When Thomas Pynchon released Slow Learner — a collection of five short stories published very early in his career — in 1984, it wasn’t just about the fiction. The stories, compared to his mature work, aren’t all that good, and Pynchon himself picks them apart piece-by-piece in an introductory essay; clearly not expecting readers to enjoy the writing of his college days, he shows no mercy to his younger, more naïve self. The real value of that book today, as it was then, becomes apparent when we think less about the prose and more about the reasons why he felt fit to share it. Pynchon’s autobiographical preface and self-lambasting reveals that motive: for better or worse, it’s an attempt at some genuine communication with the public he spent so much time fictionalizing. There must have been some underlying catharsis there — a kind of primal scream whose details mattered much less than the blaringly potent noise. And every time I read Slow Learner, I feel as if Pynchon, the literary hermit and master of disguise, is speaking to me.
Don DeLillo — while stylistically a very different wordsmith — has, over the course of his own forty-plus year career, treated American society with a calculated eye and a colorful darkness not unlike that of Pynchon. And his own soul-baring release, The Angel Esmeralda, has some marked similarities to Slow Learner.
For readers of DeLillo, it will be clear that much of this is not his best work in prose. The stories, ranging in publication date from 1979 to 2011, see him reaching towards the precise cultural aspects he’s delved into throughout his authorial tenure — interpersonal communication, the flaws of capitalism and consumerism, isolation — with varying degrees of success. The settings and circumstances are certainly diverse.
“Creation,” the opening piece, strips away pretense to reveal the inner tensions and desires of a wayfaring traveler stuck on a Caribbean vacation, while “Human Moments in World War III” fast-forwards to a bleak future in which “the banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war,” focusing on two astronauts coming to terms with the meaning of existence and that of their destructive role in it.
“The Angel Esmeralda,” a brilliantly crafted story that is by far the strongest of the bunch, illuminates the struggles of nuns seeking to effect some small change in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the Bronx. Two other notable — and more recent — pieces with ties to current societal and economic debates, “Baader-Meinhof” and “Hammer and Sickle,” tackle, respectively, perceptions of terrorism and those of white-collar financial criminals.
So, like in Pynchon’s retrospective collection, we find DeLillo happy to share some of his wide-ranging attempts to figure out American consciousness without worrying much about putting forth top-quality fiction (by his own high standards). The question, again, is: why? The reasons are similar, and in this case, it seems as if the autobiographical essay that made Slow Learner so important and engaging has been replaced by the sheer temporal breadth of these stories. Rather than pulling together works from a certain period of his career, DeLillo consciously hands the reader a small cross-section of his writing over a long span of time. And so, without him having to educate us directly as to what’s been going on in his head all this time — between the palpably rhythmic tension of White Noise and the wan minimalism of Point Omega — we can search for it ourselves in the successes, missteps and false starts of his short fiction. In the end, it’s just more fun to read these pieces as personal history — as, perhaps, autobiography — than simply as fiction.
It’s undeniable that DeLillo has carved out a special niche for himself within the modern American canon, with a sense of prescience, perceptiveness and piercing language that remains inescapably urgent. The Angel Esmeralda continues that legacy, albeit not as a work that can stand on its own stylistic merits. The collection of stories, in both its selection and its arrangement, is a much more personal look at DeLillo’s visionary growth and his own humanity — and in that regard it is, without doubt, enthralling.