The Angel Esmerelda: Nine Stories, By Don DeLillo


Don DeLillo published his first short story in 1960, two years after graduating from Fordham University. He was working as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather, a leading Manhattan advertising agency, on the Sears Roebuck account. On the side, like the pipe-smoking copywriter Paul Kinsey in Mad Men, DeLillo began to publish short stories. In a career lasting half a century he has published 16 novels, beginning with Americana in 1971, but only 20 stories. The Angel Esmeralda collects nine, from "Creation" in 1979 to "The Starveling", which appears in the autumn 2011 Granta.

In his stories, DeLillo seeks ways to mine ambiguities and explore pared-down psychological states. He traffics in disquiet. In "Human Moments in World War III", the narrator, in a wartime military satellite, is instructed by Colorado Command that "human moments" and memories would threaten their mission. Even conversation was dangerous. By some quirk of technology, the satellite begins to receive old-time radio programmes, and the narrator subversively responds to their poignant note of "purest, sweetest sadness". A dehumanised military discourse is undermined by voices from remote space. There is a firm authorial thumb on the moral scale. We know where DeLillo's values are.

The enigmatic conclusion of the 1994 title story hints at the hope of a redemptive vision in a world of violence and crime. It is set in the North Bronx, where DeLillo grew up. Word passes that the face of a murdered young girl has appeared magically on a billboard. Crowds expectantly gather, but the face fails to reappear. The image of the girl's face, and the hope of transcendence which it promised, is too deeply rooted in the lives of the poor to be shaken. The narrator, Sister Edgar, holds on to the experience as a shield against doubt, the terrible suspicion that the vision had been a "fundamental untruth".

DeLillo uses the full panoply of postmodern technique not to undermine long-affirmed truths, but to leave room for them. Despite the reality of deprivation and violence, there are some, like Sister Edgar, who yearn to live in hope and faith. DeLillo is a classic Roman Catholic writer, wrestling with the ambiguities of belief.

His stories of the past decade are as though written by a different man. They have the structure of an ongoing conversation: two people determined to interpret a series of paintings of dead German terrorists, a man in a hooded coat, the inmates of a minimum-security correctional camp. The need to construct a narrative rubs against the sheer resistance of meaning itself.

The narrator of "Hammer and Sickle" understands everything and nothing about the imprisoned men around him: "men with dental issues, medical issues, marital issues, dietary demands, psychic frailties, sleep-breathing men, the nightly drone of oil-tax schemes... corporate espionage, corporate bribery, false testimony, medicare fraud, inheritance fraud, real estate fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy." Having guessed the identity of an old man in a hood, glimpsed walking the streets in a small college town, the narrators of "Midnight in Dostoevsky" fall out. What, if anything, are they going to do with all this so-called knowledge?