Monday, December 12, 2011

Review: The Angel Esmeralda (Don DeLillo)

The Angel Esmeralda is Don DeDeLillo’s first book of short stories in his forty-year career. Flipping through the nine chronologically-arranged stories, the reader is bound to wonder, is that all there is?  Or has he honed his output down to this slim volume for a reason?

A slim collection is more easily justified if it deals with a single character or theme.*  Numerous professional reviewers have referred to these as stories about terror, but that seems to me to be a rather limited point of view.  While there is terror in some of these stories, most, if viewed through that lens, are failures. 

Well, there are a few stories that seemed, to me, to be failures at any level.  Which is not unusual for a short story collection.  One of them, a 1983 story involving spaceships and laser beams, may have been readable once, but now is simply a victim of time.  On the other hand, there were two other stories that struck me as being excellent, and one – the title story – that was transcendent.  Consider the scene of two nuns, visiting a Bronx flophouse:
Watch the needles, sidestep the needles, such deft instruments of self-disregard.  Gracie couldn’t understand why an addict would not be sure to use clean needles.  This failure made her pop her cheeks in anger.  But Edgar thought about the lure of damnation, the little love bit of that dragonfly dagger.  If you know you’re worth nothing, only a gamble with death can gratify your vanity. 
The story succeeds because in it DeLillo squarely addresses the human condition: what it is like to suffer, and to confront suffering, and what it is to hope.  He does so without condescension or romanticization, but in the process, he finds art. 

If only all the stories here were so powerful!  Certainly, the potential was there, particularly in one story dealing with a European earthquake, and in another set in a jailhouse of white collar criminals.  Too often, though, these stories read like miniature versions of his novels.  As I’ve observed, DeLillo’s novels are often built on the worlds that are just so slightly askew from ours.  To effectively craft such a space requires room, and DeLillo does not have that luxury in the short story form. 

And yet.  With his mastery of the sentence, all but a few of the stories are well worth reading, even if most are unlikely to linger in the mind for more than an hour or two.

*See The Lemon Table, by Julian Barnes, or Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Related posts:
Michiko Kakutani's Top Ten for 2011
First Lines of "The Runner"
DeLillo's Short Stories


  1. Interesting review. I suspected that the collection was simply to present a grab bag of the shorter material he's been inconsistently producing over the years; in other words; this is all he's written, thus the size. The problem with this is if you have a stinker of a story - and I've read some of these stories in Harpers and know how bad they are - it sticks out much more prominently.

    I'm reading a collection now called Poe's Children that is focused on one topic (the "new" horror), and so far it's one of the best ss collection's i've ever read. What did the Barnes and Ishiguro collections focus upon? I assume that you felt that the collections were successful?

  2. The Lemon Table, by Julian Barnes, is a collection of short stories about old age and death.

    Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro is a bit of an oddball - it is a "cycle" of stories, the literary equivalent of a a piece of classical music involving movements. So, certain themes recur and develop throughout the stories, even though each has a different mood. Music and nightfall all play a piece in each story as well.

    Yes - both were very enjoyable collections, in different ways.