Having diagnosed a feeling or a situation or a place, an artist may be forever associated with it. We understand bureaucratic obfuscation that borders on terror, for example, in large part thanks to Kafka. A child’s face may have an uncanny resemblance to one in a Mary Cassatt painting, as if the artist had seen that particular face before you did. Many varieties of bourgeois ennui sometimes seem to have been invented (and not just depicted) by Chekhov. Graham Greene placed his own distinctive copyright on shabby little equatorial police states infused with self-pitying melancholy—Greeneland. When Wilde wrote in “The Decay of Lying” that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” he implied that many experiences, thanks to art, have already established themselves as clichés when a person arrives at them for the first time. By now, for an educated person, a fresh experience of the Kafkaesque may be rare. To cite another instance of belatedness: in middle age I drove across Utah, thinking that Monument Valley looked like a background for a John Ford movie, which indeed it had been, many times. The entire landscape was boring and exasperatingly familiar to me even though I had never actually been there before.
If you have read several books by Don DeLillo, sooner or later you will have a Don DeLillo moment. Mine occurred in May 2010, in the Museum of Modern Art, at the Marina Abramović exhibition “The Artist Is Present.” I was fascinated, but not by the particulars of her performance art, although they were interesting enough. Her manner of sitting utterly still for hours and staring at one volunteer after another positioned a few feet across from her compelled the attention of the crowd, as did the naked (and often jarringly beautiful), immobilized, blank-faced models and dancers who were also part of the exhibition.
What made me think of DeLillo at MoMA was not the art, however, but the spectators. They were all transfixed. They stared at Abramović and her collaborators as if the performers’ trance states were contagious. A kind of communal hypnosis seemed to be at work. I had never seen anything like it. On the day I was there, the usually noisy galleries had settled down into a low murmur, though I did hear nervous laughter coming from unhip oldsters. An intriguing collective project was going on, but no one seemed to know exactly what it was. I half-expected to spot DeLillo somewhere in the crowd, patiently watching the spectators who were watching the immobilized performers who, like pretty narcissists, were staring off into space at nothing. You could glance at anything, but your glance would never be acknowledged by anybody. Something importantly autistic was in the air.
Increasingly, DeLillo has turned his attention in his recent books to trance states that have little or no actual content but for that very reason have become central to the story. In his most recent novel, Point Omega (2010), the main character finds himself at MoMA viewing Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. Hitchcock’s film, slowed down to near immobility, startles the correct sort of amateur semiotician into a dazed disquiet:
In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.
Note that the “array of ideas” isn’t paraphrased. How could it be? If the array could be paraphrased and reduced to verbal units, the trance might be broken; we would enter the fallen world of meaning. To be transfixed in that twilight condition signals the presence of postmodern awe, emptied of its traditional attachments to divinity but with some shreds of religiosity still hanging on. Having retreated into namelessness, the condition correspondingly empties out all thought, resulting in a kind of mystical opacity verging on enlightenment but never arriving there. Enlightenment remains eternally on the other side of the door.
In the landscape of no context, one asks, “What’s going on? What is this? Who are these people?” In Libra, Lee Harvey Oswald habitually stares out the front of the subway, observing people “on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years.” As the perpetually hypnotized observer, he’s as locked into place as they are. Similarly, at the beginning of Mao II, Rodge watches the “uniformly smiling” crowd at a mass wedding in Yankee Stadium with binoculars, thinking “he has never seen anything like this or ever imagined it could happen.”
DeLillo’s new book of nine stories, The Angel Esmeralda, has at its core a series of situations that lead to trance states experienced by the insulted, the injured, and the vulnerable, who in its grip sometimes begin to babble in a form of secular glossolalia:
They shook hands, pumped hands with the great-bodied women who rolled their eyes to heaven. The women did great two-handed pump shakes, fabricated words jumping out of their mouths, trance utterance, Edgar thought—they’re singing of things outside the known deliriums.
Quite often, “trance utterance” is a crowd condition, populated by “shakers and mourners, the awestruck who stood in tidal traffic—she was nameless for a moment, lost to the details of personal history, a disembodied fact in liquid form, pouring into the crowd.” What usually sets the trance into place is an image that can’t quite be opened up. DeLillo being DeLillo, the delirium has some familial connections to terror, though the connection usually remains out of reach.
