Anthony Cummins

What’s going on?

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The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories

Don DeLillo

Picador, pp. 211, £

An early sentence in this collection of stories, first published between 1979 and the current issue of Granta, runs thus:

We were in the late stages now, about 45 minutes out, and I was thinking it could still change, some rude blend of weather might yet transform the land, producing texture and dimension, leaps of green light, those waverings and rays, and the near consciousness we always seem to find in zones of overgrown terrain. [The speaker is a tourist in the back of a taxi on his way to an airport in the Caribbean.]

It’s not hard to see why the Atlantic critic B. R. Myers, in ‘A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness of American Literary Prose’, named Bronx-born Don DeLillo as one of several US heavyweights whose blather we mistake for art. (Others were Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx.) ‘Those’ waverings and rays? The near consciousness ‘we’ always seem to find? ‘Some’ rude blend of weather? Myers’s charge of ‘spurious profundity’ looks fair even before you get to ‘the neural pulse of some wilder awareness’ and the tremor-hit street that ‘resembled some landscape in the dreaming part of us’.

Or maybe it’s more that we can’t read DeLillo the way a copy editor might. After all, not being able to work out what the hell is going on is actually one of his themes: that smoke-machine prose generates the atmosphere in which his city folk get the heebie-jeebies. One of the best stories here features a park jogger who glimpses a child-snatching. A soi-disant eyewitness says the culprit was the child’s estranged father; the jogger doubts it, but later thinks:

He never should have challenged her, no matter how neat and unyielding her vision was. She’d only wanted to protect them both. What would you rather believe, a father who comes to take his own child or someone lurching out of nowhere…?

The horror, the horror. Variations on this theme — narrative, essentially — feel less urgent. Two students outdo one another with tall tales about a passer-by; an obsessive movie-goer living with his ex-wife invents a CV for a woman he notices in the cinema. Elsewhere, a zeitgeisty, slightly try-hard piece imagines some Madoff types behind bars; we get the log of a two-man space crew in World War III (that’s one from the early Eighties), and a nun who sees a vision of a murdered street girl.

In the nastiest story, originally printed in the New Yorker not long after 9/11, a woman hides in her own bathroom from the man she just met at an art gallery. It sounds the book’s keynote of urban dread, and shows in passing that, as a phrase-maker, DeLillo can do high-definition as well as fuzz (I’m thinking of the evil-sounding belt-unbuckling his protagonist hears from behind the door). He turns 75 this month. If you haven’t read him yet, these tales are a good place to decide whether you find his frequency mesmeric or just scrambled.