Wednesday, February 29, 2012

DeLillo's The Angel Esmeralda: Part II

Larry Dark suggests that I will probably gain in admiration of Don DeLillo’s stories in The Angel Esmeralda on a second reading, and he is right. I have read all the stories again, and I do like at least three of them better than I did on a first reading. I think Larry is also probably right that these stories are not necessarily exemplars of the short story form, but rather that they are “very much on DeLillo’s terms.”

However, since I have never read a DeLillo novel, I am not really sure what DeLillo’s terms are. I did try to read White Noise once, even tried to listen to someone else read it to me on my ipod while walking my dog; but just could not stick it out. If DeLillo’s “terms” are novelistic, and I suspect they are, then perhaps a good novelist, even arguably, a great novelist, as most reviewers claim DeLillo is, may not be such a great short-story writer. Yes, I did like some of the stories in The Angel Esmeralda better after a second reading, but I still do not think they are great short stories.

My reading of the reviews of The Angel Esmeralda in my previous post suggests to me that few reviewers make an unbiased assessment of DeLillo’s stories because they are so in awe of his powers as a novelist. And, truth to tell, it irritates the hell out of me that so many reviewers recommend his stories because they are “accessible” introductions to DeLillo’s more demanding novels. Such remarks echo the common bias in the MFA workshop that short stories are good practice for beginning writers until they become “mature” enough to tackle the really serious work of writing novels and the parallel prejudice in the literature classroom that short stories are a “manageable” means of teaching students such narrative devices as plot, character, setting, point of view, etc. so that they can use this knowledge to read more serious narrative forms—you guessed it!—novels. You will please pardon the expression, but I think this is bullshit.

I know, I know. These tiresome protests of mine against the “bigger is better” bias of readers/critics/teachers may be prejudicing me against accepting/appreciating/admiring DeLillo’s stories on his own “terms,” insisting, as I always do, that the short story is a form that should be understood and judged on its own terms instead of on the terms of the novelist or the novel reader.

Maybe I am wrong, but I think most of the nine stories in The Angel Esmeralda are primarily finger exercises—bits and pieces, parts and portions--that DeLillo has played round with while preparing for the “big important novel” waiting in the wings. I don’t think DeLillo values the short story as a form, and I don’t think he has given much time to developing meaningful stories out of the parts and pieces he tinkers with here.

For example, I don’t really see anything about “Human Moments in World War III” that elevates it above ordinary sci fi genre fiction. The nostalgic trope that space travelers pick up radio programs from forty, fifty, sixty years ago, and the dominating notion of “human moments” during wartime seem to me to be common and clichéd. The long, twenty-line sentence at the end of the story pondering the meaning of the “endlessly fulfilling” view out the spacecraft window is a nicely balanced piece of prose describing a scene that many of my students were fond of calling “awesome,” but nothing in the story “earns” that ending.

For me, the only powerful part of the story “Baader-Meinhoff” is the description of some of the paintings in Gerhard Richter’s cycle in MOMA, based on photographs of the famous German terrorists who committed suicide, or arguably, were executed, while in prison. The rest—an account of a woman who meets a man in the museum and takes him back to her apartment, where he masturbates while she cowers in the bedroom--does not complement the descriptions of the paintings in any thematically meaningful way.

“Midnight in Dostoevsky,” which focuses on two young men who fancy themselves great thinkers while making up stories about their philosophy teacher and a mysterious man in a hooded coat, is often just tedious; for example, there is one full page devoted to a debate about whether the mysterious man’s coat is a parka or an Anorak.

“Hammer and Sickle” is a topical, “ripped from the headlines” story about a man who is serving time in a minimum-security prison because of involvement in white-collar crime. The man’s two daughters—ages ten and twelve--do a TV news show about world economic conditions—e.g. the debt in Dubai, the bailout in Greece, the Dow, the Nasdaq, the euro, riots, strikes, protests, pickets—in which the daily market report becomes a performance piece. It’s a clever, amusing, even cute, exercise, but still and all just a performance piece itself.

“The Ivory Acrobat” focuses on one woman’s fear of aftershocks of an earthquake in Greece—an event that narrows the world down to inside and outside for her. However, for someone like myself, who lives in earthquake-prone southern California, the woman’s reactions seem highly exaggerated, and if DeLillo is using aftershocks as a metaphor for all the mysterious forces that make our lives tentative, then ho-hum.

