Don DeLillo’s “The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories” : Review (and thoughts) by Martin Amis

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”?

Proustians will claim that “In Search of Lost Time” is unimprovable throughout, despite all the agonizing longueurs. And Janeites will never admit that three of the six novels are comparative weaklings (I mean “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Persuasion”). Perhaps the only true exceptions to the fifty-fifty model are Homer and Harper Lee. Our subject, here, is literary evaluation, so of course everything I say is mere opinion, unverifiable and also unfalsifiable, which makes the ground shakier still. But I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are. One helplessly reaches for Kant’s dictum about the crooked timber of humanity, or for John Updike’s suggestion to the effect that we are all of us “mixed blessings.” Unlike the heroes and heroines of “Northanger Abbey,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Emma,” readers and writers are not expressly designed to be perfect for each other.

I love the work of Don DeLillo. That is to say, I love “End Zone” (1972), “Running Dog” (1978), “White Noise” (1985), “Libra” (1988), “Mao II” (1991), and the first and last sections of “Underworld” (1997). The arc of this luminous talent, as I see it, reached its apogee toward the close of the millennium, and then partly withdrew into enigma and opacity. What happens, then, when I read “Ratner’s Star” (1976) or “The Names” (1982) or “Cosmopolis” (2003)? Novelists can be likened to omnicompetent tour guides—as they gloss and vivify the wonders of unfamiliar terrains, the marketplaces, the museums, the tearooms and wine cellars, the gardens, the houses of worship. Then, without warning, the suave cicerone becomes a garrulous rogue cabdriver, bearing you off on a series of sinister detours (out by the airport, and in the dead of night). The great writers can take us anywhere; but half the time they’re taking us where we don’t want to go.

“The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories” (Scribner; $24), surprisingly, is DeLillo’s first collection. In the course of his career, he has published twenty shorter fictions, so there has already been a paring down. A halving, in fact, though the book, to my eye and ear, is a faithful alternation between first- and second-echelon work—between easy-chair DeLillo and hard-chair DeLillo. The stories come in order of composition, with dates, and in three sections, each of them flagged by a quietly resonant illustration (a view of the planet from outer space, a heavily restored classical fresco, a painting of a spectral cadaver). As a package, the book feels both pointed and secretive, both airy and airtight. The arrangement holds the promise of a kind of unity, or a kind of cumulative artistic force; and the promise is honored. These nine pieces add up to something considerable, and form a vital addition to the corpus.

Three stories focus on, or at any rate include, erotic encounters, and two of them run into the additional hazards that beset this sphere. Unless sexuality is the master theme of a narrative (as in “Lolita,” say, or “Portnoy’s Complaint”), it will always feel like a departure or a parenthesis. In “Creation,” the earliest story (1979), the protagonist uses the chaos of inter-island Caribbean travel to engineer an adulterous fling with another stranded passenger. The frustration, the suspension in place and time (“We’ll get the two o’clock flight, or the five, depending on our status. The important thing right now is to clarify our status”), and the sensuality of the landscape supposedly conspire to make the episode seem inevitable; but the reader’s naïve and no doubt vulgar curiosity (what for? and then what?) goes ungratified. The story feels bleached of past and future, of context and consequence.

I long ago assented to DeLillo’s unspoken premise—that fiction exaggerates the ever-weakening power of motive in human dealings. Yes, it does; but there’s a reason for that. Motive tends to provide coherence, and fiction needs things that cohere. “The Starveling” (2011, and the most recent story) gives us a middle-aged retiree named Leo Zhelezniak. Beginning at around nine in the morning, Leo spends all day, every day, in the cinemas of New York. Why? His ex-wife, Flory, with whom he cohabits, likes to speculate:

He was an ascetic, she said. This was one theory. She found something saintly and crazed in his undertaking, an element of self-denial, an element of penance. . . .
Or he was a man escaping his past. . . . Was he at the movies to see a movie, she said, or maybe more narrowly, more essentially, simply to be at the movies?
He thought about this.



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