Angel has trouble taking flight

Don DeLillo short story exercise in frustration

The Angel Esmeralda is Don DeLillo’s first collection of short fiction which seems surprising — most of his last decade-plus of work has been slimmed down comprising a series of cramped novellas that don’t quite reach the heights of his older better works. This collection falls somewhere between the best ( White Noise ) and the worst ( The Body Artist ). Unlike his novels which have a rubbery quality that stretches or shrinks depending on his needs (the epic scope of Underworld vs. the erratic though powerful Falling Man ) all of these short stories have a similar feel despite being written over a period of more than 30 years.

Which is to say the collection can be a tad infuriating with a few of the stories playing into the worst of DeLillo’s instincts — Bret Easton Ellis-aping tales of rich douchebags occupying some netherworld of wealth and conspiracy the prose descending into a laundry list of haute couture fine art and urban paranoia. It’ll feel familiar to readers of his last few works where he seems to be abandoning plot altogether creating self-contained worlds where characters lightly orbit each other trying to poke holes in their bourgeois psyches (see Cosmopolis and Point Omega ). It’s a shame because his greatest books — Underworld Libra Players — are more fleshed out almost forcing him to temper his stylistic tics with larger plots and spaces. Lest I seem like a total hater I have to add that I am a big fan of DeLillo which didn’t come overnight. He straddles the other half of the American lit tradition (from say Saul Bellow) that seems to try often unsuccessfully to act as some sort of linguistic appendage of current social concerns. A lot of that fiction gets lost to time.

That aside those who like their intensely focused DeLillo will find a lot to love with this collection. “Creation” follows the minor exploits of an aging couple trying to escape an anonymous island in the West Indies; “Human Moments in World War III” tries to creep into the heads of two lonely astronauts; a museum-dwelling woman hooks up with the wrong man in “Baader-Meinhof”; and an expat living in Greece has an existential crisis in “The Ivory Acrobat.” “Hammer and Sickle” is a representative example — an investment broker muses on his lost fortune and spoiled kids from the relative safety of a jail cell. There’s no ire no play no bite — you can hear DeLillo’s tired bones and weariness through the inaction of his prisoner half-heartedly pulling readers through the story.

There are a couple of gems — “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is dark and brooding the kind of thick rich prose that you don’t often expect from him anymore. And the star the polished title story about New York nuns workin’ it in a rough neighbourhood draws in a bit of the best from the writer — rugged Americana a hint of mysticism and crisp prose. The collection is for devoted fans only and if anything should (hopefully) lead readers to DeLillo’s better middle works.