The Angel Esmeralda is divided into three parts, each prefaced by an illustration. The first is that of Earth, viewed from space; the second, that of a Minoan fresco showing a young woman vaulting over the horns of a charging bull. The third is a reproduction of a painting by Gerhard Richter, itself a reproduction of a photograph of Ulrike Meinhof lying in profile on the ground in her jail cell. One moves, that is, from a view of the planet to a close-up of a terrorist, from the farthest to the nearest, the generalized galactic to the specifically local and dead.
Written over the span of the past thirty-three years, the stories specialize in elaborate narrative chronologies in which some key element is missing. These strategic omissions give the stories their distinctive, nagging inscrutability, along with plots that present a mystery that hasn’t been announced, much less solved. In the first such story, “Creation,” the narrator and his partner find themselves on an island in the West Indies, unable to board their scheduled flight. They return to their hotel, accompanied by another tourist, a German woman, also unable to depart from the island. Having been ejected from his scheduled life and now floating in the hotel’s swimming pool, the narrator finds himself pleasantly between obligations and located nowhere in particular, suspended in both space and time:
We’d had half a day of frustration, long drives out and back, and the cooling touch of freshwater on my body, and the ocean-soaring bird, and the speed of those low-flying clouds, their massive tumbling summits, and my weightless drift, the slow turning in the pool, like some remote-controlled rapture, made me feel I knew what it was like to be in the world. It was special, yes. The dream of Creation that glows at the edge of the serious traveler’s search.
One feels in the world only by getting out of its routines into remote-controlled rapture, “rapture” being the key word here to suggest travel to other psychic planets, and to what has become a key element in DeLillo’s work, timelessness. Eventually the narrator’s partner manages to get her flight out, so that he himself is left at the hotel’s pool suite with the German woman, with whom he immediately has a rather nondescript sexual encounter. Had he really noticed her before or been attracted by her? Was he touched by her qualities? The narrator does not care to say, though he does note, “We used the morning in bed.”
This omission of any markers of the narrator’s desire is one of the signs that we are inside a posthumanist fiction. In an earlier style—a style still very much on the menu in American creative writing programs—the narrator would register his attraction to the German woman, then mull over the possibilities of sleeping with her, worry over his possible guilt and potential betrayal, then write about his approach to her as he shares with us, his readers, his complicated personal feelings (if he has any), all in preparation for the encounter with its conventional meanings. We would be given his motivations, and the story would carefully “lay pipe,” as Hollywood scriptwriters say, as it goes about its business of patiently disclosing expository material and the markers of his individuality.
But this is not that kind of story. None of the stories in this book are like that. The encounter of the narrator and the German woman in “Creation” isn’t especially significant or meaningful. It’s just there, and the reason it’s there has very little to do with the specifically erotic content of the scene or the narrator’s character, such as it is. DeLillo’s (or the narrator’s) refusal to supply the reader with any emotional filler or exposition radically cools down the emotional temperature of the story and gives it a pleasingly zero-degree defamiliarized tone of floating detachment.
But even so, “Creation” would remain a conventional story about a semianonymous one-night stand that anybody might have written were it not for the final scene, where Christa, the German woman, now decoupled from her usual routines, lapses into a kind of blank impassivity. This impassivity gives the story a sudden intensity. It is the true DeLillo moment, the one toward which the story has been aimed. “Her face went slowly dead. All the selves collapsing inward. She was inaccessible and utterly still.” The narrator goes on talking to her, “slowly and distinctly,” but Christa herself is beyond speech: “Christa’s lips moved, although she didn’t say anything.”
From a distance, this state bears more than a slight resemblance to prayer. The story, after all, is entitled “Creation,” and when the word appears in the text, it’s capitalized: “The dream of Creation that glows at the edge of the serious traveler’s search.” Time and again in The Angel Esmeralda (note the angel in the title), the characters appear as if they’re engaging in religious devotions designed to get them to some higher plane of consciousness. The psychological components of this condition would have thematic interest only if the characters had distinct selves, real personalities, notable for their variety. They typically don’t possess any such variety nor do they need to have it, because the circumstances in the stories are so large and so fraught with import that the characters are minuscule by comparison. They simply have to bow down inside a cloud of unknowing (a section title employed by DeLillo in Underworld). Comprehension gives way to nonverbal rapt contemplation. Any effort to grasp the nature of the experience they face is simply beyond reach. It would be like asking a dog to understand calculus.