The title story, which made an appearance of sorts in DeLillo’s novel Underworld, was picked by Jane Smiley for the 1995 Best American Short Stories. I liked this story about Sister Edgar, who still dresses in old things with “arcane names,” and the younger nun Grace Fahey who is in all ways more secular. I even like the concept of graffiti writers painting memorial angels on the walls of the neighborhood called “The Bird”—a tuck of land sitting adrift from the social order,” although I think DeLillo pushes the social message stuff a bit too much in the story, for example when Sister Grace harangues a group of tourists on a bus that identifies the area as “South Bronx Surreal.” Grace shouts at them the obvious retort: “It’s not surreal. It’s real. You’re making it surreal by coming here. Your bus is surreal. You’re surreal.”

After someone rapes the child Esmeralda and throws her off a roof, the story concludes with an “uncanny occurrence” on a billboard that displays a “female Caucasian of the middle suburbs” pouring a glass of Minute Maid orange juice. When a train shines its light through the billboard, an image of the dead child Esmeralda appears. A thousand people show up to worship the sacred object—that is, until the next day when the sign is painted over with the words “space available” printed on it. The DeLillo narrator ponders: “Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth—all nuance and wishful silhouette? Or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces, something holy that throbs on the horizon, the vision you crave because you need a sign to stand against your doubts?” I suppose you could say the same thing about seeing the face of Jesus on a potato, but the image of a dead child showing forth like pentimento on a commercial billboard is obviously more affecting. I found the story hard to resist.

I also liked the shortest story in the collection I--“The Runner”--in which a runner through the park witnesses a child being snatched by a man who pulls up to her in his car. The grab is also witnessed by a woman who opines that the man is the child’s father. In a plot device that DeLillo uses in several stories, the woman creates an entire story about the snatcher: that he wants to share custody, that he broods for days, that he comes to the ex-wife and breaks up the furniture, that she gets a court order to keep him away, etc. However, when the runner discovers that the snatcher is a stranger, he lies to the woman, saying the mother identified the snatcher as the father, protecting her from the truth because he knows that she would prefer to have an explanation of what she has begun to think is an enormous mystery—“a hole opened up in the air.” I like “The Runner” because it economically and provocatively explores a universal human need in tight short-story fashion.

I also liked “The Starveling,” DeLillo’s most recent piece, which Larry Dark thinks is the key story in the book and which Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times also thinks is the best story, revealing DeLillo at his most tender.” There is a kind of isolation about the central character that gives credence to Frank O’Connor’s famous assertion about loneliness in the short story as a form. I like the central trope of the man sitting in movie theatres with only a few souls (“Moviegoers were souls when there were only a few of them.”). The woman he lives with calls him an “ascetic,” finding something “saintly and crazed in his undertaking, an element of self-denial, an element of penance. Sit in the dark, revere the images.”

After his sympathetic encounter in the restroom with the woman he calls the starveling, the man goes home to the woman he lives with and sees her standing in what might be a yoga pose; he stands absolutely still also watching her, and the position she holds seems to have a meaning for him.

“The way the hands were entwined, the stretched body, a symmetry, a discipline that made him believe he was seeing something in her that he’d never recognized, a truth or depth that showed him who she was. He lost all sense of time, determined to remain dead still for as long as she did, watching steadily, breathing evenly, never lapsing.

If he blinked an eye, she would disappear.”

It seems to me that DeLillo has focused on a mysterious magic about the relationship between reality and the movies in this story. That the black and white silent film “The Artist” won Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards recently and that the film “Hugo,” which is about Georges Melies, the original magician of the movies, also won a number of awards, suggests that, at least for those who make movies, there is something special about the dreamlike reality we experience in a movie theatre. “The Starveling” is actually the only story in The Angela Esmeralda that I will probably go back and read again and again, for it explores subtle and complex mysteries about human loneliness and human relationships.

However, I cannot, for the life of me--with all due respect to my betters--understand what John Banville, Martin Amis, and Charles Baxter see in the earliest story in the collection, the 1979 “Creation.”

Banville calls “Creation” one of the most memorable pieces” in the book, although he admits that it seems “superficially inconsequential, literally and figuratively.” Describing the action of the story as low-key, like a piece by Robbe-Grillet, Banville concludes that there is something in “Creation” that “lingers after the telling, something acrid, heart-sore and desperate, that makes it not a nouveau romanesque five-finger exercise but a real story that resonates ominously in the mind.” I am sorry to say that Banville does not explain why the story “resonates” (meaningless word that clutters the criticism of so many reviewers and academics these days).

