The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

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.

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Open Secrets by Alice Munro

Open Secrets by Alice Munro is a collection of her stories published in 1994 that I had not read before, which was something of a surprise to me since I’ve read so much of her work with so much pleasure.

Here she continues to achieve her almost novelistic effects in the most deceptively simple way: she often sticks to one location in rural Canada, a mill town on the way down, she builds significant changes in time into her narratives, and she manages to conclude her stories with a sense that the fullness of a life has now been revealed.

One story, “The Albanian Virgin,” is a classic captivity story that almost seduces the captive—a woman—into accepting her fate but for the intervention of a Franciscan priest, who, one speculates, connects with her in freedom later on.

Another story, “The Jack Randa Hotel,” plays a game of hide-and-seek between a separated couple who have to travel from Canada to Australia to reach one another. Or maybe it’s a game of tag . . . could be.

Munro writes with specificity about faces, moods, landscapes, and characteristics. Her subjects have not yet found the homogenizing effect of Prozac and other hi-tech drugs that squeeze the weirdness out of them. A girl from an orphanage is married to a young man setting out in the wilds to build a farm with his brother, but as the story unfolds, great uncertainty develops as to how the young married man actually died. At the end, we know, although the girl from the orphanage still keeps many secrets to herself.

I particularly like two tricks Munro plays with time: Sometimes she shifts into the present tense without explanation, only to return to the past tense, also without explanation. No explanation is necessary, of course. The present tense, when used judiciously, intensifies a story. Munro also occasionally drops a piece of a narrative in a spot that is chronologically all wrong but creates an out-of-time fulness and completion, even though it suggests the same story, the one that has just been told, is now going to be told all over again.

Without a doubt, Munro is a lady, meaning a gentlewoman, but her writing can be earthy and spicy and quite realistic about old men who want their younger wives to talk dirty to them or boys who want to jump girls so bad they call them ugly first, as if to drive them away, not embrace them.

Not infrequently Munro flashes forward toward the end of a story to show how things turned out decades after the main events. Two things stand out about this: the characters have gotten old and feeble and suffered many losses . . . and hypocrites usually receive what they always had coming to them.

Perhaps Munro’s effectiveness in deploying all these techniques lies in the humbleness and unpretentiousness of her principal characters and settings and her straightforward, clean style.

She goes to the heart of the matter—how life grabs you there and makes your pulse race or seize up. She’s not a writer who blinks at joy or misery. She lets each have its due.

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The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

As I was reading The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, more than 600 pages of them, I had to set aside what I already knew of his colossal literary achievements to better appreciate how they came to be, how long he spent publishing his work in tiny emigre newspapers, how little he was appreciated before Lolita and Pale Fire were published, two books that made him impossible to ignore.
He had many literary friends and admirers throughout his career, of course. Perhaps the most famous, and famously arrogant, was Edmund Wilson, a man of letters equal to Nabokov in many ways but not, as he stupidly insisted, in his knowledge of the Russian language.
But the fact is that Nabokov’s own stories tell the tale of his melancholy moments in Europe—especially in Berlin—better than a deservedly proud man would like to tell them directly, in his own voice.
He wrote about lots and lots of losers, losers who missed their main chance at love, a career, exotic travel, a good friendship. And he wrote about lots of romantics who yearned for the kind of explosive aesthetic revelation that only a master like Nabokov could really concoct.
I don’t see any point in retelling any of the dozens of stories in this volume. They’re there to be read, not summarized. Early in his career Nabokov clearly had some Chekhov in him. As he hit stride, one senses an affinity for Turgenev. Someone like Dostoevsky would have appalled him, only to be treated with comedy. Tolstoy? Well, Tolstoy did have that drop-dead lucidity about him; the problem with him, though, was that like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy became a devout moralist and refused to do what Nabokov consistently did—use his powers to transcend the little good and bad distinctions and glory in the pure beauty of life observed and described for and of itself.
At one point in these stories a character is dismissed because he relates to the world through feelings, not concrete, scientific assessment. Here’s a key to Nabokov. He was an expert lepidopterist (butterfly expert), and as such he was more exacting and precise than mere feelings permit. That’s where his famous—almost unbelievable—style explodes on the page; he captures tiny, intriguing details and fits them within a kind of narrative nomenclature that doesn’t really require plot. The thing is the thing. It was self-evident to Nabokov that demonstrable existence—the existence of clouds, of rain, of trams, of long flabby chins, of self-pity, of lies—possesses an inherent aesthetic thrill that required no trumped-up metaphysical, moral or religious justification. All he had to do was find the right words and fit them into the right moments, and voila, a story was born.
These days we hear over and over again “show, don’t tell.” It’s so boring, and it’s so wrong. Nabokov told plenty of tales, he summarized, he leaped forward in time, he sniggered, he forced the reader to agree, the woman was beautiful, the man was doomed.
What Nabokov could not abide, says his son in the introduction to this volume, was cruelty. I found that an interesting revelation. In fact, there is everything in Nabokov except cruelty, or its endorsement. This matches well with his need for aesthetic freedom. He simply avoided certain subjects without, I must say, failing to belittle the dolts who stole Russia from him.
The other major man of letters who has taken a similar position on cruelty is the philosopher Richard Rorty. He recognizes that it is difficult not to be cruel by accident or unintentionally, but he insists this is the great human project: to imagine human experience devoid of cruelty. Realistic? No, but if you have Nabokov’s talent, you can still make the proposition believable.

