Don DeLillo is one of those big-picture authors who are meant to sum up their whole historical moment. That always seemed strange to me because he just turns everything into more Don DeLillo. He made the novelist character in Mao II claim that novelists are locked in a struggle with terrorists for the right to "alter the inner life of the culture", but the joke there is that terrorists blend into DeLillo's aesthetic world perfectly. They nestle right between the conceptual artists and media panics: if they didn't exist he would have to invent them.
He has, after all, used them again and again, in Mao II and Libra, in White Noise and The Names, and with a sense of exhaustion in Falling Man, in which he attempted to find something interesting to say about 9/11. He averted his gaze from its sequel, however, because he only really writes about Americans and because he only writes about confusion and defeat. The spectacle of the US army Godzillaing its way across Mesopotamia would mess up the mood, and so merits only a handful of pages in his "Iraq" novel, Point Omega.
One nice thing about his new collection of old stories is the way you can see his career repeatedly groping towards the idea of terrorism without quite getting there. We find instead the indiscriminate violence of total war, variations on the random violence of assault, the implied violence of the stalker, unreasoning compulsions, threats lurking behind placid appearances. In the title piece, previously incorporated into Underworld, the image of a murdered homeless girl miraculously appears on a billboard in a Bronx slum. The Baader-Meinhof gang appears as if in quotation marks in the story Baader-Meinhof: they are the subject of an art exhibition at which a female protagonist meets her would-be rapist. In The Ivory Acrobat (from 1988), an American woman living in Greece has her faith in the solidity of things shaken by an earthquake: the story plays almost as a rehearsal for Falling Man, with its sense of a camera roving promiscuously through disaster. Indeed, if all one knew of DeLillo's work was the nine stories of The Angel Esmeralda, one would still expect his 10th story to involve a hijacked plane or a nail bomb.
That's fine, though. Plenty of writers make their obsessions work for them and DeLillo at least manages to find new ways of saying the same thing. Perhaps part of the idea that he is a culture-encompassing prodigy comes from the fact that he keeps finding new material that meets his specifications: the financial crisis has been a gift to him, for instance.
Or perhaps it's just that he writes at a level of perfection that makes a certain kind of reader want him to mean everything. In the present collection, movie trailers are "like forms of laboratory torture, in swift image and high pitch". Returning to the exhibition that captivates her, the heroine of Baader-Meinhof finds that "She saw everything twice now ... Nearly everything in the room had a double effect". DeLillo has a justified reputation for being difficult to get through, but half the time that's because you keep stopping to check what his lines sound like coming from your own mouth.
The stories in The Angel Esmeralda span his career and though they aren't all alike, I couldn't have guessed their correct historical sequence. As it is, they are printed in their order of composition. Both the first and last stories, Creation and The Starveling, consider the inscrutability of human motivation within relationships. In Creation (from 1979), a writer has an affair while stuck in the Caribbean waiting for a connecting flight. The German woman he ends up sleeping with doesn't seem very enthusiastic about the arrangement, but she has almost run out of money and he can get her to the airport the next day. He sent his wife on ahead with the jocular assurance that he would probably "marry a native woman and learn how to paint". Earlier, she accused him of seeking out "boring" situations on purpose, to torment her. These exchanges read as deadpan banter; the affair, however, reveals the currents of coldness behind the comic masks.