Nearly two years ago, I spent over an hour in line waiting to go through the security checkpoint at LaGuardia Airport. As I approached the metal detector, I prepared by taking off my belt, boots, and blazer—A blazer? In December? Gosh, I’m intolerable—and stood in stocking feet, my belongings wadded in my arms. Instead of being waved through, however, I was instructed by a TSA blueshirt to step out of line, and to walk through the special lane designated for “Families and Medical Fluids.” As another blueshirt grazed the small of my back, thighs, and testicles with his magnetic wand, a smile crossed my face. Our flimsy dystopia continues to lack much of the frightening glamour that’s long been promised to us by novels and films, but it’s not at all lacking a sense of humor. The world that Don DeLillo promised us decades ago had finally been delivered.
How best to describe DeLillo and his place in our cultural landscape? A vicious critic of intelligentsia, language, and society, whose work—while still reliably hilarious, decades on—is made increasingly irrelevant by the media’s eager transformation of reality into the grotesque? Or, more simply, an old-fashioned Madison Avenue copywriter, with a knack for mimicking the thoughtlessly patronizing jargon of advertising and bureaucracy, but possessing the rare intelligence to find it hilarious, rather than oppressive?
I’ve long suspected that he would be embarrassed by such descriptors, and reading his first collection of short stories, The Angel Esmerelda, has gone far to remove any remaining doubt. Nearly everything his work addresses, be it a failed afternoon tryst or the fate of humanity, is observed with equal weight, largely free of dread, and with an indifferent perspective that borders on solipsism. This is the work of a man who simply enjoys our increasingly strange and terrible world just as much as we enjoy seeing it reflected (however portentously) in his novels. “How could we possibly enjoy this?” a more weary reader may ask. Because, as DeLillo’s work makes clear, the only other choice is to despair.
Readers only familiar with DeLillo’s examinations of modern language, cybernetics, and mass media (to say nothing of the ennui to which these inevitably lead) will likely be surprised by Esmerelda‘s wide spectrum of tone and subject: from the brief, purgatorial love affair glimpsed in “Creation” to the near-future science fiction of “Human Moments in World War III,” to the solemn, austere urban tragedy of the title story (excised, and perhaps only slightly revised, from the epilogue of Underworld), you’re provided a glimpse of the sorts of worlds and lives left largely ignored in DeLillo’s more notable works.
The only theme common in each of these stories—and DeLillo lays it on pretty thick—is that of isolation, and the safety and comfort of an interior (be it a literal physical space or the garden-variety nihilistic remove) against the chaos of the outside. It’s a world full of violence, we’re continually reassured; whatever one feels he must do to insulate himself from it can be forgiven. This theme has its most severe and literal manifestation in the stunning “Hammer and Sickle,” in which the protagonist is an imprisoned Madoff-esque white collar criminal, forced to watch his young daughters read increasingly catastrophic financial reports on a children’s cable channel. It’s the most recently published story in the collection, and, perhaps predictably, also the one that veers most closely to the near self-parody of DeLillo’s more recent novels. As such, it’s a bit too on-the-nose, but regardless brilliant and very, very funny.
Unfortunately the collection, taken as a whole, falls far short of expectations—or, perhaps more charitably, feels like something of a missed opportunity. Though the scenarios presented are vivid and immediately engaging, here DeLillo’s characters tend to have a drought of, well, character. They are always happy to wallow in their neuroses, but their deeper fears and desires remain guarded, typically only revealing as much to the reader as they would to a stranger. As a result, in the fifteen to thirty pages most of these stories span, their protagonists rarely acquire a depth deserving more than a single-sentence description. It’s a fantastic credit to the author—or perhaps just a result of his earned goodwill—that I’m left wanting to spend another several hundred pages with each of them; unfortunately, that doesn’t make Esmerelda any more satisfying.
Much like the last decade of his novels, The Angel Esmerelda‘s brief nature is more than counterbalanced by its wealth of fantastic dialogue and observations, making it an obvious must for even casual fans. Readers new to DeLillo, however, are unlikely to be inspired to further explore his magnificent body of work.
– Matthew Thomas