Don DeLillo: Scaling Down

Books Features Don Delillo
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Don DeLillo gazes out into the audience, carefully crafting his answers with the same potent prose in his first short-story collection, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories. “When I was starting as a writer, virtually everybody wrote short stories. It was a way to build up to a novel, unless you were Flannery O’Conner. The short story was a kind of stepping stone to the novel,” DeLillo tells of the literary medium while on stage in Union Square. The brief tales span three decades and though dates follow each title, the stories are timeless like so many of DeLillo’s novels.

The collection is lead by “Creation,” a story first published in 1979, following a couple stranded in a small island’s airport at the end of an exotic vacation. Utilizing electric wit and descriptive phrases that ignite the page (“She let her body sag into the luggage, a stylized collapse”) DeLillo captures the airport anguish many are familiar with, and after the main character’s wife departs on a last-minute flight, he transforms the story into an affair abroad, with a stranded German traveler. German anecdotes frequently dot his stories as well as his novels, an undefined theme that causes familiarity as you follow DeLillo’s body of work. The 2002 story, “Baader-Meinhof,” explores the conflicting thoughts of two unnamed protagonists who study and examine the paintings of Gerhard Richter, which depict the demise of the Red Army Faction. The “German Nun,” a known character from DeLillo’s Underworld and memorably, White Noise, who here deems herself an atheist pretending only to believe for the world’s sake, reprises her role as a believer in the collection’s title story. Quite possibly the most potent and memorable of them all, “The Angel Esmeralda” trails two nuns, the elder Sister Edgar and the younger Sister Grace, on their hunt through the impoverished streets of the Bronx, for a feral 12-year-old girl named Esmeralda. Much to their dismay, they soon discover the very worst has happened; a vile act has left Esmeralda dead. They are disheartened until a tabloid-esque miracle occurs—an apparition of Esmeralda appears on a highway billboard for Minute Maid, gathering thousands in a faithful crowd.

Whether 20 pages or three hundred, the PEN/Faulkner Award winning Don DeLillo zeroes in on man’s powerlessness to the unknown. His characters are rich and telling, no matter how many pages he allows himself to depict their textured rigor. “I follow an idea and I know immediately—or close to immediately—that a certain idea is for a short story, as I know a certain idea will lead me into a novel,” he shares. “For a long time the novel was much [more important] to me than the short story. But every so often between novels, always between novels, I would go to work on a short story and enjoy it in a way a novel can’t be enjoyable for its entire length.”

Next year will bring the release of the film Cosmopolis, the first of DeLillo’s 16 novels to be adapted for the screen. Directed by David Cronenberg and starring Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis follows a day in the life of a 28-year-old multimillionaire from the back of his limousine as he travels through Manhattan to get a haircut.

New York City is another familiar friend to DeLillo, often used as the backdrop for his fiction. Once described as “Salingeresque,” DeLillo uses The Angel of Esmeralda’s subhead—“Nine Stories”—as a nod to Salinger’s classic collection. Both writers took advantage of their upbringing in New York City, making sure their words handled it with proper care. “I grew up in the Bronx and my earlier stories are set there in an Italian neighborhood,” DeLillo says. “My parents were immigrants from Italy, and I felt that I had to discover America in the way they did. … For me the great journey was to simply go from the Bronx to Manhattan. Everything was different—the roads, the way people spoke, the clothing, the lack of accent or many other kinds of accents. The great challenge was trying to understand this culture. I guess it’s no coincidence that I titled my first novel Americana because that’s where I found myself, at the beginning of America, so to speak. Since then, I spent endless hours just looking at New York City, various parts of it, trying to absorb what it all means and trying to forget that and to distill it into sentences, into language. I like to think I don’t write in English, I write in American.”

“The Starveling,” the final story to appear in Esmeralda, is DeLillo’s most recent and is also featured in the latest issue of the U.K. literary magazine, Granta: Horror. DeLillo’s impressive ability to craft language into a postmodern art form is exhibited flawlessly in “The Starveling,” as we follow a cinephile who, after his father died, quit his job to devote his days to appearing and disappearing inside nearly empty movie theaters throughout Manhattan. He becomes entranced by a younger woman he deems The Starveling, who shares a similar movie-going habit. “He doesn’t have the variable face that most of us have,” DeLillo writes of his protagonist; “he doesn’t have the skill to fake a certain self that most of us can do from time to time. There’s something about sitting in the movie theater, which he does roughly four or five times a day, roughly everyday, that alleviates this condition of his. It’s actually a very simple thing—this is where he feels safe.” DeLillo, too, made daily trips to the movies before he took up writing, enjoying the simplicity of an empty theater as he watched art films. Four years, and hundreds of movies later, Americana was born.

“Obviously, this is the work by the writer who has written the novels we’ve all read. I think it’s fascinating to see him working in this smaller medium. I see Don. I see his prose. I see the way he thinks. It’s just a smaller scale, that’s all,” Paul Auster, a fellow contributor to Granta: Horror, says of his longtime friend.

Whether short or long, DeLillo’s lyricism is poignant and unique; each story resonates, whether you share a similar experience to the character or not. “It seems astonishing to me even now,” he says. “I still understand, and I never forget, what a lucky life I’ve had as a writer.”