Martin Amis also likes “Creation,” saying existentially, “The story feels bleached of past and future, of context and consequence.” It is ironic to me that this description is precisely the kind of comment critics often use to describe their dissatisfaction with the short story as a genre. But, hey, this is Don DeLillo! The lack of context and consequence must resonate (ouch!) with postmodern readers.

Charles Baxter also attributes a powerful existential significance to the story because of what it does not say, arguing that DeLillo’s stories “specialize in elaborate narrative chronologies in which some key element is missing. These strategic omissions give the stories their distinctive, nagging inscrutability, along with plots that present a mystery that hasn’t been announced, much less solved.”

Here is what is “superficially inconsequential,” to use Banville’s terms, in the story. A man and woman have been vacationing in the West Indies and are tying to catch a plane from the island they are on to New York. However, the plane is over booked and they have to spend another night, sharing a taxi back to their hotel with a German woman. The next day when they get to the small airport, only one seat is available, which the man gives to his female companion, going back to the hotel with the German woman, named Christa, and thence to bed with her. The next day, the narrator and Christa still cannot get a flight; although she is desperate to get home because of her work, he is sanguine about staying longer. As Elmer Fudd used to say at the end of Warner Brothers cartoons, “That’s it, folks!”

Baxter says the omission of any “any markers of the narrator’s desire is one of the signs that we are inside a post humanist fiction” in the story. We are not given his motivation, his personal feelings, his individuality, Baxter says triumphantly, because “this is not that kind of story…. The encounter of the narrator and the German woman in ‘Creation’ isn’t especially significant or meaningful. It’s just there, and the reason it’s there has very little to do with the specifically erotic content of the scene or the narrator’s character, such as it is.” What it does have to do with, Baxter does not deign to tell us.

All this omission, says Baxter “radically cools down the emotional temperature of the story and gives it a pleasingly zero-degree defamiliarized tone of floating detachment.” However, it is the final scene, Baxter says, when the German woman “lapses into a kind of blank impassivity” that gives the story a “sudden intensity.” Baxter calls it the true DeLillo moment toward which the story has been aimed. Baxter says that when Christa’s lips move without words while the narrator tells her that once more they do not have seats on the plane, it bears “more than a slight resemblance to prayer.” This is a typical device in DeLillo’s stories, says Baxter, in which the characters appear that they’re engaging in “religious devotions designed to get them to some higher plane of consciousness.”

Baxter says the circumstances in the stories are so large and fraught with import that the characters are minuscule by comparison. They simply have to bow down inside a cloud of unknowing. Comprehension gives way to nonverbal rapt contemplation. Any effort to grasp the nature of the experience they face is simply beyond reach. It would be like asking a dog to understand calculus.” Well, I don’t’ understand calculus, but even a casual reading of the scene when Christa’s lips move without saying anything suggests that she is really just pissed off at not being able to leave the island and probably silently cursing. How Baxter reads this as an attempt to achieve a “higher state of consciousness” is just way beyond me.

In my opinion, the story is really just a lot of bad Hemingway. For example, note this passage of dialogue between the three when they cannot get on the plane and must go back to the hotel in a taxi:

It was hot and bright all the way back. The woman sat up front with Rupert. At intervals she turned to Jill and me and said, ‘It is awful, awful, the system they have,’ or ‘I don’t understand how they survive economically,’ or ‘They could not guarantee I will get out even tomorrow.

When we stopped for some goats, a woman came out of the trees to sell us nutmeg in little plastic bags.

‘Where are we listed?’ Jill said.

‘Two and three this time.’

‘What time’s the flight?’

‘Six forty-five. We have to be there at six. Rupert, we have to be there at six.’

‘I take you.’

‘Where are we going now?’ Jill said.


‘I know hotel. What sort of hotel?’

Not even good Hemingway parody. You would not win a trip to Harry’s Bar and Grill with this.

And then there is what Baxter calls the “rapture” passage when the narrator relaxes in the pool:

“I opened my eyes to the sight of wind-driven clouds—clouds scudding—and a single frigate bird hung on a current of air, long wings flat and still. The world and all things in it. I wasn’t foolish enough to think I was in the lap of some primal moment. This was a modern product, this hotel, designed to make people feel they’d left civilization behind. But if I wasn’t naïve, I wasn’t in the mood, either, to stir up doubts about the place. We’d had half a day of frustration, long drives out and back, and the cooling touch of freshwater on my body, and the ocean-soaring bird, and the speed of those low-flying clouds, their massive tumbling summits, and my weightless drift, the slow turning in the pool, like some remote-controlled rapture, made me feel I knew what it was to be in the world. It was special, yes. The dream of Creation that glows at the edge of the serious traveler’s search.”