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Iraq Ten Years Later

Last week I did an interview with on the current situation in Iraq. I thought I’d summarize what I said here.

Ten years ago today I was in Baghdad just finishing up a strategy that was supposed to–and did–put that tragic country on a political path by suppressing the insurgency then burgeoning and making elections the number one goal. I wrote this story in my book, Nights in the Pink Motel/Naval Institute Press, 2008.

The election took place as we planned in January, 2005. Sunni voters sat out that election and paid a price they could not have afforded anyway. Iraq as presently constituted is dominated by a majority Shiite population. But the first elected Iraqi prime minister was a disappointment and soon enough Nuri al-Maliki took over, another Shiite leader. He became what we knew was possible, an Iraqi version of Mubarak (since overthrown). The level of hatred and need for revenge Shiites like Maliki feel toward the Sunni population (Saddam was Sunni, of course) quickly overcame his better judgment. Subsequent years of persecuting Sunni citizens and excluding them from the government led to deep fissures that the new militant force, ISIS, has successfully exploited. ISIS flooded into Iraq in part because Iraqi Sunni elements saw it as a way to break al-Maliki’s grip on Iraqi politics. I’m simplifying here, but the gist of the matter is that Iraq was created by the British after World War I, fusing Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish provinces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire into a single state. This was a terrible mistake because those three groups had little in common. Ultimately, Saddam gained control of the country by force, intimidation, torture, exclusion, and general brutality.

The United States made a terrible mistake in assuming the British legacy could be put right by toppling Saddam. The result was the brutal insurgency going on in the summer of 2004, when I came on the scene as an aide to the U.S. ambassador. The Iraqi parliament somehow has held together as a dysfunctional element of national disunity. Right now it must find a way to push al-Maliki out of office, replace him with a unifier, and keep the Kurds from getting off the Iraqi train entirely.

This will be the easy part, even though it will take some weeks or months. Afterward, the new Iraqi government (if there is one) will have to fight ISIS for years to take back the territory and major cities it has seized. At some point indigenous Sunni populations (ISIS is not indigenous to Iraq, it first gained traction in the Syrian civil war) will have to withdraw their cooperation with ISIS. Or to express this process more accurately, the Sunni populations will have to undermine and help run ISIS out of town. This likely will happen because ISIS will overplay its hand in imposing sharia on the Sunnis of Iraq; they’ll reject radical Islam, and they’ll do it from one day to the next. The question is, what day?

A fundamental issue for so-called Western powers and publics is swallowing something I said above: this is a struggle that will take years. We in the West like things done in news cycles, be they 24-hour cycles or 100-day cycles. That’s not the way things work in the context of historic clashes and struggles in places like the Middle East.

