Thursday, November 24, 2011

Quest for an Angel

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo's writing style is controlled and bloodless. Clear, with a slow pace. In an enervated tone DeLillo examines, through most of the collection, delicate Princess-and-the-Pea persons in controlled situations. Even when presenting what are in effect stalkers-- he does this often-- the moments are careful. Unlike Joyce Carol Oates stories (reviewed below) Don DeLillo's tales take no chances, make no mistakes.

This guy takes baby steps. Picture Mr. DeLillo shuffling slowly along a sidewalk. DeLillo's a commodity trader jumping in and out of a market, taking quick small profits, never going for the big score.

Two points about the DeLillo approach.

1.) He has a one-note technique. The first story in the book dates from 1979, the last from 2011, yet they could've been written on the same day. Status quo writing. The frozen Ice Man seen in the National Geographic.

2.) Like all literary writers, DeLillo's narratives exist mainly inside his head, which gets tedious.

DeLillo's not as observant about people as Oates. He doesn't see through them. DeLillo portrays characters as blank walls, then searches for flickers of personality behind the walls. People as mysteries. Only the situations change, whether on a university campus ("Midnight in Dostoevsky") in a museum ("Baader-Meinhof") or at a movie house ("Starveling").

The title story, "The Angel Esmeralda," begins the same way, DeLillo examining the lower class from a detached perspective. An onlooker contemplating the Other. An intermediary is brought in: Ismael. (Do we assume literary significance?) The setting is the South Bronx. The environment takes on realistic shape, until it reminds me of the last time I lived in Detroit, three years ago. This surprises me.

DeLillo steps cautiously outside his usual bounds as the reality, the risks, the emotion and the meaning become tangible. The story is about the forays of a small group of liberal nuns (nuns by definition are liberal) into a harsh and chaotic world. The nuns, by their determined commitment and their selflessness, become heroes. Excellent stuff.

The difference between this story by Don DeLillo, and everything Joyce Carol Oates has ever written, is each author's different view of humanity and the universe. "The Angel Esmeralda" has soul.

"--does the power of transcendence linger?" At its best, art is transcendence.

Reading the stories in this volume is like a nun waiting for the face of Esmeralda to appear. It does appear.

REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

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