Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Don DeLillo's The Angel Esmeralda--Part I

The Story Prize recently announced its short list of three books nominated for the award this year. Two of those books, We Others by Steven Millhauser and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, are brilliant examples of short stories of two different types: imaginative concept stories and Chekhovian realistic stories. We Others is also on the short list for the PEN/Faulkner award, as is The Angel Esmeralda. Binocular Vision is on the short list for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Winners of the awards will be announced in March and April

All three books are collections of stories that span the authors’ careers from the late seventies/early eighties up to the present. Millhauser and Pearlman are short story writers par excellence; they love the form, know it well, and write near perfect stories. I have posed blog entries on their collections. For DeLillo, who is often praised as one of America’s greatest novelists, this is his first collection of stories. The fact that it made the short list for both The Story Prize and the PEN/Faulkner surprised me. I had read The Angel Esmeralda and was totally underwhelmed; the book seemed to me a typical example of a novelist who deigned to diddly away a little time between the more important work of writing novels to dash off some lightweight stories.

When a collection of stories that I thought was weak is nominated for an important award, of course I am perfectly willing to rethink my judgment. Could I be wrong about The Angel Esmeralda? So I searched all the reviews (and there were a lot of them) and was astonished, amazed, appalled, and just plain aggravated that everyone—in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and Canada—seemed to think the collection was bloody brilliant.

First there were the advance one-paragraph prepublication notices in such places as Booklist, which called The Angel Esmeralda a “towering collection” that “builds in the mind like a mighty cumulonimbus lit by lightening flashes and scored with thunder,” and Library Journal, which more moderately called it a “good introduction to DeLillo’s iconic postmodern style” and opined that DeLillo fans would find it a “good fix” until his next novel. Indeed, this notion that the collection was primarily interesting for being a relatively easy and accessible introduction to DeLillo’s more challenging novels was a common theme sounded throughout the reviews.

Many reviewers discuss the stories as examples of typical DeLillo themes and his topical treatment of current social issues, or else they cite particular sentences to praise DeLillo’s style. John Greenya says in The Washington Times that he believes it is “possible, and esthetically rewarding, to read Don DeLillo for his sentences alone.” None really talk about the stories as “stories,” except perhaps USA Today, declaring there is no weak story in the whole book, saying it is a “marvel—a small masterpiece of short fiction,” but still noting that for readers not quite ready for one of his “formidable” novels, it is a “fine introduction” to his work.

The reviewer in Canada’s National Post suggests the short story may be a greater challenge to DeLillo, to “reach some characteristically oblique yet eerily satisfying conclusion without support from the novel’s architecture, its sheer accumulation.”

Indeed, the reviewer in the Sidney Morning Herald’s reminder that DeLillo has often been drawn to “large, impersonal, contextualising cultural questions,” e.g. environmental disaster, political assassination, terrorism may be precisely what makes the short story a “greater challenge” to DeLillo, for the form has never been interested in such large cultural questions.” In The New York Times Book Review, Liesl Schillinger, calling DeLillo a “master transmitter of American zeitgeist anxiety,” suggests that each of the stories address a different kind of “unease,” becoming a “coded contemporary allegory” of such things as airport scares, earthquakes, terrorists, child snatchers, and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Christian Lorentzen, in the London Review of Books says these are “less stories—if a story requires something like a moral, an epiphany or a fatal reversal—than animated conceptual fragments.”

Matt Kavanagh in Canada’s Globe and Mail calls the book both a “career retrospective and a restating of first principles.” The Montreal Gazette says it is a “remarkable representative sampler of DeLillo’s narrative strategies and thematic range. Anyone looking for a way into the work of a writer who can appear intimidating now has the perfect place to go.” However, Troy Jollimore in The Washington Post says that the stories here may not be the ideal place for a neophyte reader of DeLillo to start, for he requires a “large canvas to fully display his narrative gifts.” In fact, he says, “At times, The Angel Esmeralda feels almost like a novelist’s notebook.”