A second fundamental issue for Western powers and publics is coming to terms with why the Middle East matters. The chief reason is oil. When U.S. politicians suggest that American oil independence will save us a lot of grief in the Middle East, they’re knowingly lying. Oil is a foundational element of the world economy, and it is fungible, meaning that American oil companies would sell American oil abroad for a better price if they could get it–America be damned–and that the rest of the world cannot prosper, as presently constituted, without oil. And if the rest of the world cannot prosper, neither can the U.S.

Add to this a third fundamental issue: Fossil fuel–oil,gas, and coal–ultimately is ruining our planet. Again, it will take years, not news cycles, to do something about moving away from fossil fuels to energy sources that do not contribute to global warming, with all of its dangerous consequences.

These factors all interlock. Any strategy for the Middle East has to take time, sectarian hatred, and colossal economic/energy forces into account. That is a complex proposition that is difficult for world leaders to express, much less sell,to their electorates. But the fact is that it is not “easier” to go to war; blood is not the energy source that will bring peace to the Middle East and arrest the looming threat of global warming.

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New Story: The Duchess of Malfi

The Pavilion ( just published one of my stories, “The Duchess of Malfi.” This is a short piece that plays on some memories I have of spending a few days with Gore Vidal in Madrid back in the ’80s. A friend who knew Vidal better than I said I “nailed” him — a compliment, by the way, not reference to any aggression.

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New Stories: “Citizenship Test” and “Moss”

My latest and perhaps most wicked story just came out in ShoutoutUK. It’s called “Citizenship Test” and can be found at The premise is that one can become a citizen by taking a written test and then participating in a hands-on test of an appropriately materialistic nature.


Tomorrow The Whistling Fire will publish an entirely different, sweeter, more meditative story called “Moss.” The staff reader who recommended it to the editor said it was the most beautiful piece she’d come across in her three years with the journal. I’ve published in The Whistling Fire before and love its title and content. Just search for The Whistling Fire online, and you’ll find it.

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The Fear Index by Robert Harris

The Fear Index by Robert Harris is a change of pace for a writer who has written so well about the ancient world. In this novel, we’re in today’s world—and tomorrow’s.

Hoffman, the main character, is a genius level mathematician/physicist who has set up a hedge fund with a partner named Quarry. The key is an algorithm Hoffman developed that, aided by computers, learns market patterns and generates wild returns. As a scientist, Hoffman is more interested in artificial intelligence than he is in money, but he’s become a billionaire . . . and he’s in trouble in three ways: First, his marriage to an artist is rocky. Second, he may be returning to a depressed state of mind, with the suggestion of schizophrenia. Third, if he’s not a paranoid schizophrenic, he’s being pursued by someone who plays with his mind, has penetrated his computer systems, and even attacked him in his $60 million home in Geneva.

This is a fast-paced story with a thoughtful police detective involved and a burgeoning theme of the algorithm varying its strategy so that it piles up the firm’s risk factors as it pursues huge profits on a given day by short-selling.

In effect the algorithm manages to take over Hoffman’s identity and begin giving instructions to people designed to get Hoffman out of its way. In other words, artificial intelligence becomes real intelligence; it absorbs or possesses what Schopenhauer called “will.”

Schopenhauer isn’t the intellectual backdrop to all this. Rather, Harris draws expertly on Darwin for most of the provocative quotes at the beginning of his chapters. In a sense this makes no difference because Darwin described naturalistically exactly what Schopenhauer theorized philosophically—some powerful force pushes through existence on earth, having its way and its say, indifferent to the survival of any given species.

Reading The Fear Index is fun if repellant because Harris unravels his plot skillfully and there is enough character-development around him (he’s not so intriguing as a person) to make the dramatis personae interesting.

The repellant dimension is two-fold: What we have here explicitly falls into the general scheme of popular fixations on the world coming to an end; fear attracts people; they like to be scared, but they also like to survive in the end. The question is whether it’s worth surviving in a world that actually comes pretty close to this speculative proposition. Computing and mathematics, coupled with money, have generated a non-governmental, world-ruling autonomy wherein the rich get so rich it’s unimaginable and the not-rich have no competitive chance.

As a good writer, deft in the use of setting, Harris matches stride with the best of what I would call TV-writing. This novel cries out to become a mini-series. It is entertainment of a relatively high order, though it sacrifices depth for pace, plausibility for possibility, and originality for somewhat generic conventionality.


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