Don DeLillo presents a challenging and surprisingly accurate view of human behaviour.
The Angel Esmeralda: an exploration of violence
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories
Don DeLillo is one of those big-picture authors who are meant to sum up their whole historical moment. That always seemed strange to me because he just turns everything into more Don DeLillo. He made the novelist character in Mao II claim that novelists are locked in a struggle with terrorists for the right to "alter the inner life of the culture", but the joke there is that terrorists blend into DeLillo's aesthetic world perfectly. They nestle right between the conceptual artists and media panics: if they didn't exist he would have to invent them.
He has, after all, used them again and again, in Mao II and Libra, in White Noise and The Names, and with a sense of exhaustion in Falling Man, in which he attempted to find something interesting to say about 9/11. He averted his gaze from its sequel, however, because he only really writes about Americans and because he only writes about confusion and defeat. The spectacle of the US army Godzillaing its way across Mesopotamia would mess up the mood, and so merits only a handful of pages in his "Iraq" novel, Point Omega.
One nice thing about his new collection of old stories is the way you can see his career repeatedly groping towards the idea of terrorism without quite getting there. We find instead the indiscriminate violence of total war, variations on the random violence of assault, the implied violence of the stalker, unreasoning compulsions, threats lurking behind placid appearances. In the title piece, previously incorporated into Underworld, the image of a murdered homeless girl miraculously appears on a billboard in a Bronx slum. The Baader-Meinhof gang appears as if in quotation marks in the story Baader-Meinhof: they are the subject of an art exhibition at which a female protagonist meets her would-be rapist. In The Ivory Acrobat (from 1988), an American woman living in Greece has her faith in the solidity of things shaken by an earthquake: the story plays almost as a rehearsal for Falling Man, with its sense of a camera roving promiscuously through disaster. Indeed, if all one knew of DeLillo's work was the nine stories of The Angel Esmeralda, one would still expect his 10th story to involve a hijacked plane or a nail bomb.
That's fine, though. Plenty of writers make their obsessions work for them and DeLillo at least manages to find new ways of saying the same thing. Perhaps part of the idea that he is a culture-encompassing prodigy comes from the fact that he keeps finding new material that meets his specifications: the financial crisis has been a gift to him, for instance.
Or perhaps it's just that he writes at a level of perfection that makes a certain kind of reader want him to mean everything. In the present collection, movie trailers are "like forms of laboratory torture, in swift image and high pitch". Returning to the exhibition that captivates her, the heroine of Baader-Meinhof finds that "She saw everything twice now ... Nearly everything in the room had a double effect". DeLillo has a justified reputation for being difficult to get through, but half the time that's because you keep stopping to check what his lines sound like coming from your own mouth.
The stories in The Angel Esmeralda span his career and though they aren't all alike, I couldn't have guessed their correct historical sequence. As it is, they are printed in their order of composition. Both the first and last stories, Creation and The Starveling, consider the inscrutability of human motivation within relationships. In Creation (from 1979), a writer has an affair while stuck in the Caribbean waiting for a connecting flight. The German woman he ends up sleeping with doesn't seem very enthusiastic about the arrangement, but she has almost run out of money and he can get her to the airport the next day. He sent his wife on ahead with the jocular assurance that he would probably "marry a native woman and learn how to paint". Earlier, she accused him of seeking out "boring" situations on purpose, to torment her. These exchanges read as deadpan banter; the affair, however, reveals the currents of coldness behind the comic masks.
And then the writer becomes absorbed in the task of interpreting his lover. This is the defining activity of a DeLillo character. The young philosophy students in 2009's Midnight in Dostoevsky spend their entire story speculating about a lonely shambling figure they see on their walks. They get into a fist fight over whether they should ask him how close they were. In 1988's The Runner, a jogger in a park witnesses what appears to be a child abduction, and joins an older woman in puzzling over its possible motives. Unusually in Creation, the writer's ideas find a favourable reception. "She was a woman who'd had trouble in her life, a hauntingly bad marriage, perhaps, or the death of a dear friend," he says. "All this and more I said to her ... and [she] seemed pleased by these attentions."
