting it back in an aesthetically heightened but eerily familiar form, the stories in The Angel Esmeralda are for the most part exercises in minimalism and restraint. These stories are softer and more personal in their brevity, immaculately framed but fuzzy at the edges, the chiseled clarity and lucidity of their prose only hinting at the shadows hovering just out of view. Above all, these stories are defined by a sense of vulnerability – at stake in them is the erosion of the borders on which individuals’ security and stability depend. As one character puts it, while recovering from the kind of deeply ingrained trauma often found in DeLillo’s work, “the world was narrowed down to inside and outside.”

Spanning all but the earliest years of his career, the stories contained in The Angel Esmeralda are grouped into three chronological sections, each section marking a distinct chapter of DeLillo’s artistic growth. Nowhere is his versatility more apparent than in the first of these sections, which consists of two stories, “Creation” (1979) and “Human Moments in World War III” (1983). The former features an American couple stranded on a nameless Caribbean island, their exclusion from the airport’s “deep saving force” shared with a lone and increasingly desperate German woman. By far the most spare of the collection, “Creation” is told in language almost entirely shorn of DeLillo’s trademark stylistic flourishes, with a bareness that aptly reflects both the stasis of the characters and their displacement from the free-flowing lexicon of Manhattan. It also echoes the couple’s unspoken agreement that “the wrong voice can obliterate a landscape,” that the very existence of this place is somehow dependent on the language they use to describe it.

At the centre of the story is the desire to be temporarily immersed in some kind of timeless utopia, foreign, pure and artificially constructed, “the dream of Creation that glows at the edge of every serious traveler’s search.” Its protagonist is content to knowingly give himself over to this illusion of a release from modernity, but it is unclear exactly why he feels drawn to “the inwrought mode or tone, the ominous logic of the place,” or why he is so hesitant to leave this “nightmare of isolation and constraint.” As in many of the stories that comprise The Angel Esmeralda, the subtle surrealism of “Creation” comes from its easy, unencumbered transition from the normal to the illicit or perverse. Characters’ intentions are never explicitly addressed, even in their most inner, private minds; they merely float along in time and space, unaware of their own motivations.

Set against the muted, uncertain tone of “Creation” is the wide-screen maximalism of “Human Moments in World War III,” a story of two American astronauts drifting in space, their lives enmeshed in the elaborate procedures of technological warfare. Pervaded by that certain blend of 1980’s megalomania and dread found in White Noise (published a year later), the story imagines a Cold War thaw that paradoxically “ma[kes] the world safe for war.”  Lacking the spirit of “shared crisis” that defined previous wars, this one’s object of nostalgic longing comes in the form of old radio signals transmitted from space, “commercials for products whose long-lost brand names evoke the golden antiquity of great cities buried in sand and river silt.” Clinging to these fragments of faded pop culture is a reminder of a more human past, lost irrevocably now that “every breath is governed by specific rules, by patterns, codes, controls.” The crux of the story, however, is a mounting tension between the older protagonist – whose repression of the nature of his tasks make him subject to the darkest of fantasies – and the much younger Vollmer, inquisitive, self-aware and increasingly detached from everything around him. It would be an incredibly bleak story, ultimately, if not for the panoramic sweep of its last paragraph, the way that it lifts itself out of the imagined war’s inhumanity and projection of cosmic emptiness to offer a breathtaking view of the world, a “privileged vista” both removed and endlessly transfixing.

While there is much substance beneath the surfaces of the earlier stories, it is the third section of The Angel Esmeralda, consisting of four stories published between 2002 and 2011, that showcases DeLillo’s most sustained and concentrated engagement with the short story form. Taken together, these stories offer brilliant and disturbing insights into the climate of post-millennial American culture, revealing some of the ways in which large-scale events and trends of recent years have filtered down into the intimate lives of individuals.

In “Baader-Meinhof” (2002), a woman held captive by a Manhattan museum installation passively allows a strange man into her life. The exhibit consists of a series of paintings featuring members of the infamous West German terrorist group, the Red Army Faction, and focusing primarily on their controversial deaths. Although it is ambiguous as to why the protagonist is attracted to these morbid, indistinct and colourless paintings – she herself doesn’t seem to know – it is clear that she does feel a degree of sympathy for the terrorists’ attempts to resist what they perceive to be a fascist state, if not for the violent means used to enact this resistance. In distinction to the shadowy man’s inability to read these paintings (“I don’t feel anything”), the protagonist convinces herself that “there was an element of forgiveness in the picture, that the two men and the woman, terrorists, and Ulrike before them, terrorist, were not beyond forgiveness.” What begins as a divergence in interpretation escalates quickly into a tense dynamic of violation that the protagonist is helpless to avoid. Published roughly a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the story is a complex meditation on both the dangerous complicity that such partial identifications with terror imply and the ease with which any black and white conception of terrorism can itself be used against individuals, as an instrument of coercive power.