By the way, in case this passage does not tell you, the narrator is a writer, albeit perhaps a copywriter on Madison Avenue, as DeLillo was before he discovered he could sell fiction more profitably than soap flakes.

How about some more bad Hemingway? Here are the narrator and Christa after they have “used the morning in bed”:

‘What time is it?’

‘Go to sleep.’

‘Did we miss the call?’

‘There’s still time. They will ring the bell by the gate. An hour yet.’

‘I want you next to me.’

‘I must finish,’ she said. ‘Go to sleep.’

I managed to prop myself on an elbow.

‘What are you reading?’

‘It’s work. It’s very dull. You don’t want to know. We don’t ask, you and I’. ‘You’re half sleeping, or you wouldn’t ask.’

‘Will you come to bed soon?’

‘Yes, soon.’

‘If I’m asleep, will you wake me?’


‘Will you slide the door open a little, so we can feel the air?’

‘Yes, she said. Of course. Whatever you wish.’

Compare this bit of the inconsequential with the significantly meaningful dialogue in a story like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”

“Creation” ends as the narrator tries to sooth Christa’s disappointment at once more not getting a plane.

“We’ll just be together. You can rest and sleep, and tonight we’ll have a quiet brandy, and you’ll feel better about things. I know you will, I’m sure of it, I’m absolutely convinced. You’re not alone. It’s all right, it’s all right. We’ll have these final hours, that’s all. And you’ll speak to me in German.”

Oh, dear, oh, dear. How could such accomplished writers as Banville and Baxter have read this bit of inconsequentiality as meaningful? The fact that two people cannot make an exit from an island does not a Sartrean No Exit make.

I apologize for taking so much space on this posting, but since I am obviously in a minority of one about The Angel Esmeralda, I felt I had to explain in some detail my misgivings about the book, especially since so few reviewers have explained their praise for it. I know I will be accused of a hatchet job on DeLillo, but hell, sometimes you just have to suggest that the Emperor has no clothes.


The Story Prize said...

I don't think this is a hatchet job. You just don't care for the collection, a view you're entitled to and substantiate. You could, however, make many of the same observations about DeLillo's novels. So his skills as a story writer vis-a-vis his skills as a novelist aren't entirely the issue--his style and sensibility are. I'm glad, however, that you did like some of the stories better on a second read.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Larry. I guess I could more easily accept DeLillo's style and sensibility in a novel than in a short story. I do read novels now and again. But as a self-proclaimed cheerleader for the short story, I get impatient with a novelistic style and sensibility in that unforgiving form. I appreciate all your good work for the short story. Thanks for reading my blog.

Ann Graham said...

Thanks for being a champion for the short story. I, too, get tired of hearing people talk about short stories as training ground for the oh so grand novel. Anyone who says that, in my opinion, simply does not even understand the short story form.

Thanks for all you write!!

elliot said...

You must have noticed over the years that often when writers get the opportunity to review a new book by a major contemporary author they spend a great deal of time describing and praising the author's career without coming clean about whether the book under review is any good at all. Whether reviewers do so for fear of looking foolish for misreading a great author's latest work or for fear of offending an author (and his or her agent, publisher, friends, et al.) of great influence, it's hard to say. I once had a reviewer (published novelist) submit a pan to me for publication - but only if I'd publish it under a pseudonym. I ripped it up.

Read Me Something You Love said...

I'm pretty much in agreement with all you've written here Charles.

I co-run a short story book club in London( and we choose TAE as our January read, based on 1) my love of White Noise in my 20s and 2) the reviews from The Great and The Good.

But like you, once I actually started reading the collection, I struggled with it. It felt like a bunch of chapter-discards masquerading as short stories.

I think we sometimes forget as readers the faintly political machinations that go on in the world of book-reviewing; how a Banville or an Amis can't be seen to be critiquing too heavily a Titan like DeLillo just in case their literary judgement is called into question or they meet Don at some Nobel/This-Is-Your-Life gig one day, and he gets all "Don" (Corleone) on their asses.

So hooray for the internet and blogs like this one.

Warm wishes,


Charles E. May said...

My sincere thanks to Ann and Eliot for their continued support of my blog. I agree with Eliot that sometimes the reviewing business can become a bit incestuous. I just don't think that reviews should be like book jacket blurbs. Welcome to "Read me Something you Love," whose blog I have followed. And yes, I agree that book reviewing is not always a simple and pure matter of one reader making an independent analysis/judgment on the work of another. Thanks for reading and commenting, my colleagues.