The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories
is a short story collection by Don DeLillo. Written between 1979 and 2011, and brought together for the first time in 2011, the stories show the changes in American culture over three decades. The collection received nominations for numerous literary fiction awards, and critics praise DeLillo for his unique writing style, his characterization, and his witty observations. He’s one of the most influential American postmodernist writers. He typically writes about North America in the 20th and early 21st centuries. The Angel Esmeralda
is one of DeLillo’s best-known literary works.
There are nine short stories in The Angel Esmeralda.
They span the period between the spring of 1979 and the autumn of 2011. Although they’re published in chronological order, there’s no need to read them in this order as they can be enjoyed individually. The stories were originally published in leading magazines and newspapers before a publisher collated them into a single volume.
DeLillo’s voice changes across the stories. He uses lively, energetic, and musical writing in the first few stories, and he then switches to a sharper, sparser prose for the later stories. This reflects the cultural evolution sweeping across America between the 1980s and the 2000s, but it also complements the diverse range of characters that DeLillo includes in his stories.
In The Angel Esmeralda
, the characters observe other people and learn from what they see. These characters struggle with introspection, and they don’t understand themselves. Watching other people from afar helps them understand the human condition, and why we make the decisions we do. For example, in “The Runner,” two friends see a man kidnap a toddler in a park. They wonder why the kidnapper took the girl, and whether there’s ever an excuse for this behavior. They don’t reflect on why they let the man get away.
In “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” friends from college are hanging out one night when they see a man wandering around in a hooded coat. The friends make up stories about who the man is, where he’s going, and where he’s been. By the time they’re finished, they’ve created an entire backstory for this mysterious man who they never meet. This shadowy character symbolizes the “self” that these characters strive so hard to uncover.
Some characters are aware that they’re disconnected from the world around them. For example, in “Hammer and Sickle,” a man’s serving time in a low-security prison for white-collar crime. His family doesn’t visit him, and the only contact he has with them is through the television. His young daughters participate in a children’s television show, and they’re always talking about how terrible the world is. Watching the show helps the man bond with his children, but he doesn’t look inwards. He doesn’t consider that it’s his own fault that he’s locked up in the first place.
Some stories in The Angel Esmeralda
take place in highly unusual locations. “Human Moments in WWIII” is set in outer space. It features two astronauts circling the Earth during WWIII. Watching the world from this perspective makes the astronauts consider their own role in the universe, and what it means to be human. Once they see Earth from a new perspective, once they’re forced to step back and admire the world around them, they appreciate its beauty. These men are permanently changed because they realize what’s truly important in life.
In one story, the main character focuses exclusively on himself. It’s the only story in the collection where the protagonist doesn’t obsess over other people. In the story, “Baader-Meinhof,” a man spends the morning wandering around an art gallery with an unnamed woman. He wonders what she’s thinking, and what he can do to impress her, but it’s not because he’s attracted to her—it’s because he’s judging himself.
The man attends an interview later that day. He’s not sure what he wants from life, and he doesn’t know whether he wants the job or not. He’s spent the day reflecting on himself and his own ambitions, although it seemed like he was focusing on the unknown woman. The woman, meanwhile, watches herself in the mirror and studies her reflection as an outsider would. She doesn’t recognize herself, and this scares her.
What these characters all have in common is that they’re disconnected from life, other people, and their spiritual identities. Society’s structured in such a way that we spend most of our time alone, and it’s impossible for these characters to find meaningful connections. There’s no sense of empathy or fulfilment. However, there’s still some hope for the characters who try to reach out and break these barriers.
For example, in “Human Moments in World War III,” the astronauts defy the odds, travel towards each other, and talk. In “The Starveling,” the final story in the collection, a lonely man approaches a woman in a movie theater and begins a conversation. He does something that frightens many of us—speaking with a stranger—and confronts his own loneliness as a result.