That's a better response than Leo Zhelezniak, the protagonist of 2011's The Starveling, gets. He's a middle-aged waster whose small inheritance has allowed him to spend all day every day at the cinema. He lives with Flory, a failed actress to whom he was formerly married, who now reads traffic bulletins on the radio. That's the sort of jargon-laden communication DeLillo would usually make hay with, but though we are told that "her broadcast voice was a power tool, all bursts and breathless medleys", we don't get to hear a sample.
Instead we follow Leo's burgeoning obsession with a skinny young woman who seems to be following the same cinema schedule as him. Overcome with curiosity, he stalks her, first to her home, and then into the women's toilets in an unfamiliar movie theatre. He manages to make a rambling speech about the things he imagines the two cineastes might have in common before the woman flees.
Leo is none the wiser, of course, but then he didn't know why he was chasing her, or even, we have learned, why he spends all his time at the movies in the first place. Flory theorises that it's a Catholic thing ("Sit in the dark, revere the images") but perhaps the master irony of the story, announced early on and then left to stew, is that Leo's "stolid nature" was Flory's "bedrock". With foundations like this, who needs earthquakes?
The second and penultimate stories in the collection also echo one another: tales of strange transmissions in a world gone mad. Human Moments in World War III (1983) places us in orbit in a manned military space station, its laser trained on the Earth. There's a good deal of DeLillo's quasi-absurdist messing about with technical jargon ("Together we count down from five and turn the keys one-quarter left. This puts the system in what's called an open-minded mode"). The crux of the story comes, however, when the station starts picking up a mysterious radio broadcast, "a voice that carried with it a strange and unspecifiable poignancy".
Colorado Command issues instructions for dealing with the signal, calling it a "selective noise". "It sounded like a voice," the narrator insists. "It is supposed to sound like a voice," says mission control. "But it is not a voice as such. It is enhanced." It turns out to be old radio shows, advertising jingles, theme music. The narrator and his companion Vollmer listen on, as a "quality of purest, sweetest sadness issued from remote space". One takes one's human moments where one can.
Hammer and Sickle (2010) is the piece that comes closest to matching the peculiar comic brio of White Noise, DeLillo's best book. In an open prison for financial criminals, the narrator is surprised to find regular TV broadcasts of business news made by his two young daughters. There are some amusing shout-outs to the Emirates ("The fear is Dubai. The talk is Dubai"). Yet all the fearful talk of "bankers pacing marble halls" and "Hong Kong, Hang Seng" is meant to be as impenetrable as the radio jargon floating through space in the earlier story. "Means nothing. Words," says the narrator. "Like Abu Dhabi."
Indeed, somehow all words have come unmoored from reality. "It's one of those things people say," one character says in apology for his use of the phrase "a dear, sweet man": "One of those expressions that sound like someone else is talking." It emerges that the narrator has a special system for determining who is talking. "I used my index and middle fingers to place quote marks around certain ironic comments and sometimes used index fingers only, setting off a quotation within another quotation," he says, adding: "It was that kind of life, self mocking".
And DeLillo is that kind of writer. He finds human behaviour to be nothing but a series of fraudulent imitations, sad scraps brandished to ward off the darkness at the heart of things. This is no doubt a view of the world that gets things right a lot of the time. At the same time, it is partial. It makes knowledge and understanding seem impossible, when a truer picture of the world might show them as merely very difficult and rare. Some people do, after all consistently deliver remarkable things: they really do seem to know their way around. On his day, DeLillo is one of them. He may not channel the whole of American culture, as some of his admirers seem to suggest, but he keeps picking up fascinating signals.
Ed Lake is the former deputy editor of The Review.