Don DeLillo builds his novels and stories out of glittering set pieces. The long baseball scene that opens Underworld (reprinted in a standalone edition called Pafko at the Wall), the mass Moonie marriage in the prologue of Mao II, and the encounter with the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise are all brilliantly conceived and expertly rendered, stretched taut between the real and the surreal. These set pieces are the most memorable parts of his work, but it’s the places between, among, and beneath them from which the transcendent and the ineffable emerge.
From the abduction of a child in a park at dusk, to an earthquake ripping through sweltering Athens and two strangers meeting in a gallery of paintings depicting the fates of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, each of the nine stories in The Angel Esmeralda (collected for the first time from original publications dating back to 1979), is wrapped tightly around its own diamond-cut set piece.
Almost all of the stories privilege quiet, introspective spaces within and underneath the insane bustle of the modern city — an art gallery, a convent, a philosophy course, a white-collar prison. In “The Starveling” (the collection’s only new story), a man spends his days haunting a network of New York movie theaters, where he ruminates on the interplay of light and dark, in life and onscreen, wondering, “was it about the universe and our remote and fleeting place as earthlings? Or was it something much more intimate, people in rooms…?” Once inside these sanctuaries, the characters seek contact with a more ancient and immutable form of existence, one that the city obscures but cannot extinguish.
They find their way into these modern sanctuaries through a desire to escape from the chaos of the city outside, and yet only by opening a door to a deeper, more innate chaos, beyond the stories’ perfectionist architecture and impeccable phrasing, does the transcendent emerge palpably onto the page. In the moments when it does, the stories achieve the staggering beauty and strangeness of DeLillo’s best work.
All told, The Angel Esmeralda contains three stories in which the transcendent succeeds in breaking through. In these instances, we’re right there along with the characters, in the place of apparition, watching as the secularism of modern society, and the hyper-refined veneer of DeLillo’s prose, vanish like sand blowing off a tomb in the desert.
In “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), two men orbit the earth in a military satellite. As a reprieve from the job’s boredom, one of them takes to looking out the window, back at the Earth where, “The view is endlessly fulfilling…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…the neural pulse of some wilder awareness…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.” There’s nowhere to look in the satellite except out the window, and yet the character’s decision to do so and the Earth’s appearance when he does come as hard-earned and long-denied revelations.
In “The Ivory Acrobat” (1988), an American woman in Athens in the aftermath of an earthquake examines a carved Minoan figure of an acrobat leaping over a bull. As she tries to reckon with this alien object, she feels the broken record of her self-consciousness slowing to a halt: “There was nothing that might connect her to the mind inside the work…[to] a knowable past, some shared theater of being. The Minoans were outside all this…lost across vales of language and magic, across dream cosmologies…her self-awareness ended where the acrobat began.” In the middle of her paranoid expat existence, she sees a void open that history and language cannot fill.
In the title story (1994), the final pages of which rival any DeLillo has written, two nuns who’ve devoted themselves to what often looks like an irredeemable Bronx neighborhood see the shape of a murdered girl appear as an angel on a billboard advertising orange juice. “Her presence was a verifying force, a figure from a universal church…it had being and disposition, there was someone living in the image, a distinguishing spirit and character…a force at some deep level of lament that made [the nun] feel inseparable from…the awestruck who stood in tidal traffic…”
These are rare moments when the ancient and the infinite erupt out of human production — a spacecraft, an artifact, a billboard, and, of course, DeLillo’s own writing. He sets his stories in technological arenas that assert the victory of human reason over universal chaos, and yet, in the crucial religious moment, chaos looms back up, subverting the tools that humans have built to use against it.
These appearances give way to disappearance and disappointment, but there are two kinds of disappointment here: disappointment in a reality that the story has meaningfully conveyed, and disappointment in the story for having shirked that reality’s magnitude. These three stories evoke the first and more cathartic disappointment. Leaving the place where the angel appeared, the nuns wonder, “…what do you remember, finally, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth…or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces…stand against your doubts?”
In these three stories, you’re right there with the characters, shuddering with the shockwaves of impossible events, as sudden and devastating as a detonated bomb.
All of the stories in this collection, even those that don’t reach these shivery highs, abound with brilliant ideas. But brilliant ideas alone are not enough to make them all work. Many feel stranded, like parts of a larger project that doesn’t exist.
This is because DeLillo’s writing really comes alive not from the quality of its individual ideas, but from their shadows and echoes, the resonances of their “white noise,” magnified across a vast psychic and visual plane. In all of his novels, but not in all of his stories, these shadows and echoes mount into a chaotic force, rippling both across and underneath the surface.
As it does, his vision spreads outward, encompassing ever more of the nuances and frequencies of an urbanized West that has maxed out on chatter and distraction, gorging itself on anxieties about the vanishing past, the splintering present, and the accelerating emergence of the future. It has to expand like this in order to express the burden of shepherding a lone self through a world of mass-consciousness, ruled by media and money, where terror is the only form of awe that has not been stripped and sold for parts.
The novels’ plots are so all-encompassing that they send out and respond to hidden currents running through the heart of our culture, as dangerous and vital as the plots of terrorists — as DeLillo imagines them — have become. In Mao II, he writes, “…isn’t it the novelist…above all people, above all writers…who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it’s the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark.”
This is not to say that a great novelist like Don DeLillo shouldn’t write short stories, but I do think that his novelistic vision is ill-served by the story form, and that The Angel Esmeralda is not the product of a different, authentically story-sized vision. For all of their interest in apparitions breaking into the world, the stories permit few breaks in their own conceptual rigging, and thus often exclude the very forces they’ve summoned.
What does appear, if one reads the collection in chronological order, is a portrait of DeLillo himself, as the author who most compellingly captured the mental life of the Western world in the late 20th century. In both the novels and the stories from this period, one can hear a city, maybe a whole civilization, speaking and even thinking through him.
It’s no coincidence that the collection’s three best stories date from the ’80s and ’90s. In these stories, as in Libra, White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld (spanning the period 1985-1997), there are passages that move beyond the synthetic and into the prophetic. One gets the sense that he not only saw what was going on at that time, on an absurdly grand scale, but that he saw into it, farther in than anyone else could. These passages feel like the incarnation of something way beyond the scope of an individual mind.
For all the control and precision in his language, chaos breaks through in these passages. In his famous crowd scenes — at sports games, political rallies, fanatic religious ceremonies, and panoramas of mass squalor and degradation — human consciousness breaks down and is overcome by something non-human, a singular psychic totality that exists beyond the infinite. In “The Ivory Acrobat,” a line of traffic in Athens “resembled some landscape in the dreaming part of us, what the city teaches us to fear.” A new state of being emerges from the mob and the traffic jam, from the novelist conjuring up ghost cities and the terrorist burning down real ones.
This more primal chaos, underneath the daily chaos of the city, ends finally in unity, and perhaps also in peace.
DeLillo will always be a master stylist, but this only magnifies the difference between the times when this spirit breaks through his style, and the times when it does not. As the West’s relation to terror and art, and to mass communication and solitary insight, shifts in the early 21st century, this prophetic voice has shifted away from DeLillo. In retrospect, his best work shares the billboard angel’s overwhelming but transitory power: impossible to deny when it’s there, impossible to believe when it’s gone.