Little Sentences and Middle Ground

In Open Letters Monthly, Nicholas Nardini has an interesting take on Don DeLillo‘s first short story collection, The Angel Esmerelda, arguing that DeLillo’s sentences are better equipped for his big-canvas novels:

Despite the big novels, the basic unit of DeLilloan literature, the scale on which he seems to consciously work, is not the volume or the chapter or the paragraph, but only the lowly sentence—and usually a short sentence…. Momentum, in fact, is something that DeLillo’s novels seem to actively resist. They are best characterized not as plots but as conglomerations of sharp, individual perceptions, each competing for the limited attention of the reader…. DeLillo’s atomic sentences, bound only covalently to their neighbors, are the stylistic signature of the species of modern attention he records.

This approach works in his novels, Nardini, argues, because there’s a sense that his sentences are serving something all-encompassing, while in his short stories those sentences tend to read as an arid piling-on of gnomic utterances. I haven’t read The Angel Esmerelda, and it’s first DeLillo book I haven’t made time for since Underworld. That’s mainly because, as Nardini rightly points out, DeLillo’s short game isn’t very interesting: “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is a drab set piece about a pair of college students, and “Hammer and Sickle” is a stiff portrait of an inmate imprisoned for Madoffian crimes. Both felt like little more than sketches, overtures to novels that don’t exist, so I haven’t seen the point in investigating further.

Nardini’s piece is worth reading in full, though I think he neglects something in setting up this split between DeLillo’s short stories and his ambitious historical novels like Underworld and Libra: the short novels that have made up the bulk of his post-Underworld work. The Body Artist and Cosmopolis are lesser books, but 2010’s Point Omega was a novel that got to have it both ways: It had a brevity that drew attention to the (as Nardini calls it) Little DeLillo Sentence at its best and enough of a plot to make sure those sentences don’t feel almost comically overburdened with Import.

As I wrote about the novel at the time, the novel pits the big-picture musings of a retired war strategist with the more emotional concerns of the filmmaker who visits him, and neither feel like they’ve gotten short shrift. And the sentences can even be downright pretty, an adjective that rarely gets applied to DeLillo: “I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment.” DeLillo may have abandoned the doorstopper and the short story may not be his former, but his late period may yet be redeemed by the short novel.

2 responses to “Little Sentences and Middle Ground

  1. I think you should make time for The Angel Esmeralda, despite the two stories you mentioned (Actually, I liked both of them a lot, so maybe you shouldn’t listen to my advice). Those are both from the last two or three years–this collection contains stories from the eighties and nineties that I’d argue are much stronger. In particular, two pieces: “Human Moments from World War III,” and “The Ivory Acrobat.”

    • Thanks, Alex. As always, it’s a matter of available time, combined with the amount of enthusiasm I have for starting a particular book in the first place. The enthusiasm for this collection has been pretty muted, and that kind of “eh” reaction does influence my reading decisions a bit.

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