In another story, the mind-haunting “Human Moments in World War III,” Vollmer, an astronaut in his twenties, gazes down on Earth as he and the narrator collect imagery data on troop deployment. Radio signals from decades earlier somehow infect their transmissions from mission control. “A quality of purest, sweetest sadness issued from remote space.” As they work to control the “lethal package” they are dealing with, they look at Earth and fall into reverie: “The cities are in light, the listening millions, fed, met comfortably in drowsy rooms, at war, as the night comes softly down.” The story feels like an elegy to the planet and takes its place in the growing literature of preapocalyptic writing, intensified in this particular case by the narrator’s distance (he’s in orbit) and his sense that he and Vollmer are observing a planetary body that is about to disappear altogether with their willing cooperation. The grief over the fate of Earth infuses into the story a tone of immense melancholy, a particular note that has been struck repeatedly in DeLillo’s recent work.
Vollmer, for his part, ends this story in a position of transfixed immobility very similar to the one we saw in Christa at the end of “Creation.” Here is Vollmer staring at his home planet:
He spends all his time at the window now, looking down at the earth. He says little or nothing. He simply wants to look, do nothing but look. The oceans, the continents, the archipelagoes. We are configured in what is called a cross-orbit series and there is no repetition from one swing around the earth to the next. He sits there looking. He takes meals at the window, does checklists at the window, barely glancing at the instruction sheets as we pass over tropical storms, over grass fires and major ranges. I keep waiting for him to return to his prewar habit of using quaint phrases to describe the earth: it’s a beach ball, a sun-ripened fruit. But he simply looks out the window, eating almond crunches, the wrappers floating away.
That’s beautiful. One thinks of the lines from Beckett’s Molloy: “From things about to disappear I turn away in time. To watch them out of sight, no, I can’t do it.” However, Vollmer has not yet turned away, not quite. He’s still watching, still looking, still occupying that passing moment of contemplation before the object of his gaze—the thing about to disappear—is gone.
And here we arrive at the necessary component of the trance experience, the implicit content at its core: the narcotic spectacle of an entity’s fragile existence prior to its violent death or destruction. The prospect of an imminent violent death renders everyone speechless and thoughtful. It is the pre-apocalyptic condition. In this fiction, violent death occupies a privileged position in the hierarchy of signifiers. The thing about to be destroyed takes on a terrible beauty, worthy of elegy.
Here DeLillo seems to have tapped into a central cultural fix, as if only he could explain why, for example, we find serial killers endlessly fascinating and, worse, significant. 24 Hour Psycho, the inspiration for Point Omega, has at its almost immobilized core the violent deaths of Marion Crane and the insurance investigator Milton Arbogast. Libra is transfixed by the Kennedy assassination, and Falling Man by the Twin Towers. As far back as The Names, DeLillo was thinking about terrorists, and Mao II puts them at the center of contemporary consciousness. What the Virgin Mary was for the Middle Ages and the Dynamo for Henry Adams, the image of a cultural artifact about to die or actually dead is for DeLillo. What accompanies such an image is the persistent feeling of the unknowable, along with a sense of release, and, as I’ve said, the slowing-down of time close to, but not arriving at, its omega point.
For me the title story in DeLillo’s new book is its most memorable one because it addresses all these cultural conditions and leads to a totally unexpected outcome. Cobbled together from two sections in Underworld (chapter eight in Part Two, and the epilogue), it tells the story of two nuns, Sister Edgar and Sister Grace, and of their work distributing groceries to poor people in the Bronx. That borough serves as this book’s Capital of Death and the Dying, a locale of permanent night. Both nuns take an interest in a homeless girl whom they see occasionally and at a distance. After a passage of time, word comes that this girl, Esmeralda, has been raped and thrown off a roof. Grace wants to kill someone in revenge: “Because who do I kill is the only question I can ask myself without falling apart completely.”