A similar invasion of private space lurks in “Midnight in Dostoevsky” (2009), where two first-year philosophy students take an interest in an old man they see while walking off-campus. For the students, this man and the wintry small town he inhabits are romanticized emblems of “times past, frontiers gone,” parts of a mythology that they must actively create. Compulsively naming and categorizing even the most trivial things they encounter, the boys “depen[d] on a friction between [their] basic faculties of sensation” to bring a measure of depth to their world. They are products of the information age, given to relativity over objectivity, to “abandon meaning to impulse,” to “register what was out there, all the scattered rhythms of circumstance and occurrence, and to reconstruct it as human noise.” Adrift amongst the campus’ “tribal swarms,” the protagonist and his classmates, some of whom “could barely complete a thought without touch pads or scroll buttons,” define themselves against their eccentric Logic professor, Ilgauskas, a man they revere because they can’t understand him. They see themselves through his eyes, “an amorphous entity… basically stateless,” while reveling in his obtuse deconstructions of common sense. The story begins to take on a life of its own when the protagonist and his friend start imagining a web of “spectral connections” linking Ilgauskas to the old man in town, eventually seeking to measure their elaborate fiction against reality and, in doing so, threatening to obliterate one or the other.

Virtually all of the stories in The Angel Esmeralda touch on this obsession with a kind of leisurely invention of the other, the implicit belief being that the other exists only to the extent that he or she can be projected as a fiction. The last story, “The Starveling” (2011), about a lonely man whose entire life is spent wandering aimlessly from cinema to cinema, represents the disturbing outcome of such blind presumption and idle solipsism.

The book’s most overtly topical story is “Hammer and Sickle” (2010), a story set in a minimum-security prison for men convicted of large-scale economic fraud, investment bankers and insider traders barely able to recall the details of their past crimes, let alone envision a workable future. The protagonist even doubts whether their deeds constitute real crimes: “They were loopholes, evasions, wheedling half-assed felonies.” Estranged from their families and watching the economy collapse around them, the prisoners see themselves as “the end products of the system, the logical outcome, slabs of burnt-out capital.” Only in the face of an amateur TV program in which two children deliver news reports on the global economic crisis – with increasing polish and eerie command – does the protagonist gradually begin to sense a vague foreboding, the rumblings of a seismic shift in the previously-indomitable forward march of Western modernity.

In the middle of all of this free-floating unease is the title story, which also acts as the collection’s chronological and emotional centrepiece. Originally published in 1994 and later appearing in altered form as a fragment of Underworld, it is a story of a “cold war nun” sifting for lost souls in the urban wasteland of her South Bronx neighbourhood, “a tuck of land sitting adrift from the social order.” Sister Edgar’s efforts are sustained both by her belief in prayer as “a practical strategy, the gaining of temporal advantage in the capital markets of Sin and Remission,” and by her goal of redeeming death from meaninglessness. The latter is captured in her identification with a graffiti mural on an abandoned tenement wall, where a local gang spray-paints a memorial angel each time a local child dies. Edgar knows that without this desolate context, her outmoded appearance and faith might seem displaced and impossible, “outside time and chronology.”  Built on a wholesale denunciation of the material world (her anxieties about cleanliness “turn inward forever”), her ascetic faith conceals a bitterness that makes her feel at home with the “lure of damnation” around her.

After a young girl is brutally murdered, however, even Edgar’s faith is shaken, to such an extent that “the serenity of immense design [is] missing from her sleep, form and proportion, the power that awes and thrills.” In this spiritual crisis and the question that underlies it – “Now that Terror has become local, how do we live?” – DeLillo locates his central theme and the most potent fears of our age. Ultimately, the only source of solace is found in a miraculous vision that begins to appear on an overpass billboard, one that turns tragedy into a cause for hysteria and mass affirmation.

If “The Angel Esmeralda” is the heart of DeLillo’s new book, it is also somewhat of an anomaly, in that his upbringing in the Bronx has rarely been a recognizable source of his fiction. For someone who has always insisted on the necessity of writing from the margins of society, it does seem fitting that his singular voice emerged out of some such “street at the edge of the continent.” From this neglected corner of America he can see his country aslant, trace its outlines and movements and reveal its fragile but enduring soul. The Angel Esmeralda is a compelling book whose intimate focus veils the ominous scope of its vision – as such, it is a welcome addition to the corpus of one of America’s most vital authors.

One response to “America, From the Margins: A Review of Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmeralda

  1. Thanks for this. One thing I didn’t like about this collection was how it omits some of DeLillo’s stories: would it have been hard to include Total Loss Weekend or In the Men’s Room of the Sixteenth Century?

    Then again, he’s been known to cover up stuff he doesn’t like in retrospect (Amazons, anyone?), which might explain their absence.