Her face was avant-garde

Christian Lorentzen

  • The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo
    Picador, 211 pp, £16.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 4472 0757 3

In its winter issue of 1960, Epoch, a quarterly published at Cornell, carried ‘The River Jordan’, a story by ‘Donald R. DeLillo’. It tells of a day in the life of Emil Burke, a mad Manhattan septuagenarian who leads a storefront chapel called the Psychic Church of the Crucified Christ, with a congregation of four. In the morning he descends to the Times Square subway station and writes ‘REPENT!’ on the wall of the men’s lavatory with a crayon. Around noon, he preaches to a crowd outside the Hotel Metropole and is mocked by a ‘Negro boy’ who compares the Trinity to ‘Purity, Body and Flavor’, the advertising slogan for Ballantine beer. Burke retreats with his followers to a bar, where he overhears a young couple talking about sex and is presented with a book of pornography. Finally, in the midst of all this sin, Mr McAndrew, the man who pays the church’s rent, tells Burke he’s going to take his money to the church of ‘the One True Voodoo of Astral Consciousness’ in Harlem. Mr McAndrew is a ‘fat and sinister’ former real estate agent, and a crank. ‘The River Jordan,’ he tells Burke, ‘is a parking space, a movie with much shooting of guns and much grinding of thighs, and a bag of popcorn, buttered.’ The preacher punches him in the mouth.

This is the energetic work of a 24-year-old, but it displays preoccupations that still linger in DeLillo’s work. ‘Martyrdom is a weapon,’ Burke thinks, prefiguring many fanatics to come. At the bar he sees a girl whose ‘face was avant-garde, expressionless, saved from complete monotony by two thin streaks of deep coral lipstick’; this would seem to be a reference to Godard (Breathless came out that year), a touchstone of DeLillo’s. And the notion of a cinema as a church, delivered cynically here, would become for many of his characters, some of them filmmakers, an article of faith. But there’s no denying that the story is apprentice work, with more than a few clumsy lines: ‘a train screeched around a curve and charged into the station; the door slid open and people squirted onto the platform as though ejected from a tube of toothpaste.’ There is the young man’s strained attempt to imagine what it’s like to be old: ‘a thought was no longer an image – a dark and deafening cavern of trains, a pool of sunlight spilling through the church window, a garland of garish faces on a dark street corner – but rather a concept, a vague abstraction of duty, instruction, salvation.’ And the story dwells for pages on Burke’s Jesus complex, juxtaposing it repeatedly with vulgar scenes from the street. Consumerism seems to be, and would prove to be, the stuff that actually interests DeLillo, who was working at the time as a copywriter for the midtown advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, the sort of office Mad Men now attempts to dramatise.

Eleven years later, DeLillo published Americana, a book that begins with a Manhattan cocktail party (‘it was one of those parties which are so boring that boredom itself soon becomes the main topic of conversation’), sends up 1950s family life and 1960s corporate culture, turns into a road novel midway and ends with a sloppy orgy in the Texas desert. The ever ironical narrator, David Bell, is fond of making statements like ‘I was an extremely handsome young man,’ and worships at the altar of Burt Lancaster: ‘Burt in the moonlight was a crescendo of male perfection but no less human because of it.’ ‘I don’t think my first novel would have been published as I submitted it today,’ DeLillo told an interviewer in 2010. ‘It was very overdone and shaggy.’ He has expressed similar dissatisfaction with his novels of the 1970s: ‘I knew I wasn’t doing utterly serious work.’ That may be why his new collection begins in 1979, omitting as much of his published short fiction as it includes.

The culture had changed, and so had DeLillo’s writing. The hippies of the hinterlands and the freaks in Times Square had ceded their place at the centre of cultural attention to yuppies, and by the time of ‘Creation’, the first piece in The Angel Esmeralda, no one could fairly call his writing shaggy. A couple (the man narrates) are trapped on a small Caribbean island, at the mercy of morning flights on small planes to larger island hubs. In a taxi to the airport the narrator looks at the jungle around him and at his companion: ‘Jill was reading her book on the Rockefellers. Once into something, she was unreachable, as though massively stunned.’ This is the first indication that the couple’s getaway, now reaching its end, may have been a drag (the Rockefellers are an untropical subject). At the airport, ‘the people leaving the counter seemed propelled by some deep saving force. A primitive baptism might have been in progress.’ DeLillo often imbues tedious modern rituals with religious significance; the point here is that Jill and the narrator don’t get a seat on the plane. So they return to their hotel, bringing along a stranded European tourist: ‘she was pale, with a soft plain face, a full mouth, and cropped brown hair.’ Already we know more about this woman’s appearance than we do about Jill’s: a hint that when given the chance, the narrator will send Jill off alone on the next plane. Before he does, the couple see the woman at dinner at their hotel:

‘Shouldn’t we ask her to join us?’

‘She doesn’t want to,’ I said.

‘We’re Americans, after all. We’re famous for asking people to join us.’

‘She chose the most remote table. She’s happy there.’

‘She could be an economist from the Soviet bloc. What do you think? Or someone doing a health study for the UN.’