These two women, Edgar and Grace, both of them soldiers for a cause, are remarkable: these nuns are the least passive, the most fully humane—if such a category still exists—persons in the book. They possess old-fashioned will, character, and force, those creaky nineteenth-century novelistic virtues. As such, they stand as remnants from an earlier era, anachronistic outside the Bronx but perfectly suited inside it. “What figures could be so timely, costumed for rats and plague?” As an antiquated figure, Sister Edgar insists on wearing the arcane clothes, the wimple, cincture, and guimpe. The two uncool nuns with their fierce benevolence are not quite DeLilloesque, and yet they are here. But even Sister Edgar feels herself giving way to despair. “Now that Terror has become local, how do we live? she thought.” And then a miracle occurs. The dead Esmeralda’s face appears on a Minute Maid billboard when the headlight of an elevated train shines on the billboard in a certain way:
She [Edgar] saw Esmeralda’s face take shape under the rainbow of bounteous juice and above the little suburban lake and it had being and disposition, there was someone living in the image, a distinguishing spirit and character, the beauty of a reasoning creature—less than a second of life, less than half a second and the spot was dark again.
The situation is comic, but the narration refuses to treat it that way. This vision creates crowds, trance utterances, obstructed traffic, and social unrest. Inevitably the billboard is painted over, and Esmeralda’s face disappears. Things go back to normal. But Sister Edgar and the masses have had their vision, and the authorial strategy will not undermine it. DeLillo’s scrupulous and perfectly tuned irony does not fall into mockery at this stage, nor does the voice of the narration suggest that Edgar or the other witnesses have suffered a mass hallucination. Metaphysical comedy is nowhere visible. At this central moment in the book, the words “transcendence” and “holy” arrive on the scene as if on a cart lowered to the stage from the realm of the gods:
Or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces, something holy that throbs on the hot horizon, the vision you crave because you need a sign to stand against your doubt?
Sister Edgar may be a remnant, and her experiences may be those of remnant transcendence, but the tone of the story sustains her, and in stories like these, tone is everything. Tone takes the place vacated by plot. In all of the stories that follow this one, a similar configuration of the transfixed observer and the mysterious object of contemplation appears in a tone that mixes detachment with longing. In “Baader-Meinhof” we have the central character obsessively viewing Gerhard Richter’s paintings of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof: “she was sitting as a person does in a mortuary chapel.” In “Midnight in Dostoyevsky,” two undergraduate boys try to make sense of their philosophy teacher, a logician given to sibylline pronouncements: “He seemed like a man in a trance state.” In the wonderfully semisurrealistic (and more overtly comic) “Hammer and Sickle,” a Bernie Madoff–like Ponzi artist watches, from prison, a TV show for teens, in which his daughters deliver a kind of vaudeville version of enraged Marxist sloganeering. In “The Starveling,” the protagonist is an obsessive-compulsive moviegoer, deep within “uneventfulness that resembles meditation,” a man who sees as many as four movies per day and who is eventually drawn to a woman who may be as obsessive-compulsive as he is.
In all these stories, DeLillo’s perfect ear for disjointed American speech (“he’s exactly twelve more or less”) combines with his characteristic acuity about telltale facial expressions. One character has “the prim outdated face of a schoolboy in a formal portrait,” while another has “a fixed smile, grafted on.” But it’s not the characterizations one remembers from these stories; it’s the sense of a particularly critical cultural situation.
Don DeLillo’s books, particularly the more recent ones, are more at home in departments of cultural studies than in English departments. His writerly gifts are large, but they particularly reside in what might be called the diagnostic. His novels (and, now, these stories) are not really about individual characters with complicated personal and private histories, those elements on which a writer like Alice Munro depends—the dramatic exceptions being anachronistic types like Sister Grace.
For the most part, his dramatis personae don’t develop in complexity through their own or anyone else’s insights, or through dramatic challenges that they have chosen either to meet or to shun. Individual personality traits are usually the least interesting ingredients in any DeLillo narrative. Instead, the emphasis everywhere in his fiction tends to be on symptoms. The character is generally less convincing than the symptom. And whatever is symptomatic in a DeLillo story illustrates the movement of some hidden spirit or force moving through contemporary cultural history. The typical DeLillo tale reads like a diagnosis of a zeitgeist malady we never knew we had, and in these stories the malady is one of spellbound fixation. As a diagnostician, DeLillo has achieved a very particular kind of greatness that gives his stories and novels a distinctive atmosphere and psychic temperature, that of a cool low-grade fever; and his gifts, in this specialized sphere, are, for a contemporary American writer, unsurpassed.