Don DeLillo, The Angel Esmeralda

There are two theories as to why Don DeLillo, one of the major American novelists of the past 50 years, has slowed his output—both in terms of number of books published as well as the page counts thereof—in recent years.

One: DeLillo put everything he had into Underworld, his 1997 magnum opus. All of his favourite subjects became ingredients in its century-spanning stew, including baseball, nuclear weapons, paranoia, rock and roll, the logic of crowds, Lenny Bruce, and the ecosystem that is New York City. After 800 pages at full speed, DeLillo simply ran out of material; what we’ve seen since are just the dregs.

Two (and probably more likely): 9/11 happened. Since starting out in the 1970s, nothing has fascinated DeLillo more than terrorism. That’s one of the secrets to his books’ longstanding underground allure, as well as one of the reasons he’s now regarded as something of a reluctant prophet. But as soon as the Twin Towers fell, DeLillo also became a lot less relevant. After all, what do we need a prophet for, once his prophecy has come true?

Given this rather pointed aesthetic division between DeLillo’s pre- and post-9/11 work, it’s curious that his first collection of short fiction chooses to ignore it completely. The Angel Esmeralda cherry-picks stories from various points in DeLillo’s career. Half were written before 2001, and half after. But apart from the obvious markers in his basic sentence-by-sentence talent—DeLillo’s craft has only sharpened with time, sometimes to levels of porcupine-like prickliness—there’s not much to distinguish a 1979 story from a 2011 one. Here 9/11 is reduced to an invisible signpost, if it exists at all.

Though maybe this is a blessing, particularly for his recent work. In this new context, relieved of their pressure to serve as a global sociopolitical thermometer, the stories in Esmeralda read freer and breathe easier, serving instead as contiguous chapters in DeLillo’s singular worldview. So it’s only natural that the astronauts in 1983’s “Human Moments in World War III” speak with the exact same shades of suspicion and clinical detachment as the devout moviegoer of “The Starveling,” published this fall in Granta. Why wouldn’t they? This isn’t our world we’re reading about anymore; it’s his.

Accordingly, it’s populated with exactly the kinds of people and ideas we’ve come to expect from DeLillo’s novels. “The Runner” uses an unexplainable public kidnapping to sneak in an oblique conversation about chaos and terror. “The Starveling” and the excellent “Midnight in Dostoevsky” feature characters in pursuit of total strangers, conjuring entire life stories from a stray physical detail. And 2002’s “Baader-Meinhof” is devoted to the world of visual art, another of DeLillo’s ongoing fascinations.

There are some nice echoes through the years, too: a reference in 2010’s “Hammer and Sickle” to chaos and crisis being Greek words makes one flip back a few pages to “The Ivory Acrobat,” a 1988 story about an earthquake in Athens, where the narrator off-handedly notes, “The panic god is Greek after all.”

“Hammer and Sickle” contains perhaps the single best nugget of storytelling in the entire collection. When its narrator, a white-collar prison inmate, wants to watch TV, he chooses a stock market report on a children’s network, featuring two little girls as anchors. It’s a classic DeLillo image, ably demonstrating the gap between a situation’s severity and the way it gets represented. From here, the narrator appears to move on, using the next paragraph to describe the make-up of the other prisoners watching. You think it’s over. But that’s when DeLillo circles back and delivers the real punch line: the girls on the screen are actually the man’s daughters. In an instant the story’s scope grows exponentially larger, all thanks to that one excellent little pirouette.

If you’re any kind of DeLillo fan, or even a curious neophyte, you’ll feel right at home here. Only the title story stands out as unnecessary, and that’s mostly because a re-tinkered version already appeared in Underworld. Then again, if you’ve never read a description of limbo as brilliant/lunatic (I go back and forth) as “a cosmic cloud of slushed fetuses floating in the rings of Saturn,” well, you should probably be exposed to that any way you can.

Scribner, 224 pp, $27.99, hardcover

(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, January 8, 2012)

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