Unquiet Flows the Don

Something always happens to screw people up in Don DeLillo’s short stories. It can happen suddenly, like a “hole opened up in the air”. Or it can happen more sneakily, like a presence felt only in the “faint displacement of air”. Often it’s a striking voice that darkens the mood. In the early DeLillo story “Human Moments in World War III”, two men gather intelligence from a spacecraft orbiting earth. They listen to censored news broadcasts, and hear “something in the announcer’s voice [that] hints at a let-down, a fatigue, a faint bitterness about-something.”

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories is DeLillo’s first collection of stories. It’s been a long time coming, but then DeLillo — the author of 15 novels and three plays — has never been a prolific short-story writer. Mid-career he said he was writing “fewer all the time”, and those he did write often found their way into novels. But while there weren’t that many stories to choose from in DeLillo’s remarkable body of work, the ones that have been chosen for this collection are stunning.

The stories, written between 1979 and 2011, are arranged chronologically and divided into three sections. The opening story, “Creation”, concerns a couple at the end of an island holiday. They are due to fly to Barbados, then on to New York, but their plans are messed up by an unreliable airline. The next day the woman flies out and the man stays behind. His estrangement leads to a spontaneous intimacy with a woman suffering an unnamed trauma. Already we’re in DeLillo’s weird world. The story’s dialogue is incantatory, trademark DeLillo:

          “Are you listening?”

          “To what?”

          “Listen carefully.”

          “The waves,” she said.

The middle stories of the collection see DeLillo working more explicitly with trauma. In these stories the characters are deranged by shocking events. In the collection’s title story, “The Angel Esmeralda”, a 12-year-old girl is raped and thrown off a rooftop. After the killing, a crowd gathers before a billboard fruit juice advertisement that shows an apparition of the girl’s face. One night the advertisement is replaced by a white sheet and the apparition disappears. “And what do you remember, finally,” DeLillo writes, “when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind?”

The collection’s strongest story is “Hammer and Sickle”. It’s an endless puzzle, a work of limitless connections. Jerold Bradway is an inmate at a minimum security “camp” for white-collar criminals. Each day his two daughters appear on TV to read a news report on crumbling financial markets. The inmates become transfixed by the girls, yelling and clamouring in a scene reminiscent of the Two Minutes’ Hate in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Towards its end the story boils with Orwellian terror. The final four pages, with Bradway standing on a highway bridge watching cars pass beneath him — “Why don’t they crash all the time?” — contain the collection’s most beautiful writing.

Reading these stories I was reminded of David Foster Wallace’s annoyance at fiction that’s stuck on the idea we’re becoming less human. What interested Wallace was how we “still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections”. DeLillo has written about this dehumanising effect for 40 years, yet his work, and these stories, still allow for the possibility of connections between people. Flung out in space, Vollmer, one of the astronauts in “Human Moments in World War III”, finds consolation in “graduation pictures, bottle caps, small stones from his backyard”. Something strange happens to him up there, but like us down here, Vollmer is still capable of human moments.

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