Literary icon that he is, Don DeLillo is not everyone’s – pardon the cliché – cup of tea. A DeLillo experience is beyond a mere read. It’s an immersion in the melding of exquisite language and the illumination of being that culminates into a unique creative entity. If that sounds excessively opaque, that’s what happens when you try to synthesize the DeLillo oeuvre.
He is a serious commentator on the world as it is, and in that pursuit, an observer of the minutiae of life. And how opaque can that be!
“ ‘What do you really see? What do you really hear?’ DeLillo ponders when I ask how he stays tuned into the dream waves of American life.” (from an interview with John Freeman in 2006) “That’s what in theory differentiates a writer from everyone else. You see and hear more clearly.”
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories is DeLillo ’s only collection of short stories. They appear in the book sequentially dating from 1979 to 2011. One wonders if the choice of the subtitle, Nine Stories is an act of co-incidence or is he playing with J.D. Salinger’s second published book (1953) titled Nine Stories by Salinger.
DeLillo is about themes, symbolism and reality. He’s not much for action or plot, nor do we get much in-depth revelation of the innards of his characters. We get people simply executing their daily routines, and joyously, DeLillo leaves it up to the reader to interpret the video-like vignettes he presents. The stories abound with a diversity of geography, societal status and peopled circumstances. No one story reminds us of any other.
DeLillo has been around long enough (his first novel was published in 1971) for his oeuvre to have been studied, critiqued, analyzed, acclaimed, compared, and damned (rarely). A prolific author, his genres include novels, essays, short stories in prestigious magazines, plays, screenplays, and essays.
There have been numerous books published about him, and his awards probably require a special structure for safe-keeping. References to him and to his works are several pages long, and plan to spend several days if you Google his name and desire to read everything referenced therein.
In the process of having three decades of his work subjected to intense scrutiny, the DeLillo “themes” are interpreted fairly consistently: reflections on reality, the effects of terror in all of its range, characters enmeshed in circumstances they cannot control, people searching for meaning in life, the excessive influence of media in our daily lives, and characters indulging in obsessions.
In an interview with PEN in September 2010, DeLillo himself strips it down to: “The theme that seems to have evolved in my work during the past decade concerns time - time and loss. This was not a plan. Novels have simply tended to edge in that direction .... time is a mystery and perhaps best examined (or experienced by my characters) in a concise and somewhat enigmatic manner.” Enigmatic (thesaurus: mysterious, unknowable, inscrutable, unfathomable) is at the core of his characters and indeed of his story structure.
And just for a sliver of insight into the man, in an interview with the German publication Die Zeit following publication of Falling Man, his novel of the post 9/11 fallout, DeLillo was asked: “What is your political orientation?” to which he replied, “I’m an independent. And I would rather not say anything more about it.”
The interviewer persisted, “Why not?”
To which DeLillo answered, “Well, in the Bronx, where I grew up, we’d have put it this way: Because it’s none of your fucking business.”
One of the nine stories, Creation (1979) concerns the failed attempts by a young couple to return from their Caribbean vacation as they experience an inability to book flights, her frantic need to leave the island, and his enigmatic (that word, again) responses.
In Human Moments in World War 111 (1983), two astronauts view the earth during their orbital mission and converse with each other about big life issues: ”The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war … Earth orbit puts men into a philosophical temper … it makes a man feel universal … orbital routine gives our time a shape and substance.”
The Runner, (1988) is about a father who kidnaps his own young son, and the bearer of the tale equivocates, “The car, the man, the mother, the child. Those are the parts. But how do the parts fit together? Because now that I’ve had time to think, there’s no explanation.”
Kyle suffers an ongoing sense of doom as she experiences a series of mild earthquakes in Greece. “She lived inside a pause.” When her friend Edmund gives her an ivory acrobat (The Ivory Acrobat, 1988), replacing the roof ornament that had shattered during a tremor, she responds, “It’ll only get broken when the next one hits.”
In the story The Angel Esmeralda, (1994) Sister Edgar often walks the South Bronx streets witnessing the varieties of life’s degradation while looking for ways to help the people trapped therein. Her cohort Gracie goes “half berserk” at the sight of a tour bus sign, “South Bronx Surreal,” and calls out, “It’s not surreal. It’s real. It’s real. You’re making it surreal by coming here. The bus is surreal. You’re surreal…. Brussels is surreal. Milan is surreal. The Bronx is real.”
Baeder-Meinhof (2002) takes place in a museum and follows a young couple who meet there as they return daily to view particular pictures.
Midnight in Dostoevsky, (2009) my personal favorite, deals with two male college friends who love to engage in invented scenarios and witty dialogue about the imagined lives of others after their Logics class with Professor Ilgauskas, who reads Dostoevsky day and night In a diner.
Hammer and Sickle (2010) takes place in a minimum-security prison as the inmates watch two young sisters, (unbeknownst to the other observers, the daughters of one of the inmates) discussing market conditions and the state of the business world.
The Starveling (2011) my next favorite, is about an obsessive serial movie goer who observes and then follows (stalks?) a woman in the various movie houses he attends, as she too is engaged in the same serial viewing activity.
Reminiscent of DeLillo ’s most recent work, Point Omega (2010) concerns a filmmaker, Richard Elster, who is possessed with an ongoing incessant need to review the film Psycho.
This short collection is an ideal way to “taste” DeLillo , whose work will live alongside Roth’s, Updike’s, Bellow’s, Hemingway’s and any number of other great writers who sing America and try to make sense of her.