Many of the reviews spend more time discussing DeLillo’s novels than the stories in this collection. For example, Salvatore Scibona in the San Francisco Chronicle is half way through his review before he even mentions the stories, calling them a “retrospective,” splaying out more than three decades of DeLillo’s work. The Washington Times says that readers who have previously been put off by DeLillo’s novels will welcome this book for its brevity and “relative accessibility” and will find it an “excellent introduction to DeLillo’s genius.

The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times put their chief reviewers on the case—David Ulin and Michiko Kakutani. Ulin begins by acknowledging the sense of déjà vu while reading the stories in The Angel Esmeralda, since they echo theme and issues in his novels since 1971. It is as though DeLillo has put together a “primer, a guidebook to his literary life.” Kakutani singles out the title story as the best in the collection, noting that the others are not nearly as powerful, although they offer insights into DeLillo’s themes and preoccupations as a writer—particularly his exploration of people who are deeply “alienated individuals—detached, displaced, often stranded in physical or emotional limbo.

The three reviews with arguably the most impact may be those by other respected writers: John Banville in Financial Times, Charles Baxter in The New York Review of Books, and Martin Amis in The New Yorker. Banville is the most circumspect of the three. Noting that DeLillo’s writing style owes much to the French nouveau roman, ala Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes, Banville singles out two stories as the best in the collection: “Creation,” which although seemingly inconsequential, “lingers after the telling,” with something that seems “acrid, heart-sore and desperate,” making it “a real story that resonates ominously in the mind.” However, Banville does not seem to know how to justify how this effect is created. Martin Amis opens his New Yorker review by arguing that when we say we love a writer’s work, we actually mean we love about half of it, citing several examples from Shakespeare to Joyce. He says The Angel Esmeralda is an alternation between “easy-chair DeLillo and hard-chair DeLillo.” Amis calls DeLillo the “laureate of terror, of modern or postmodern terror, and the way it hovers and shimmers in our subliminal minds.” However, for the most part, he does not discuss how the stories here support that judgment.

The longest review is Charles Baxter’s essay in The New York Review of Books. Baxter provides a context for the collection by arguing that in many of his recent books, DeLillo focuses on “trance states that have little or no actual content but for that very reason have become central to the story.” Baxter’s central point is that The Angel Esmeralda “has at its core a series of situations that lead to trance states experienced by the insulted, the insured, and the vulnerable, who in its grip sometimes begin to babble in a form of secular glossolalia.” Baxter argues that the 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.” In the opening story, “Creation,” Baxter, echoing Banville’s comparison to Roland Barthes says “DeLillo’s (or the narrator’s) refusal to supply the reader with any emotional filler or exposition radically cools down the emotional temperature of the story and gives it a pleasingly zero-degree defamiliarized tone of floating detachment.”

However, Baxter says the title story is the most memorable one, for in it “tone is everything. Tone takes the place vacated by plot. In all the stories that follow this one, a similar configuration of the transfixed observer and the mysterious object of contemplation appears in a tone that mixes detachment with longing.” Baxter admits that his books are “more at home in departments of cultural studies than in English departments…. His novels (and now these stories) are not really about individual characters with complicated personal and private histories…. Individual personality traits are usually the least interesting ingredients in any DeLillo narrative. Instead, the emphasis everywhere in his fiction tends to be on symptoms. The character is generally less convincing than the symptom. And whatever is symptomatic in a DeLillo story illustrates the movement of some hidden spirit or force moving through contemporary cultural history. The typical DeLillo tale reads like a diagnosis of a zeitgeist malady we never knew we had, and in these stories the malady is one of spellbound fixation.”

With all these critical comments by my betters in mind, I am now reading The Angel Esmeralda again, and again. I will discuss some of the issues the reviewers raise, as well as suggest my own reading and analysis of some of the stories in the collection next week, especially the story that Banville and Baxter like so much—“Creation.” In the meantime, I would appreciate hearing from others who have read DeLillo’s stories. At this point, my opinion is that The Angel Esmeralda is not even in the same literary universe as Millhauser’s We Others and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision.

1 comment:

The Story Prize said...

Charles, I think you'll gain admiration for The Angel Esmeralda on a second reading. And I view "The Starveling" as the key story in the book. (Think Plato's cave.) These are stories very much on DeLillo's terms, not necesarily exemplars of the form.