‘Way off.’

‘A youngish widow, Swiss, here to forget.’

‘Not Swiss.’

‘German.’

‘Yes,’ I said.

After this playful speculation, they fall back into talk of logistics. Jill has a business meeting she ‘absolutely’ must make back in New York, ‘but I think we ought to stick together all the same.’ The narrator replies: ‘We’re a team.’ But when the airport clerk calls their names, ‘one would go, I told him, and one would stay.’ The narrator’s reticence until now turns out to be a form of unreliability. He takes the European stranger, dignified at last with the name Christa, back to the hotel: ‘we used the morning in bed.’ She seems at first to enjoy his company and protection and abides by his whimsical requests (‘we will be German in bed’), but he learns that her money is dwindling and she’s desperate to get off the island. When the next morning’s flight is cancelled, she’s reduced to speechless trembling. ‘We’ll have these final hours, that’s all,’ he says to her. ‘And you’ll speak to me in German.’ His new lover has become a half-willing captive.

‘Creation’ sets up the rules for most of the pieces in the book: two or three characters bound to each other in a situation that builds somehow to a point of crisis. ‘I don’t have a storytelling drive,’ DeLillo told an interviewer in 1993. Indeed, these are less stories – if a story requires something like a moral, an epiphany or a fatal reversal – than animated conceptual fragments. The constraints of some contemporary system, like international tourism, are imposed on age-old pursuits, like adultery.

The problem is heightened in the title of the next piece, from 1983, ‘Human Moments during World War III’, a science fiction diary in which the crisis for two astronauts in orbit is a matter of staying sane while living inside a machine. ‘The only danger is conversation,’ the narrator says. ‘I try to keep our conversations on an everyday plane.’ When later he says that ‘laser technology contains a core of foreboding and myth,’ it’s clear he and his partner have lost it. There is humour in their mock profound pronouncements: they’re only allowed to test their weapons in tandem because ‘a single dark mind in a moment of inspiration might think it liberating to fling a concentrated beam at some lumbering humpbacked Boeing making its commercial rounds at 30,000 feet.’ And the piece is dated in a funny way; at one point they dock at a space station to drop off cassettes.

The first two pieces in the collection are studies in confinement and the anxieties or madness it brings. The next three, dating from 1988 to 1994, present various public menaces, a constant theme in DeLillo’s novels, but central to those of this period: the airborne toxic event in White Noise; assassination in Libra; terrorism in Mao II; and highway shootings, among other crimes, in Underworld. Which is to say, things get serious, and there’s less levity, much less humour.

In ‘The Runner’ the abduction of a child from a park is observed by a jogger and a woman who lives in his apartment building. She is quick to make assumptions about the incident:

The father gets out and takes the little boy … 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. He wants to share custody. He broods for days. Then he comes around and they argue and he breaks up the furniture. The mother gets a court order. He has to stay away from the child … Look how heavy she is. We see more and more of this. Young women. They can’t help it. It’s a condition they’re disposed to. How long are you in the building?

Here DeLillo is throwing his voice, and the results sound rather like Oswald’s harried mother in Libra: ‘that was the end of the only happy part of my adult life. It is Marguerite and Lee ever since. We are a mother and son. It has never been a question of neglect.’ The neighbour is recycling clichés she’s learned from newspapers and the TV news. Passing the police, the runner learns that the abduction was quite random; the man didn’t know the child. Nonetheless, when he meets his neighbour again he decides to tell her she was right: ‘what would you rather believe, a father who comes to take his own child, or someone lurching out of nowhere, out of dreaming space?’ The confirmation puts a smile on her face.

This story, and the other two in this section, are vehicles for DeLillo’s set-pieces. ‘The Runner’ is a technical exercise in taking in a scene while doing laps. In ‘The Ivory Acrobat’, about a young expatriate teacher in Athens during a string of earthquakes, DeLillo writes paragraph after paragraph describing the woman alone in her flat and afraid the ceiling will collapse on her; what little plot there is involves a colleague, another expatriate, and his attempts to calm her fears, by taking her in for the night, flirting with her unthreateningly and giving her a kitsch Minoan figurine, the acrobat of the title. ‘The Angel Esmeralda’, set in the burned-out Bronx, DeLillo’s birthplace, where two nuns minister to the poor abetted by a local graffiti artist, contains the book’s only crowd scene. These are a standby of DeLillo’s, but the trick feels out of place among the otherwise austere pieces in the collection. The canvas is too broad; no wonder it was reworked as part of Underworld. At the climax, thousands of New Yorkers throng to see the likeness of a girl recently raped and murdered appear on a billboard when the lights of a passing train shine on it. All three of these pieces resolve menace into consolation and come close to sentimentality.

