The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories

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Overview

Set in Greece, the Caribbean, Manhattan, a white-collar prison and outer space, this “small masterpiece of short fiction” (USA Today) is a mesmerizing introduction to Don DeLillo’s iconic voice. In “Creation,” a couple at the end of a cruise somewhere in the West Indies can’t get off the island—flights canceled, unconfirmed reservations, a dysfunctional economy. In “Human Moments in World War III,” two men orbiting the earth, charged with gathering intelligence and reporting to Colorado Command, hear the voices ...

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The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories

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Overview

Set in Greece, the Caribbean, Manhattan, a white-collar prison and outer space, this “small masterpiece of short fiction” (USA Today) is a mesmerizing introduction to Don DeLillo’s iconic voice. In “Creation,” a couple at the end of a cruise somewhere in the West Indies can’t get off the island—flights canceled, unconfirmed reservations, a dysfunctional economy. In “Human Moments in World War III,” two men orbiting the earth, charged with gathering intelligence and reporting to Colorado Command, hear the voices of American radio, from a half century earlier. In the title story, Sisters Edgar and Grace, nuns working the violent streets of the South Bronx, confirm the neighborhood’s miracle, the apparition of a dead child, Esmeralda.

Nuns, astronauts, athletes, terrorists and travelers, the characters in The Angel Esmeralda propel themselves into the world and define it. These nine stories describe an extraordinary journey of one great writer whose prescience about world events and ear for American language changed the literary landscape.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A beautiful book for all time”—San Francisco Chronicle

“A vital addition to DeLillo’s corpus…expertly realized…The gods have equipped DeLillo with the antennae of a visionary. There is right field, and there is left field. He comes from third field—aslant, athwart. And I love The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories.”—Martin Amis, The New Yorker

“A terrific overview of [DeLillo’s] many strengths, from pitch-perfect character descriptions to surprising humor to soaring lyricism...The literary fireworks of the title piece alone are a stunning example of how the ordinary can become extraordinary in a gifted artist’s hands…Behold and be dazzled.”—Josh Emmons, People

“Many of [DeLillo’s] deceptively simple sentences will leave you awestruck…This slim volume is a marvel—a masterpiece of short fiction.”—Carmela Ciuraru, USA Today

“I was dazzled…Reading this collection confirms DeLillo as one of our very best short story writers…The richness of his work, the pleasures on offer—intellectual, visceral, poetic, comic—are unrivalled.”—Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask

“Magnificent.”—Richard Eder, The Boston Globe

“[DeLillo’s] prose is masterly and austere…Even the most fragmentary of [the stories] provides the pleasure of reading the inimitably elegant sentences that DeLillo has been fashioning for four decades.”—Troy Jollimore, The Washington Post

“The typical DeLillo tale reads like a diagnosis of a zeitgeist malady we never knew we had, and in these stories the malady is one of spellbound fixation. DeLillo has achieved a very particular kind of greatness…and his gifts…are, for a contemporary American writer, unsurpassed.”—Charles Baxter, The New York Review of Books

