Friday 19 January 2018

Review: Fiction: The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo

Scriber, €22.45

Perhaps surprisingly, The Angel Esmeralda is the first collection of short stories by the great American author Don DeLillo. I say surprisingly for a number of reasons.

The first is a sort of backhanded compliment -- one I don't necessarily subscribe to -- which argues that DeLillo is better at individual scenes than full-length works.

Obviously, as anyone who's read one of his 15 books will know, this is untrue: the New Yorker is a staggeringly brilliant novelist.

But I can sort of see the point: certain sections, say the extended "baseball match" intro to Underworld, function perfectly as standalone pieces. This would suggest DeLillo has a talent for the shorter form.

Also, his style and aesthetic seem suited to it: the glacial prose, the sense of detachment and obliqueness. DeLillo never fully explains what's going on, leaving much to the reader's imagination.

And they say that the best short stories feel somehow unfinished, narratively speaking; the reader is dropped into a strange or unnerving situation at mid-point, then yanked out before a final resolution. Again, this would point to an aptitude for short fiction.

The Angel Esmeralda, as the subtitle suggests, collects nine stories from DeLillo's lengthy career (his debut, Americana, was in 1971). The pieces span the ages, from 1979's Creation to three very recent ones, ending with The Starveling, written this year.

Although the plots are varied, some common threads run through the collection, both narratively -- familiar DeLillo themes like alienation, machine-assembled culture, the power of media, geopolitical upheaval -- and stylistically.

DeLillo really is a fabulous writer; he's an artist of words, a total master of them. It's enough to make other writers throw their hat at it. This book resounds with beautiful writing; it explodes with a linguistic virtuosity all the more powerful because it's never showy or attention-grabbing -- everything services the work, not the authorial ego.

Here are but a few samples: "It makes a man feel universal, floating over the continents, seeing the rim of the world."

"The cab rides through the mountains. The rain and heat. And the edge, the dark edge, the inwrought mood or tone, the ominous logic of the place."

"Doubt becomes a disease that spreads beyond the pushy extrusions of matter and into the elevated spaces where words play on themselves."

It's poetry, philosophy and rapture all at once. Personally, I most liked the grimly funny title story about a lost girl in New York, which reworks two key passages from Underworld.

Human Moments in World War III is great, too, partly because it's science fiction, not his usual realism. I've always felt DeLillo should write sci-fi: again, his style and aesthetic are a good fit.

That genre is often described as the expression of deeper truths about today by writing about tomorrow.

DeLillo's unparalleled canon is defined by deeper truths about tomorrow, expressed today.

If you haven't read this visionary genius, The Angel Esmeralda is an ideal introduction.

Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus is an author and journalist. His crime novel 'Even Flow' will be published next year.

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