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Monday, 29 July 2019

Book review: The Angel Esmerelda, Don DeLillo (2011)

This collection of nine short stories was a revelation for me, although it’s possible that I had read something else by this author earlier in my life. For the life of me I couldn’t remember if I had done.

The stories here are not all of the same quality but that’s hardly surprising when you consider that the earliest of them, ‘Creation’, dates from 1979. The book is split into three sections and the stories are published in the order in which they were completed: 1979, 1983, 1988, 1988, 1994, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2011. Part three starts on page 103 and there are 211 pages in the book, so it comprises almost exactly half of the whole. It has four stories in it, the most of any of the sections.

The stories are good even from the earliest days but they get better and better with time. DeLillo is a careful craftsman and a deep thinker who uses minute observations about the world to give substance to his creations, which are stories however that, like many art-house movies, want a certain degree of forward movement. The denouement arrives quietly, in many cases, such as in ‘Hammer and Sickle’ (2010), ‘Midnight in Dostoyevsky’ (2009), or ‘Baader-Meinhof’ (2002).

In order to conserve a degree of brevity I’ll restrict my comments to these three stories as they appeared to me to be, of the ones I read, the best in the collection. I didn’t read the final story before writing this review.

‘Hammer and Sickle’ is about an inmate in a kind of low-security prison, who lives among men most of whom have been placed there due to financial crime. It’s not at any point clear what the protagonist, Jerold Bradway, did to deserve his incarceration but there are strong and compelling hints thrown out in the course of the story. Some of them are delivered by Jerold’s two daughters, Kate and Laurie, who have been compelled by their mother to put on a program on children’s TV in the episodes of which they talk about the financial crisis. Their mother had specifically told Jerold to watch the series of programs. The punchline is devastating and it comes well before the final paragraph, which contains a moment when Jerold contemplates himself in the world as he stands on the overpass of a motorway looking down at cars moving in the darkness. Jerold had told his roommate about his daughters and it’s not clear if this news spreads to the other residents of the camp but by the end of its run the program, which no-one had been interested in at first, draws a crowd to the TV room.

‘Midnight in Dostoyevsky’ is about two university students – Todd and Robby – who are studying at a small-town institution. One of their teachers, a man named Ilgauskas, who takes classes in logic (so the two young men are studying the humanities), becomes enmeshed in a fantasy that the two dream up on their walks around the town that concern a man in a parka (or anorak; they argue about what the correct word should be for the garment) who they see from time to time walking on the streets.

This story, like the other one already discussed, does a number of different things. One of these is to highlight something that I have often thought myself: that people are always telling themselves stories in order to make sense of the world around them. Todd and Robby try to understand their teacher and he becomes linked to the man in the parka through the agency of a girl named Jenna who met with Ilgauskas one day at the town’s diner. Ilgauskas told Jenna that he was always reading Dostoyevsky. Hence the old man becomes Ilgauskas’ father and they end up being Russian (although the name Ilgauskas is probably Lithuanian) in the minds of Robby and Todd.

‘Baader-Meinhof’ is another strange story that, again, has a certain heft and weight. It deals with a woman and a man who meet at a museum where there is an exhibition of artworks to do with the German terrorists whose names appear in the story’s title. There is a reticence about the way that the man and the woman talk and the matter of sex is not far from either of their thoughts, although how things turn out would not occur to anyone reading the story in its early pages. The matter of violence that is implicit in the history of the terrorists arises also in the relations between the two people, who eventually end up back at the woman’s studio apartment.

The degree of ambiguity that DeLillo includes in his stories and their sometimes vanishingly slight plots will mean that he will probably always remain an author prized by a minority. Unless he wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, of course, which is something a friend of mine thinks possible. In fact it was the recommendation in this form from this friend that led me to take this book down off the shelf of the op shop in Waverley where I saw it last week. Going by the strength of the stories in this collection, such an accolade seems deserved but, having said that much, not all Nobel winners turn out to be the best representatives of their era.

People who value reading and who aspire to think deeply about the world will gravitate to DeLillo. He’s not ever going to be mainstream, is my estimation of this work. It’s too complex, too difficult. One thing that did put me off about these stories is DeLillo’s tendency not to properly mark out the identities of people involved in the conversations that he includes in his writing. You often struggle, with his stories, to work out who is speaking because he just puts the quote, and mostly leaves out the marker to say which character is speaking. I wonder why he does this, it seems so unnecessary. It might be due to his belief, as with many American authors, that you have to concentrate on style more than on plot and character.

This continental bias goes back as far as Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. In many cases it leads to the production of brilliant literature (and the first and second stories discussed above most certainly contain nods to Nabokov) but in others it can lead to dead ends. DeLillo’s work is definitely not in this category.

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