Don DeLillo is a connoisseur of chaos. His authorial stance, if he may be said to have one, to the disasters peculiar to our time is that of a witness, bemused, detached, finical, whose task it is to render measured reports of the mind-numbing things that take place daily before his unblinking gaze. The tone of voice is steady, the temperature degree zero. DeLillo’s writing style owes much to the French nouveau roman and its theorists, led by Roland Barthes and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and mediated through the work of closer-at-hand messengers and exemplars such as Susan Sontag and Joan Didion. From these and most figures in the field, however, he differs in at least one significant aspect; namely, his humour. As anyone will attest who has read White Noise, for instance, DeLillo is disruptively and subtly, even surreptitiously, funny.
That is not to say that he offers his readers belly-laughs. DeLillo’s gags are so wry, so lugubrious and delivered with such diffidence, that often we miss them. Often, too, we are not at all sure that a joke is intended. Consider a passage from the first tale in his new collection of short stories: “We’d still get to Barbados in time for a swim before dinner. And afterward it would be cool and starry. Or warm and starry. And we’d hear surf rumbling in the distance. The eastern coast was known for rumbling surf.” Are we meant to smile at this or is it just the sound of an author idly drumming his fingers as he waits for something notable to happen? On the other hand, in his 1983 story “Human Moments in World War III”, a futuristic piece that might be from the word-processor of Stanislaw Lem or even Philip K. Dick, there is no mistaking the death-head rictus that accompanies this nicely dead pan observation: “The banning of nuclear weapons had made the world safe for war.”
An ambiguousness of tone and intent permeates the nine stories that make up The Angel Esmeralda. They were written over a period of three decades, the first dating from 1979 and the last from this year. The book is divided into three parts – it is not clear why, to this reader, at least – with two stories in the first part, three in the second and four in the third. The style and quality are remarkably consistent throughout, as if DeLillo the writer had sprung fully formed into the world and had no need of or inclination towards progress, or modification, or stylistic innovation. From the start, he was his own man, with his own viewpoint and voice firmly in place.
He had already published a handful of novels when that first story, “Creation”, was written at the end of the 1970s. Superficially inconsequential, literally and figuratively, it is yet one of the most memorable pieces in the book. An American couple are returning from a Caribbean holiday and find themselves stranded because of overbooked flights. At last one seat becomes available and the husband hustles the wife on board and sends her home, while he returns to the hotel where they had been staying, there to enter on a brief and seemingly inconsequential affair with a German, or German-speaking, woman – specificity is rare in DeLillo’s work – who is also stranded and desperate to get home.
Nothing much happens here: a lot of cigarettes get smoked and we assume that at least some canoodling is carried on, but otherwise the action is as low-key as it would be in the languorously existential fiction of the postwar years by writers such as Robbe-Grillet or Marguerite Duras. Yet something in DeLillo’s tale lingers after the telling, something acrid, heart-sore and desperate, that makes it not a nouveau romanesque five-finger exercise but a real story that resonates ominously in the mind.
The broad range of these stories is not immediately apparent, so consistent and unemphatic is the tone. The action and the settings in most of them are as scant as they would be in one of Beckett’s later disjecta, yet in “Human Moments in World War III”, for example, the sci-fi paraphernalia is quietly convincing – “We turn our modal keys half right. I activate the logic chip and study the numbers on my screen” – though poetry survives in the midst of the hardware – “... floating over the continents, seeing the rim of the world, a line as clear as a compass arc, knowing it is just a turning of the bend to Atlantic twilight, to sediment plumes and kelp beds, an island chain glowing in the dusky sea.”
The finest story in the collection is not the eponymous “The Angel Esmeralda”, which concerns an apparition in the slum wastelands of the South Bronx, but “Hammer and Sickle” (2010), set in an open prison for assorted post-Lehman Brothers fraudsters. One of them, Jerold – “I changed the spelling of my first name ...” – Bradway, discovers that his two young daughters are starring in, if that is the term, a children’s news programme on an obscure cable channel, doing a double-act rap version of the ups and, more often, disastrous downs of the day’s financial markets, from scripts Jerold is convinced are being written for them by their angry and probably cash-strapped mother. It is a marvellous conceit, alarming and funny, a piece of vintage DeLillo bang up-to-date – so much so, indeed, that one might be forgiven for suspecting that the great crash of 2008 is all the invention of this most inventive, elegant and subversive dreamer of contemporary nightmares.
John Banville is author of ‘The Infinities’ (Picador)
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, by Don DeLillo, Picador, RRP£16.99, 224 pages