February 12, 2012

The art of pushing somebody over the cliff

Posted in Book Reviews, Literature tagged , , , at 4:47 pm by faraway67

On Don DeLillo’s “The Angel Esmeralda”

Everybody can write a novel. No, really. Probably not everybody can write a good novel. But telling a long story – that is not that difficult, is it? The real art, so it appears to me, is to write a short story. Distilling a whole story, places, characters and thoughts, emotion and evolution, down to a few pages and still painting a vivid and sweeping picture, that is a real challenge.

Don DeLillo, reading in NYC, courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

“The Angel Esmeralda” has been my first encounter with Don DeLillo. It is a collection of  nine short stories, written between 1979 and 2011, and not a single one can be compared to another. They show a whole universe of ideas, situated in strange and familiar places,  from a Carribean island to a museum, from space to Greece, inhabited with strangers and movie addicts, students and teachers, prisoners and tourists. The only thing that stays the same: Every single one will leave you gasping for air.

DeLillo divided his book into three parts – each part introduced by a picture, a visual prelude of what will follow.

The first story, “Creation”, will give you a deep insight into the way men’s minds (and emotions) work. Or do not work. At all. It will be up to you to decide that.

“Human moments in world war III” provides you with a very special look at a strange, disturbing and still beautiful earth. It also deals with the question if musing too much is a nuisance. Here ends the first part of the book.

Whilst “The Runner” takes you to a very unusual crime scene, you will have to endure both figurative and literal earthquakes in “The Ivory Acrobat” (which was my favourite story), and also learn about the beauty and power of Ancient Cretan art.

“The Angel Esmeralda” is a particularly touching story, where symbolism meets a cruel reality, and, entwining, both lead towards new hope.

Part three of the book, comprising four stories, takes you on a rollercoaster trip starting with a visit at a museum and a far too close look at German terrorists in “Baader-Meinhof”, then moving on to a painful mix of imagination and reality in “Midnight in Dostoevsky” and a very special approach to the Greek economic crisis in “Hammer and Sickle”, and finally comes to a furious finale in the strange behaviour and twisted dreams of a movie addict in “The Starveling”.

The two main motifs that occur again and again are, in my opinion, obsession and loss of reality. DeLillo displays these in many different nuances, in every imaginable way, from the ordinary daily trials to flee everyday pain, grief and sorrow to the complete loss of the last thread that keeps a person from madness.

The most enchanting part while reading the book, however, is the language DeLillo uses. Down to earth, clear and sharp, and still poetic. I like to call this particular style “farmer’s poetry”. A fascinating world to explore – often it takes a while till you notice, but suddenly you become aware with amazement how his language, how words and sentences form intricate patterns of utter beauty.

Reading DeLillo’s short stories in “The Angel Esmeralda” is like going on a walk with him. He talks to you tenderly, and, as it were, lays his arms around your shoulders. You feel absolutely comfortable and at ease. For five lines, half a page, or even two pages. And then you suddenly realize that he has taken you to a high cliff. And while you are still trying to figure out what has happened – he pushes you over the edge. And you fall. And fall. And fall. Till the story is over and you hit the ground. And sometimes you do not hit it at all. And do you know what is the worst part? Next time he asks you for a walk – you happily join him again, blind to the consequences. Truly a read for the brave. Will you dare? Try it, you won’t regret it.

“It is for that combination of terror and comedy and sheer song that everyone wants to give Don DeLillo an award.”
Nathan Englander

Bonus: If you want to know more about Don DeLillo, read his biography on  Wikipedia and in his own words, a  profound review on “The Angel Esmeralda” from the “New York Review of Books” (H/T to my friend Matthias Rascher), a great “Paris Review” interview and finally enjoy watching Nathan Englander’s wonderful laudatio to Don presenting him with the 2010 Pen/Saul Bellow Award as well as his court but poignant answer in the video below.

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