The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

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1 Creation – A husband and wife are trapped on a remote island where all outgoing flights are cancelled. As ever Delillo’s prose is gloriously incisive and lyrical. And as usual he does a fabulous job of evoking in a new and searing light contemporary situations. In this story he’s brilliant at capturing the ennui of waiting at airports; the arresting of the narrative of a life by unseen circumstances. And showing how sometimes life happens when you’re waiting for the next chapter. A story about being compelled into a kind of backstage area of identity when the continuity machine of modern civilisation breaks down.

Some favourite quotes: “The dream of Creation that glows at the edge of the serious traveller’s search.”
“This 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 or months, 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.”
“The new snow of her breasts.”

2 Human Moments in World War Three – Two astronauts, adrift from “human moments”, are orbiting earth where World War Three has broken out. They are gathering intelligence, monitoring data and communication with the world below is largely conducted in jargon – “You are negative red on the step-function quad.” DeLillo, often cited as a kind of seer able to predict the future, is brilliant at cataloguing the damage jargon does to human interaction, how it deflects the immediacy of truthful response. “He no longer describes the earth as a library globe or a map that has come alive, as a cosmic eye staring into deep space. The earth is land and water, the dwelling place of mortal men, in elevated dictionary terms. He doesn’t see it anymore (storm-spiralled, sea-bright, breathing heat and haze and colour) as an occasion for picturesque language, for easeful play or speculation.” Then, one day, the two astronauts begin picking up wireless transmissions from sixty years ago. The two astronauts are awoken to a more nostalgic and philosophical imperative, they are returned to nature. What follows are some truly beautiful reflections on the nature of the human condition.
“It makes a man feel universal, 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.”
“To men at this remove, it is as though things exist in their particular physical form in order to reveal the hidden simplicity of some powerful mathematical truth.”

“War, among other things, is a form of longing.”

“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves. They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city – but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellow feeling where there was only suspicion and fear. The war would ennoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared.”

“There is a seaward bulge of stratocumulus. Sun glint and littoral drift. I see blooms of plankton in a blue of such Persian richness it seems an animal rapture, a colour change to express some form of intuitive delight.”

“Forget the measure of our vision, the sweep of things, the war itself, the terrible death. Forget the overarching night, the stars as static points, as mathematical fields. Forget the cosmic solitude, the upwelling awe and dread.”

“Don’t you sometimes feel a power in you? An extreme state of good health. An arrogant healthiness. That’s it. You are feeling so good you begin thinking you’re a little superior to most people. An optimism about yourself that you generate at the expense of others. Don’t you sometimes feel this?”

“We listen to the old radio shows. Light flares and spreads across the blue-banded edge, sunrise, sunset, the urban grids in shadow. There is a sweetness in the tenor voice of the young man singing, a simple vigour that time and distance and random noise have enveloped in eloquence and yearning. Every sound, every lilt of strings has this veneer of age.”
This story is DeLillo at his best.

3 The Runner.
This is rather slight story about a young man is running in a park. His running is a kind of control, a kind of housekeeping: he is ordering the world around him to the rhythm of his running, he is able to take the next and the next time frame for granted. Until a car inexplicably veers off the road and comes to a sudden halt on the grass. A man jumps out of the car, steals a child who is standing close to his mother and then drives off. The runner then has a conversation with a bystander and they both seek to interpret what they have seen. Life cannot be resumed until a satisfactory explanation has been found. So it’s about those violent moments that seem to arrive out of the blue and shatter momentarily the tidy (and perhaps rather sterile) continuity of routine until they can be rationally explained. It’s a kind of parochial metaphorical insight into what happened on a grand scale on 9/11 except it was written over 20 years earlier.

4 The Ivory Acrobat.
This is a story about a young American woman experiencing an earthquake while living in Athens. It explores the mirror shattering charge of a terror event, familiar DeLillo terrain, and how mass emotion infiltrates into consciousness and distorts identity. The Ivory Acrobat of the title is a cheap reproduction of a Minoan ivory figurine of a girl in the act of vaulting over a charging bull. It is given to her by Edmund, an English teacher, because he says it reminds him of her – “It’s your magical true self, mass produced”. So the story is about the threat posed by mass controlling emotion on the sanctity of self.

5 The Angel Esmeralda
Again familiar Delillo territory – the underlying fervour of a crowd to fuse into a single consciousness. Sister Edgar is initially portrayed as a hard-boiled authoritarian, whose morality centres more on hygiene and correct use of grammar than more idealistic imperatives. Together with the younger and more idealistic Sister Gracie she performs ministrations in a dystopian part of the Bronx among “junkies who roamed at night in dead men’s Reeboks,” among “foragers and gatherers, can-redeemers, the people who yawed through subway cars with paper cups.” One young girl, Esmeralda, becomes the subject of the two nuns’ concern. But every time she is approached Esmeralda runs off. Then they hear she has been raped and thrown off the roof of a building. Soon afterwards there is a widespread talk of a miracle. The face of Esmeralda is said to appear at certain moments every night on an advertising hoarding, calling to mind the brilliant eyes of God in The Great Gatsby. Unlike Sister Gracie who now becomes the voice of reason, Sister Edgar feels a craving to see the phenomena for herself. “When the train lights hit the dimmest part of the billboard, a face appeared and it belonged to the murdered girl. A dozen women clutched their heads, they whooped and sobbed, a spirit, a godsbreath passing through the crowd.”

“If you know you’re worth nothing, only a gamble with death can gratify your vanity.”

“She thought she understood the tourists. You travel somewhere not for museums and sunsets but for ruins, bombed-out terrain, for the moss-grown memory of war and torture.”

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