The nine stories in Don DeLillo's first collection of short fiction span 32 years and treat several of his signature concerns: violence, terrorism, conspiracy, technology, conceptual art, surveillance, and the permeating hum and blare of pop culture and global capitalism. Also, there are jokes, or at least the anxious wit that runs through much of DeLillo's best work. "There must be something funny we can cling to," he writes in "The Ivory Acrobat," in which an American woman becomes unhinged in earthquake- assailed Athens.
That story's protagonist eventually finds some oblique, negating comfort in a cheap reproduction of a Minoan figurine. Like Andy Warhol and a few other postmodern hall-of-famers, DeLillo is expert at creating moments in which the line between the junk of modern commerce and the stuff of transcendence isn't so much blurred as constantly shifting, "like some remote-controlled rapture," to pull a phrase from this collection's opening story, "Creation."
The title story -- which appears in a different form in DeLillo's massive "Underworld" -- centers on a nun, Sister Edgar, trying to do good in a blighted South Bronx. In the novel she's a doppelganger for J. Edgar Hoover, paranoid about germs and Communists. In the story, published three years before the novel, the characterization is less high concept; Edgar is doubtless OCD but not a political paranoiac. The story climaxes when the face of a recently murdered girl seems to appear on a Minute Maid billboard whenever the ad is lit by a passing train, drawing crowds of soon-to-be-televised pilgrims. For Sister Edgar and the reader, the spectacle is both crass and moving, prosaic and mysterious.
The stories in "The Angel Esmeralda" typically range in mood from unease to dread, but there are always these moments of grace, never cheap, usually not entirely clear. And one story, the recent "Midnight in Dostoevsky," is (despite its title) lighter in tone, fleetingly romantic. Here, two students in a wintry college town speculate about the origins and routines of an old man frequently seen trudging through the snow, wrapped in layers of imputed mystery and a coat whose classification they can't agree on. It's a great evocation of collegiate intellectualism: the thrillingly pointless debates, the energized bewilderment.
The writing is careful and often inspired, full of lean lyricism and surprising turns of phrase -- a secondhand sofa has "the texture of a barnacled hull," a town after a snowfall looks "ghosted over." DeLillo's celebrated dialogue is sometimes nearly Socratic, sometimes exactly like his prose (but in quotes), sometimes a kind of gappy banter, full of omissions and mind-reading leaps. He can also lay it on very thick. The fragmentary sentences. Strings of heavy adjectives. Deep reverberations. The transition from profundity to grating portentousness can be a simple matter of the turning the page.
You will, though, want to turn the page. DeLillo is a demanding but not necessarily "difficult" writer, and this transporting book, besides being a hole-plugging treat for longtime fans, should double -- as things often do in DeLillo's world -- as a short introduction to his singular and routinely brilliant work.
Dylan Hicks' first novel will be published in 2012 by Coffee House Press.