13 February, 2012Issue 18.3FictionLiterature

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Little Green Apples

Luke Smith

BritishDon DeLillo
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories
Picador, 2011
224 pages
ISBN 978-1447207573


In “The Runner”, the third piece in Don DeLillo’s new (and only) collection of short stories, an unnamed man is jogging around his local park when he witnesses what appears to be a kidnapping. He sees only the prelude to it—a car coming off the road down onto a bank of grass, a man getting out—before rounding the corner of the path. The details are filled in for him on a subsequent lap by a woman, another witness, who tells him that a boy was taken from his mother and that it was the father who did it. When the runner asks how she knows it was the father, she tells him:

It’s all around us, isn’t it? They have babies before they’re ready. They don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s one problem after another. Then they split up or the father gets in trouble with the police. Don’t we see it all the time? He’s unemployed, he uses drugs. One day he decides he’s entitled to see more of his child.

The runner argues that she can’t be sure, but she is resolute. Shortly afterwards, he finds out from a policeman that the kidnapper was a stranger, but when he sees the woman again later, he elects not to mention this, instead telling her that it was “definitely” the father, that she had had the story “just about totally right.”

We know DeLillo as a writer who is highly invested in language—every one of his works has, to a greater or lesser extent, taken language as a subject—so it is clear that the runner’s decision to allow the woman her story is more than just a moment of compassion: it is an affirmation of language’s power and of its reality. Her story is invented—it is not true—but the comfort it affords her is real. For DeLillo, language, despite its slipperiness, its arbitrariness, and even its treachery, is to be understood as an absolute of human experience. However, the firmer subject of these stories is the possibility of being human, despite the enormity of an ever-progressing world of massed intention, full of movement and confusion and potential threat.

In “The Runner” the threat is other people, the unknown malevolent “lurching out of nowhere, out of dreaming space”. In another, “The Ivory Acrobat”, it is nature. This story depicts a woman in Greece during a period of earthquakes, able only to spend her time waiting for the next one to hit, safeguarding her own preparedness to escape. Similarly, in “Human Moments in World War III”, two astronauts hang in “non-stationary orbit” around the Earth, literally faced with the enormity of the world. The “human moments” referred to in the title are tangible, a description given to items of homeliness—an old silver dollar, a football jersey, apple cider, and broccoli—but they are also the moments of insight or feeling that the astronauts experience, or the time spent simply gaping from the window at the thing turning beneath them. Estranged from their planet, it nevertheless remains all-encompassing:

It satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars, whatever obsessions eat at the night side of his mind, whatever sweet and dreamy yearning he has ever felt for nameless places faraway, whatever earth sense he possesses, the neural pulse of some wilder awareness, a sympathy for beasts, whatever belief in an immanent vital force, the Lord of Creation, whatever secret harboring of the idea of human oneness, whatever wishfulness and simplehearted hope, whatever of too much and not enough, all at once and little by little, whatever burning urge to escape responsibility and routine, escape his own overspecialization, the circumscribed and inward-spiraling self, whatever remnants of his boyish longing to fly, his dreams of strange spaces and eerie heights, his fantasies of happy death, whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings – lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space – all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.

DeLillo’s writing has always flirted with the transcendent, the tide and polish of his prose giving an elevated, sometimes otherworldly glitter to the environments that he describes. Given his preoccupations, it is tempting to believe that it is language itself that leads him there. More than once he has mentioned in an interview how, when writing, he will happily acquiesce to the gravity of language—will allow words and their rhythms to pull the meaning of a sentence to starboard or port. This eagerly organic mode of work finds its ideal dwelling in novels such as 1997’s Underworld, where it creates fragment over fragment, a palimpsest of gently listing impressions. But we are less inclined to expect this tenor of excess in the short form. What characterizes many of the greatest stories, we understand, is a tautness, a pen-tip precision—think of Hemingway, of Chekhov, of Raymond Carver, and of Isaac Babel’s dictum that “no iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put at just the right place.”

Of course this is a generalization, as The Angel Esmeralda makes clear. Though there are pieces more firmly in what we might call the Chekhovian tradition—such as the highly effective “Baader-Meinhof”, which begins and ends in an art gallery that is showing Gerard Richter’s disturbing cycle of paintings on Germany’s Red Army Faction—DeLillo does allow his novelistic impulse some latitude and it works for him. This collection proves what his novels’ dazzling set-pieces have shown: despite the sprawling nature of some of his best work, DeLillo understands the power of the briefer glimpse.

The pieces are not uniformly successful, however. There are times where the author allows himself to be overly seduced by the power of an idea. In “Hammer and Sickle” the notion of a group of interred white collar criminals “yelling and clamouring” because of a chant delivered by two news-reporter schoolgirls—”Stalin Krushchev Castro Mao! Lenin Brezhbev Engels – Pow!”—carries with it the leaden tang of implausibility. DeLillo has always been a novelist of ideas, and this impulse has led to some of his strongest work—Mao II, for example, and its extended investigation into a modern world saturated with images. But a story is far more delicate a vehicle than a novel, and ideas can be heavy cargo. If the writer is not careful the idea-led story can become a mere soapbox or manifesto—both far from being the arenas of our most human moments.

Fortunately, despite the occasional hiccough, the collection’s best stories are supremely human, and the very best of these is the title piece: an account of an aging nun called Sister Edgar who has spent her life in the Bronx, living and doing outreach work with the area’s desperate souls—the homeless, the addicted—and her experience of a series of events centred around a young, seemingly almost feral homeless girl called Esmeralda. There is a scene toward the end of the story where religious crowds gather to watch a vision that appears nightly on an advertising billboard scaffolded above a riverbank, possibly caused by the light from passing trains. On one side it’s like the comfort that language allows the woman in “The Runner”—a false, or probably false, thing generating real feeling and real hope. The truth, it seems to tell us, is secondary, and human feeling is the only verifiable thing—the only truth we have. But on the other there are also warnings about our need for such transcendence, our animal desperation. In the following nights larger crowds gather, vendors and hucksters move in, selling soft drinks and laminated images of the vision, and people get hurt—hit by cars and motorbikes or from fighting with tire irons. In the end neither side of the argument is given primacy over the other, and as a result, and of the skill of DeLillo’s touch, both retain a strong persuasive power. “And what do you remember, finally,” DeLillo asks:

When everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth – all nuance and wishful silhouette? Or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces, something holy that throbs on the hot horizon, the vision you crave because you need a sign to stand against your doubt?

This is a story that some readers may feel they recognize: it was written in 1994, and was subsequently reworked and slotted into Underworld. But given space to stand alone it resonates more brightly and more deeply.

DeLillo’s stories operate on the thresholds—between individuals and multitudes, between the miniature and the sprawl, between language being a necessary part of who we are and language as a distorting or ineffective lens. He rarely takes sides, instead choosing to explore and celebrate the variety and complexity of our lives. The focus is on the “human moments”, yes, but everything that surrounds them is also shown in all its honest complication, good and bad together. It’s an even-handed view which is shared by Sister Edgar: at her story’s beginning she wakes, raises the window shades, and sees things the same way she has seen them all her adult life: “That’s the world out there”, she thinks, “little green apples and infectious disease.”

Luke Smith graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. He currently lives in Houston, Texas.