The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo is a collection of stories written between the late 1970s and 2011. Each story seems to be based on a strong central idea–a story idea–that decays into DeLillo’s vision of the world and his way of expressing it. When he writes novels, there are enough events to give this DeLillo vision a kind of rhythm that rescues it from its monotony and repetitiveness. Here, the singularity of the story-idea gradually erodes even as it crests. I know that’s contradictory, but I don’t know a better way to express the effect of story after story.
The flatness, the dullness, the boringness of DeLillo’s prose in this collection points in the direction of his central theme–estrangement–and his secondary theme (which is is his primary theme in novels)–conspiracy.
DeLillo’s estrangement is somewhat different from what Camus offered in The Stranger. It is the constant representation of life and things and people as unique and fascinating and bewildering and not belonging to any controlling order. Much of what DeLillo depicts is grubby urban reality (New York reality) that feels momentary and arbitrary, as though buildings were the mourners at a funeral, gathered around a grave, who soon will all go off in different directions and may never meet again. DeLillo’s characters are equally estranged from one another, arbitrarily, coincidentally, or perhaps indifferently tied together. I could love you, I could love someone else, it doesn’t matter because I don’t know what love means in the first place.
In story after story, the cadence of details and exchanges seems to be building toward a release DeLillo deliberately subverts. Estrangement always leads to the revelation of vacancy. The final story, “The Starveling,” reveals the backbone of this march toward emptiness. That backbone is a code of conduct, almost a religious rite, that disallows variations. One must always do the same things and expect the same thing, nothing.
The face of conspiracy in DeLillo is variable. Sometimes it is the unknown and unknowable, sometimes it is the intrusion of mystery, sometimes it is the laughter of a parallel world recorded and projected in the media. In one story, “The Ivory Acrobat,” conspiracy even takes the form of post-earthquake aftershocks. These earthly rumblings must be telling us something, mustn’t they? The question is whether they are telling us about the arbitrariness of nature or the desperate contingency of self.
So there is something grueling about The Angel Esmeralda, but in that there are rewards. The first reward is that we all see things we don’t see. We are unobservant. We don’t have room in our thoughts for the mute statements that hurtle at us all the time. DeLillo rectifies that. The second reward is DeLillo’s apparent belief that we should not force a malign interpretation on the weirdness of the world. Many of his characters are frozen in a protective, paranoid crouch, but their discomfort is not necessarily terminal or definitive. In DeLillo’s world, it’s possible that what seems to be be really isn’t, and it’s possible that what happens doesn’t happen because a cosmic hostility is pursuing us, and it’s possible that the ultimate emptiness of things isn’t so ultimate. He seems to be saying that whatever we have invented and allowed to become our internal guidance system could have been, and still could be, invented otherwise. So we’re trapped–another contradiction, I admit.