Whenever I watch Mad Men, I like to imagine Don DeLillo as one of the show’s crowd of copywriters. He wouldn’t be one of those hustling for the account executive’s attention, he’s the one who hangs back, quietly observing from a corner of the room.
It’s not such a leap, actually. Though he’s best known as a novelist and perceptive chronicler of the American scene, DeLillo got his start on Madison Avenue, where he wrote advertising copy for Ogilvy & Mather from 1959 to 1964 – the exact contemporary of Don Draper.
While the DeLillo-Draper mash-up may seem like an inspired bit of Americana, the fact is that DeLillo left advertising to concentrate on his writing in the mid-1960s and never looked back. The author of era-defining novels such as White Noise, Libra and Underworld, DeLillo is also the winner of a National Book Award and international honours such as the Jerusalem Prize.
However, after 15 novels, three plays and a shelf groaning under the weight of all his laurels, The Angel Esmeralda marks a surprising first: his debut collection of short fiction.
DeLillo is hardly a newcomer when it comes to short stories, although it is worth noting that after a spurt early in his career, novels took up most of his attention. The earliest published story that appears here is 1979’s Creation. And pretty much every short story he has published since shows up in these pages, including a significant burst since 2000.
In his late period, it seems DeLillo is more and more intrigued by the discipline and restraint required by short fiction – no surprise given his fascination with similarly preoccupied figures.
DeLillo’s spare, precise prose is perfectly suited to evoking the rigidly controlling worldview of characters obsessed with order. If this sounds a bit abstract, well, that’s the charge sometimes levelled against him. His 2003 novel Cosmopolis is a case in point.
DeLillo’s depiction of a financier’s fall sparked a critical backlash for its suffocating portrayal of a character whose genius for charting the symmetries between nature and the market is a form of divine madness, one that threatens to bring down the global economy. It also happens to be the best dissection of the intellectual hubris that led to the crash, written years before the event itself.
DeLillo’s penetrating insight into the passion for abstraction that animates contemporary culture is apparent on every page. However, his work is at its most compelling when it explores how these metaphysical concerns intersect and underpin our intimate and everyday life. In this sense, The Angel Esmeralda is simultaneously a career retrospective and a restating of first principles.
Returning to some of the author’s favourite haunts – art galleries, college campuses, the Bronx, Greece – the stories feature characters who, against their orderly instincts, learn the hard lesson that sometimes our disordered existence is to be embraced rather than kept at arm’s length. Chaos is accepted as a fact of life – and sometimes even as a state of grace.
In the title story, a superannuated nun and middle-aged graffiti artist struggle to minister to the needs of street kids, but have their faith challenged after one of the kids is brutally murdered. They find redemption, though, in a strange place: a billboard which, illuminated by an oncoming train, reveals an uncanny likeness of the lost girl. DeLillo describes the people who gather to witness her fleeting image, a crowd that consoles in the way in which it “brings things to a single consciousness.”
In Hammer and Sickle, DeLillo returns to familiar territory with his story of a Wall Street fraud who finds the denizens of yesterday’s society pages languishing in a minimum-security prison as today’s white-collar criminals. During their recreation time, everyone gathers around a television to watch their favourite program, a stock-market report for children hosted by the narrator’s young daughters.
The update, performed as a childish chant, serves as an artless riposte to the blizzard of braying market commentary. Reflecting on the only thing that he and all of his formerly pinstriped fellows have in common, the folly of their greed, the narrator compares money to “a kind of discreet erection known only to the man whose pants are on fire.”
In the end, what sets DeLillo apart from similarly lauded contemporaries such as Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison is this: Attuned to the way our everyday life is increasingly networked and mediated through a variety of screens, DeLillo was a 21st-century novelist long before Y2K. One might even say that it was his sojourn in the image factories of Madison Avenue that made him that way.
Matt Kavanagh is working on a book titled Don DeLillo’s Critique of Neoliberalism. He teaches at Okanagan College, where he is chairman of the department of English.