on 7 December 2014
DDL doesn't write short stories of the kind Chekhov, Joyce, and Richard Yates did because he's not interested in portraying the day-to-day interactions between people, and the pathos and pain that often result - from insensitivity, misplaced loyalty, lack of understanding, violence. No, he basks in the sounds of his own sentences as he contrives them, relishes the effects his words have on him and his readers - "the barber has emasculated your sideburns", for example. Would anyone say that to anyone else in real life? No, of course not. On the other hand, the three scribes up top write ONLY what people say to each other in real life. Fortunately for DDL, though, and us, his sentences are often superb, resonating memorably. The title story here is a cracker (but not for Catholics), while the others achieve varying degrees of success, touching on the standard DDL themes of disengagement, estrangement, states of emotional incommunicado and... traffic (yep, as in vehicles on the road traffic). He's obsessed with it - cf Cosmopolis, Americana, and some of the stories here - a by-product, perhaps, of being a native New Yorker forever stuck in a queue, the lights eternally on red.
These nine stories, written over several decades, have a surprising thematic unity. Most concern our grip on the world, which is called in question generally by an event, such an earthquake, a child-snatching, the rape and murder of 12 year old followed by sightings of her as an angel. The writing is precise; and brings to life just how our grip on the world can be loosened and what it is like. Some of the stories also involve the central characters imagining the lives of others (from very little external evidence) - and in a way that too calls in question our relatedness to the world outside our own imaginings. Most of the stories are quite inconclusive - but serve their own purpose well.
on 19 July 2014
Delillo is more well-known for longer works of fiction. His novels are concerned with American life, like “White Noise” and “Falling Man” which addressed the paranoia of modern living as we know it, with its excesses in consumerism and social/political instability, and the threat of terrorism. It culminated in his magnum opus, “Underworld”, which I unfortunately did not finish – it was just too massive and complex a work, though that does not detract from his genius. In between, he has also published shorter works like “Cosmopolis” and “The Body Artist”, which had a more personal feel about them because he cast his lens on a smaller sphere, which had varying results. In his prolific body of work, Delillo maintains his signature taut and terse writing style, which gives an air of emotional detachment, which is yet surprisingly incisive. One would think that the short story form would serve Delillo well, so it is surprising that Delillo does not write more short stories. This is his only collection to date, and it brings together nine pieces published between 1979 to 2011, and yet the span of time between the stories does not give this collection a patchy feel.
That said, the stories are varied in content and concerns. The first one, “Creation” finds a couple trapped at the end of their holiday on an island in the West Indies, and the building tension is set against the calm and peaceful environs of the hotel they keep going back to when yet another flight is cancelled. The turn in the story with the entry of a third character is remarkably insidious and shocking. And yet the reader is correspondingly lulled and then alarmed, which increases the sense of unease. This is especially effective in “Baader-Meinhof”, where a woman finds herself inexplicably thrown into an acquaintance with a fellow visitor at an art gallery, and the new friendship soon spirals out of control.
The characters in these stories are also varied and checkered. But whether they are travellers, university students, nuns or even astronauts, Delillo zeroes in on their disparate personalities in a succinct and illuminating way. In all these stories, people try to connect, whether it is Sister Edgar who tries to reach out to the illusive street urchin Esmeralda in the titular story, or the man who fills his days at the cinemas across town watching movie after movie in “The Starveling”, or the two college friends who imagine a backstory about a hooded stranger they see in the university town in “Midnight in Doestovksy”, and hold on to it with a tenacity that overrides the truth. These characters may fail in their attempts to connect, and the motivations behind their actions less than logical or benevolent, but in each, Delillo writes with such empathy and clarity, that the reader is not only convinced, but spellbound.