We need to read Don Delillo slowly.
Not because his prose is dense or complex or difficult. Quite the opposite, his prose is usually quite simple, reliant more on familiar words than strange or unexpected ones. Sometimes the rhythms of his writing are unexpected in written prose, hesitating, repeating, dodging back and forth through the thought; but since this echoes the relatively unstructured character of our thought and speech this does not make it difficult to follow.
No, we read him slowly because we sense there is something going on behind the prose. His stories are not crystal clear but rather frosted, translucent; through them we discern shapes that are slightly blurry. Rather like Gerhard Richter’s image of Ulrika Meinhof that lies at the heart of the story ‘Baader-Meinhof’.
We get this idea of something behind the words from Delillo himself, of course. In the stories that make up this new collection, The Angel Esmeralda, he is forever harping on about the power of words. ‘I want words to be secretive, to cling to a darkness in the deepest interior’ (30) his narrator says in ‘Human Moments in World War III’, in a voice that sounds suspiciously like Delillo’s own. And again, in ‘Midnight in Dostoevsky’, the Delilloesque narrator says: ‘Let the words be the facts. This was the nature of our walks – to register what was out there, all the scattered rhythms of circumstance and occurrence, and to reconstruct it as human noise.’ (122)
Part of this registering of what was out there comes in the form of lists, of knowing the names of things. But there are always words missing. In ‘Human Moments in World War III’ he notes that ‘there ought to be a term for this ironic condition: primitive fear of the weapons we are advanced enough to design and produce.’ (35) Something like this lament for a lost or non-existent word recurs in just about every one of these stories. In ‘The Starveling’, for instance, ‘He also thought there had to be another word, beyond anorexic, that would help him see her clearly.’ (202) The right word, control of language, brings everything into focus, lets us see clearly, it is what brings with it control of the world. As old Sister Edgar complains of the street kids she deals with in ‘The Angel Esmeralda’, ‘They spoke an unfinished English, soft and muffled, insufficiently suffixed, and she wanted to drum some hard g’s into the ends of their gerunds.’ (80) And we know, because their language is incomplete, that their lives are incomplete also. But we don’t see clearly in these stories because words are missing, key words, the clue to what is behind the frosted glass.
At least, that is what Delillo is telling us. But is there really anything there, is that blurry image on the frosted glass really anything more than a flaw in the glass itself, a trick of the light? Sometimes.
Again and again, the words in these stories are used to create the world. In ‘Hammer and Sickle’, for instance, the global financial crisis is created by the curiously incantatory reports of two young girls on television. Or at least, so it seems to their father, watching them from the minimum security prison where he is serving a sentence for financial crime, alongside a bunch of other men convicted of various types of fraud. The world is no longer real to them, so they conjure it out of the words of children. ‘Hammer and Sickle’ is, for my money, one of the better stories in the collection, but the whole book is filled with characters for whom the world is no longer real. Usually, they use words to create another person. In ‘Midnight in Dostoevsky’, two students tell themselves elaborate stories about an old man they see in the street; in ‘The Starveling’ a fat man who spends his days hanging around in cinemas creates an elaborate story about a thin girl he follows from one cinema to another. In both these works, it is when story and reality collide that the fictions stutter to a somewhat inconclusive halt.
One of the characteristics of Delillo’s stories is that they are never whole. Every single one of them starts after the beginning of the story, and Delillo does not use flashbacks to fill in the gaps. We are left forever unsure of how these particular events were actually set in motion. And more often than not, the story closes before the end. Real life has no neat beginnings and endings, when we look around us, when we interact with any other person, we can be aware only of part of the middle of the story. I think that is an effect Delillo is striving for in this collection. It can work. In ‘The Runner’ a jogger running laps around a small lake in a park, sees a car drive onto the grass beside a woman who is picnicking there; moments later, the car drives away, taking the woman’s child. Why? Who? How will this drama be resolved? We never know, but then, this is the sort of little everyday tragedy whose resolution we never do know. The story works precisely because of that irresolution. In contrast, ‘The Ivory Acrobat’, about a foreign teacher in Athens and the tentative relationship she begins in the wake of an earthquake, feels too incomplete, as if we need to go back earlier in time to properly understand the woman, and go on later in time to properly understand the relationship.
Meanwhile the title story, ‘The Angel Esmeralda’, was incorporated wholesale into Delillo’s finest novel, Underworld, so it is as if it has belatedly acquired a before and after, making it hard to read now in the ascetic isolation that this collection would demand.
One other recurring aspect of the work that I won’t go into at any length here is art. ‘Baader-Meinhof’ begins and ends at an actual exhibition, of Gerhard Richter’s pictures, in exactly the same way that Point Omega begins and ends at an actual exhibition, the 24-hour Psycho. Delillo engages with these artworks in a way that he doesn’t engage, for instance, with the films in ‘The Starveling’ (indeed, we never actually register a single thing that is on screen). I wonder about this, but I don’t want to pursue the idea at this point.
In the end, though, the archetypal Delillo characters are the two we encounter in the archetypal Delillo story, ‘Human Moments in World War III’, in orbit around Earth while, it would seem, a war rages below. We learn nothing about the war, not even whether it is actually happening; we learn nothing about what brought the characters to this situation, nor what might become of them. They float above everything, disengaged, playing with words. If it ever came down to earth, there would be no story.
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