SOMETIME IN THE LATE 1970s, Don DeLillo stopped being embarrassed by his own inclinations toward the sacred. Until then, in novels like Americana, Ratner's Star, and Running Dog, DeLillo had fooled around with religious ideas the way his sixties compatriots did — sporting with spiritual traditions East and West, toying with pagan ritual and Indian mythology — but for the most part he did so playfully, as a way of mocking the entrenched (and arid) atheism of his modernist forebears rather than seriously proposing a place for transcendence in his own work. But, starting with Players (1980) and then more daringly in The Names (1982), a shift occurs: the words "soul," "eternal," "spirit," "transcendence" no longer appear to glow with postmodern irony; they no longer bear invisible quotation marks. The fallen Catholic DeLillo began to find a way to write about certain inescapable promptings of "awe" and "wonder" that were so insistent that they qualified as spiritual intimations. I'd argue that it's no accident that his greatest stretch of creation followed this shift, a two-decade-long marvel that helped push the American postmodern movement beyond its previous reliance on linguistic gamesmanship, black humor, and recursive irony, as books like White Noise, Libra, Mao II, Underworld, and The Body Artist assured DeLillo a place in the American canon.
It might also not be an accident that the author's sole collection of short stories, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, gathers only work published since 1979. Perhaps he considers the eight other stories he'd published dating back to 1960 apprentice work best left in the stacks. Still, what's most striking about the collection — which presents the stories chronologically, as if to suggest an inherent development — is that so many of them build toward the possible revelation of the sacred. I hedge with the word "possible" only because DeLillo does. Most of these stories ultimately find themselves in what I can only call DeLilloan Limbo: a moment of insight whose major feature is irresolvable spiritual ambivalence. These moments occur when his characters are overwhelmed with wonder but can't identify its source: they're suspended, between the feeling that they're genuinely experiencing some kind of Presence (God, or perhaps what Heidegger called Being) on the one hand and, on the other, that they're making it up out of emptiness, despair, or the terror of death. Such ambivalence, of course, is common enough in 20th century literature, but for DeLillo such fleeting moments are the closest we ever come to Knowledge, and so dramatizing and meditating on them practically become fiction's purpose, its philosophical telos. Consider the climax of Falling Man, for instance, when Lianne thinks, "God is the voice that says, 'I am not here.' " That's an American-minted Zen koan if I've ever heard one, and it's meant to put us in the place where the Presence and Absence of Spirit are simultaneous: the Cloud of Unknowing, where it is the fate of DeLillo's characters to remain, floating, forever.
The Angel Esmeralda opens with "Creation," a 1979 story that has all the hallmarks of DeLillo's late-seventies transition. It's flashily cerebral, laced with cool ironies,...read more