After The Bomb: Don DeLillo Tells Us What to Fear

The author's new short story collection, The Angel Esmerelda, slightly erases from memory the past decade and a half of his work.

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Now more than ever, we need Don DeLillo, the postmodern master with the name that sounds like a superhero’s alter ego. Our complex world has grown even more complex, our economic fates tied to baroquely named financial instruments incomprehensible even to the specialists, our futures decided by degrees of public debt in southern European countries. As I write this the news comes over the wire (I mean Twitter, naturally) that the S&P has downgraded Belgium from AA+ to AA, a shard of data I don’t understand, but which the experts deliver with the grim tones that used to be reserved for bad turns in a war.

I would have rather listened to Laurie and Kate, the two young girls who narrate a kids’ financial news show in DeLillo’s 2010 story “Hammer and Sickle,” part of his new collection The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories. They know how to voice my feelings:

“Laurie said softly, in a lilting voice: ‘Who do we trust? Where do we turn? How do we ever get to sleep?’

Kate said briskly: ‘Can computer technology keep up with computerized trading? Will long-term doubts yield to short-term doubts?’

‘What is a fat-fingered trade? What is a naked short sale?’

‘How many trillions of dollars pledged to bleeding euro economies?’

‘How many zeroes is a trillion?’

‘How many meetings deep in the night?’

‘Why does the crisis keep getting worse?’

Maybe DeLillo doesn’t know — maybe no one knows, and that’s the problem. But he can do what’s always done: tell us what to fear. In his preposterously ambitious 1997 novel Underworld — 40 years of American history in 827 pages, which is still 117 pages less than Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, sigh — DeLillo diagnosed fear of the nuclear bomb as the force that shaped the postwar American psyche. And he identified how it felt oddly comforting, in the way that a hypochondriac might be comforted by a dire diagnosis, to live in the shadow of that suspended threat. We were all afraid, but we were afraid of the same thing. Nuclear annihilation was an egalitarian fate.

But that’s gone now, replaced by a dispersed fear, as DeLillo describes in the 1994 story “The Angel Esmeralda,” a version of which appears in Underworld:

“Now that Terror has become local, how do we live? The great thrown shadow dismantled, no longer a launched object in the sky named for a Greek goddess on a bell krater in 500 BC. What is Terror now? Some noise on the pavement very near, a thief with a paring knife or the stammer of casual rounds from a passing car. Someone who carries off your child. Ancient fears called back.”

There’s DeLillo — the man who wrote about the triumph of the terrorist 10 years before 9/11 — ahead of his time again. So it’s only right that in this period of serial crises a nation would turn its freaked-out eyes to him.

But there’s a problem: DeLillo hasn’t been very good recently. As if in reaction to the bunker-busting Underworld, DeLillo’s 21st century work grew famished, starved of style and meaning. Thin works like The Body Artist, Cosmopolis and The Falling Man looked more like stocking stuffers than proper novels, and they read worse. By 2010’s anorexic Point Omega — set in the empty American desert — DeLillo seemed to be in danger of disappearing into himself, or of swallowing whole the sort of hollow-tipped jargon he used to satirize. “He speaks in your voice, American,” DeLillo began Underworld, setting off a celebration of electric style that kept the juice flowing no matter how dark that novel dimmed. But recently DeLillo hasn’t been speaking in anyone’s voice at all.

Which is why this story collection, DeLillo’s first, is such a relief. The stories range from 1979 to this year, and allow the reader to see what’s changed and what hasn’t. So in 1979’s “Creation,” which focuses on a couple stranded by the vagaries of Caribbean travel, we can simply enjoy the sort of offhand descriptions that have vanished from later DeLillo work, like this one of a lucky vacation suite:

“The spot was so close to perfect we would not even want to tell ourselves how lucky we were, having been delivered to it. The best of new places had to be protected from our own cries of delight. We would hold the words for weeks and month, for the soft evening when a stray remark would set us to recollecting. I guess we believed, together, that the wrong voice can obliterate a landscape.”

And then there’s DeLillo’s peerless ear for dialogue and the way that technical jargon can vacuum meaning from language. In 1983’s “Human Moments in World War III,” the pilot of a military spacecraft called Tomahawk II bats back and forth with his control officer on the ground:

“‘We have a deviate, Tomahawk.'”

‘We copy. There’s a voice.’

‘We have gone redundant but I’m not sure it’s helping.’

‘We are clearing an outframe to locate source.’

‘Thank you, Colorado.'”

Of the most recent batch of stories, last year’s “Hammer and Sickle” stands out, and not just because of its ripped-from-the-headlines take on financial crisis. Jerry Bradway is in a minimum-security jail for what seem to be Madoff-like financial crimes, his fellow inmates ex-bankers and businessmen who are “the end products of the system, the logical outcome, slabs of burnt-out capital.” It’s Bradway’s daughters who put on that financial news show, who narrate the fall of the finance, all at the behest of his angry ex-wife.

Do the girls understand what they’re saying, as they describe the multi-billion-dollar indebtedness of Dubai, the financial contagion spread from continent to continent? Of course not. But here’s the thing: no one does:

“‘We’re all waiting for an answer.’

‘Accordingly, the analysts say.’

‘Eventually, investors maintain.’

‘Elsewhere, economists claim.’

‘Somewhere, officials insist.’

‘This could be bad,’ Kate said.

‘How bad?’

‘Very bad.’

‘How bad.’

‘End-of-the-world, bad.'”

It’s a different end of the world that we fear now, one of market crashes and currency debasement, not the blinding atomic flash, though you can see in DeLillo’s stories a link between the strip-mined language of finance and the jargon of nuclear chess, each an effort to talk around the unthinkable. Critics called DeLillo’s earlier work “paranoid fiction,” but paranoia would be a relief, because it would indicate that someone somewhere is still in charge, in the know. Instead of the order of paranoia, we have chaos, as we’re consumed by systems too complex to be understood. As we live through apocalyptic economic times we’re coming face to face with the realization that no one knows anything. This might be end-of-the-world bad, but as The Angel Esmeralda demonstrates, it’s still DeLillo’s world.

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