The short stories collected in “The Angel Esmeralda” span the majority of Don DeLillo’s long and tremendously accomplished career. The earliest piece dates from 1979, eight years after DeLillo’s first novel, “Americana.” The most recent was published this fall in Granta. The most surprising thing about the book, then, is that it exists at all: Forty years of writing is a long time to wait to publish one’s first collection of short fiction.
In other respects, the book is fairly unsurprising. Nothing I can say about DeLillo on the basis of “The Angel Esmeralda” will come as news to anyone familiar with his novels: His prose is masterly and austere, he has a deconstructionist’s obsession with the arbitrariness of language, and his interest in human beings often seems less a matter of passionate engagement than of clinical detachment.
Still, there must be some people who haven’t read him, and any chance to urge them to plunge into such works of genius as “Ratner’s Star,” “The Names,” “Libra,” “Underworld” or the National Book Award-winning (and terrifying and hilarious) “White Noise” is an opportunity to be seized. And, while “The Angel Esmeralda” is probably not the ideal place for a neophyte to start — DeLillo requires a large canvas to fully display his narrative gifts, which may explain why the brief novels he published in the past decade have struck many fans as unsatisfying — this collection nonetheless offers some real pleasures.
The stories are presented in chronological order, with “Creation,” the first, also happening to be the best. (Fortunately, this doesn’t signal a general downward trend: The last story, “The Starveling,” also ranks high.) In “Creation” a husband and wife make several unsuccessful attempts to return home from the tropical island where they have been vacationing. Each attempt ends with their being turned back at the airport and told that the plane is full — or that it won’t be departing, or that it has not arrived — and directed to try again tomorrow. The wife is desperate to get back home — she has meetings, commitments, the general routine of life — but her husband is more ambivalent. For him, at least, it is not clear that their “real” life in the United States is any less confining than being trapped on the island.
Indeed, images of entrapment occur throughout this collection and are nearly always linked to a fundamental question: What counts as confinement, what constitutes liberation, and how are we to tell the difference? The dirty, violent and drug-riddled Bronx neighborhood of the title story is, in its way, as much a prison as is the more literal minimum security prison that forms the setting for “Hammer and Sickle.”
“Human Moments in World War III,” meanwhile, concerns two astronauts aboard an orbiting space capsule. And in “The Ivory Acrobat,” the life of a young American living and working in Greece is disrupted by an alarming series of earthquakes. When asked why she doesn’t leave, she replies, “I can’t save enough to go anywhere else and I’m certainly not ready to go home. Besides I like it here. I’m sort of stranded but in a more or less willing way.”
This last sentence, with its emblematic “more or less,” could serve as the unspoken motto of many of DeLillo’s main characters, who have a tendency to suspend themselves over the yawning chasms of alternative possibilities rather than face the consequences of decisive action. (This can extend to an anxiety over physical existence itself. “I wanted to be phantasmal,” one character tells us, “someone who slips in and out of physical reality.”)
Because other humans are unpredictable and uncontrollable, decisiveness, particularly in the realm of personal relationships, tends to turn out badly in DeLillo’s universe. The protagonist of “The Starveling,” for instance, gets along just fine as long as he sticks to his plan of living as much of his life as possible in movie theaters. But his attempt to make contact with a fellow moviegoer leads only to an awkward and embarrassing encounter in the women’s restroom. In general, male-female relations in this book are unsatisfying. Like so much else in this world, they seem capable of providing stability or escape, but not both.
At times, “The Angel Esmeralda” feels almost like a novelist’s notebook. A couple of these pieces, such as “The Runner,” briefly sketch characters or situations that might have been interestingly developed in the context of a longer work but don’t add up to anything very substantial on their own. (After its initial publication in Esquire 1994, the title story became part of “Underworld.”) But several are effective as stand-alone pieces, and even the most fragmentary of them provides the pleasure of reading the inimitably elegant sentences that DeLillo has been fashioning for four decades.
The Angel Esmeralda
By Don DeLillo
Scribner. 211 pp. $24