That spell is broken by ‘Baader-Meinhof’, which begins the cycle from the past decade. A man and a woman meet at the Museum of Modern Art during the Gerhard Richter retrospective of 2002. He asks her what she sees in the paintings, and she stops short of telling him that she sees what she thinks is a cross in the painting of the coffins and believes the dead terrorists ‘were not beyond forgiveness’. They go for a snack and after she lets on that she lives a few blocks away, they end up at her place. He propositions her. She asks him to leave. He stays: ‘Whatever … Be friends.’ He touches her arm. ‘She drew away and stood up and he was all around her then … He didn’t exert pressure or try to caress her breasts or hips but held her in a kind of loose containment.’ She retreats to the bathroom. He masturbates sitting on her bed, then begs ‘forgive me,’ and leaves. She locks the door. The next day they both return to the same room in the museum.

‘Baader-Meinhof’ shows DeLillo’s style in its most stripped down and gestural form. Back stories, aside from an offhand mention of the woman’s divorce, and even names are dispensed with. There’s just enough dialogue to establish that the man is a vaguely charming creep and that the woman is vulnerable and desperate enough for any kind of connection to let the man know where she lives. The problem of the piece comes into sharp focus: if the dead terrorists aren’t beyond forgiveness, what about the man who almost rapes her, and leaves her terrified to be in her own home? ‘A thought was no longer an image … but a concept’: the young writer’s line about ageing applies well to the later work, which has grown more and more conceptual since the 2001 novel The Body Artist, with DeLillo borrowing imagery – from artists like Richter or Douglas Gordon, whose 24 Hour Psycho frames the 2010 novel Point Omega – instead of inventing his own.

There are echoes between pieces. The two college boys in ‘Midnight in Dostoevsky’ play a game like the one the couple play in ‘Creation’ as they track a strange man in a hooded coat around a small town:

‘Where is he from? There’s something not too totally white about him. He’s not Scandinavian.’

‘Not Dutch or Irish.’

I wondered about Andalusian. Where was Andalusia exactly? I didn’t think I knew. Or an Uzbek, a Kazakh. But these seemed irresponsible.

‘Middle Europe?’ Todd said. ‘Eastern Europe?’

The effect is of a writer playing tennis with himself across three decades. But DeLillo has always been a recycler. White Noise reworked themes from all the earlier books: the New Yorker’s exile of Americana; the campus nuclear anxieties of End Zone; the pop music and drugs of Great Jones Street; the precocious children of Ratner’s Star and The Names; the marital breakdown of Players; and the Hitler fascination in Running Dog; a character lifted wholesale from his funniest book, the pseudonymous, out-of-print Amazons. The funniest piece in the new book, ‘Hammer and Sickle’, also features precocious children: the narrator’s daughters broadcast sing-song financial reports about the Dubai debt crisis of 2009. Their father watches from a white-collar prison, where he is serving time for his role in a financial scam orchestrated by his late father, a Madoff figure. Such topicality has been a problematic aspect of DeLillo’s last three novels. Falling Man is the most bracing and least sentimental of the books about 9/11, particularly for the unflattering light it casts on its central survivor, a gambling-addicted git from the finance world, but many critics deemed it insufficient to the events being fictionalised, as if they expected the so-called laureate of terror to deliver a magic bullet in the form of a novel. Cosmopolis, about the financial excesses around the crash of 2000, suffered by arriving in 2003, after the moment had been eclipsed by national panic. Rereading its scenes of investment banks being stormed by protesters and limousines being vandalised during the Wall Street occupation, I found it had new bite, even if DeLillo’s attempts to portray rappers and raves remained tone-deaf.

The final piece in The Angel Esmeralda puts the notion of cinema as church into action. A man called Leo Zhelezniak spends his waking hours watching films. His ex-wife, with whom he lives, considers the practice: ‘he was an ascetic, she said. This was one theory. She found something saintly and crazed in his undertaking, an element of self-denial, an element of penance. Sit in the dark, revere the images. Were his parents Catholic?’ It’s a good question, and a hard one not to ask about the author as well (they were) because DeLillo’s constant recourse to religious language to describe modern rituals is recognisably the tendency of a lapsed Catholic (I am one) to imagine, whenever a scripted announcement is made or a queue forms, that he’s a child again, genuflecting on a Sunday morning.

This is one of the many reasons it would have been enlightening to have a volume of DeLillo stories stretching back to ‘The River Jordan’. The two stories that followed it, published by Epoch in 1962 and 1965, have heavily accented dialogue and characters with names like Cavallo and Santullo, as opposed to the deracinated, and thus universalised, David Bells and Jack Gladneys of the later books. To think, DeLillo could have been an Italian Philip Roth, with the Bronx as his Newark. (‘Take the “A” Train’, from 1962, even includes a scene of an Italian wedding. Its overall frame – a man takes to the subway in flight from loansharks – anticipates the opening of Libra, where Oswald spends a year playing truant and riding trains from the Bronx to Brooklyn and back.) He became something more interesting. The turn towards the comic decadence of Americana came in 1968 (the novel was by then two years under way) with ‘Baghdad Towers West’, in which a man takes over a lease from three roommates, a model, an actress and a ‘junk sculptress’, and tries and fails to sleep with them all at once. Wilder, shaggier pieces followed in the early 1970s. For all we know a collection of the early pieces is in the offing. What to call it? Slow Learner is already taken. The Girl with the Avant-Garde Face?