Michiko Kakutani
…offer[s] telling insights into Mr. DeLillo's themes and preoccupations as a writer…The stories in this volume should be read by anyone who misses the early DeLillo…
—The New York Times
Martin Amis
As a package, the book feels both pointed and secretive, both airy and airtight. The arrangement holds the promise of a kind of unity, or a kind of cumulative artistic force; and the promise is honored. These nine pieces add up to something considerable, and form a vital addition to the corpus…There is right field, and there is left field. [DeLillo] comes from third field—aslant, athwart…I love The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories.
—The New Yorker
Liesl Schillinger
Each of the stories collected in The Angel Esmeralda addresses a different kind of unease. It's almost a pity that the reader knows from the start that they were written over five decades—because each one feels like a coded contemporary allegory. DeLillo's doomy brainteasing reveals the enduring adaptability of human insecurities…DeLillo packs fertile ruminations and potent consolation into each of these rich, dense, concentrated stories.
—The New York Times Book Review
Troy Jollimore
Nothing I can say about DeLillo on the basis of The Angel Esmeralda will come as news to anyone familiar with his novels: His prose is masterly and austere, he has a deconstructionist's obsession with the arbitrariness of language, and his interest in human beings often seems less a matter of passionate engagement than of clinical detachment…while The Angel Esmeralda is probably not the ideal place for a neophyte to start…this collection nonetheless offers some real pleasures…and even the most fragmentary [story] provides the pleasure of reading the inimitably elegant sentences that DeLillo has been fashioning for four decades.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The nine short stories of DeLillo’s first-ever collection span 30 years. Grouped around three historical moments and ranging in subject and setting from an earthquake in Athens to a snowbound college town, they offer both a compact way to observe the evolution of DeLillo’s writing and a highly palatable entrée into the work of the National Book Award winner (for White Noise) for the uninitiated. “Human Moments in World War III” features two Americans manning an orbital intelligence-gathering craft who begin receiving old-time radio signals while considering humanity at war; “war, among other things, is a form of longing.” In the title story, two nuns in the South Bronx encounter the near-feral Esmeralda Lopez, who, for a brief time, is transfigured into a rallying symbol for the impoverished community. And in “Hammer and Sickle,” a white-collar criminal in a minimum-security facility watches his two young daughters deliver financial news on a children’s program. DeLillo’s keen interest in the human experience of American historical and cultural moments is on clear display, and his full expressive range—from steady spareness (sometimes verging on disorienting frigidity) to roguish attitude and tender intimacy—is showcased well. While there aren’t any surprises, this is a welcome addition to DeLillo’s oeuvre for fans and newcomers alike. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
The renowned author's first story collection presents a chronological progression of nine narratives, organized into three parts, challenging readers to make connections. Though DeLillo's legacy rests with his longer work, building to the epic scope and scale of Underworld (1997), this collection feels more like his more recent novels--short, elliptical, suggestive, provocative. He originally published the opening story, "Creation," in 1979, but hasn't published a whole lot of stories since. Some of what were originally published as stories, such as the one that gives this volume its title, have subsequently been reworked into novels (as "Angel" was into Underworld), while other published stories have not been selected for inclusion here. So the reader starts with questions, as always with DeLillo. Why these stories, grouped into these three parts? Is the organizing principle thematic, or stylistic, or is it possible to separate the two within the writing of America's premier post-modernist? Often the characters are unnamed, as in "Baader-Meinhof" (2002), in which a chance encounter between two unemployed people at an art exhibition--with politically charged images of imprisonment, torture, corpses--leads to an unusual connection that one of them finds disturbing. Somewhat similarly, though this time the protagonist has a name, "The Starveling" (2011) finds two people making an unlikely, tenuous connection through their obsessive routines of seeing a series of movies at multiple theaters daily, though the relationship between the two only seems to exist in the mind of one of them. The title story (1994) provides the book's centerpiece, with its glimpses of the holy amid the ubiquity of the profane, within a ravaged Bronx detailed in prose of terrible beauty. In "The Runner" (1988), the unnamed protagonist muses, after witnessing an accident, "The car, the man, the mother, the child. Those are the parts. But how do the parts fit together?" Readers often might find themselves wondering the same, but part of what distinguishes DeLillo's work is the way in which he engages the world rather than settling for the literary parlor tricks of some virtuoso experimentalists. Completists will search for clues in this slight but rich volume to the maturation of DeLillo's artistry.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Don DeLillo's electric Underworld, published in 1997, was always going to be a tough act to follow, given that its 800-plus pages surveyed an entire half century of life in America, from the 1951 baseball playoffs to the Internet age. But since it arrived, DeLillo has, perhaps wisely, not really tried to match it. He has produced mostly short books, two of them barely novella length, and even Falling Man, his contribution to the shelf of post- 9/11 fiction, was relatively brief and written in muted tones. A writer who built his reputation on swinging for the fences, DeLillo is firmly entrenched in a phase of modest gestures; and now comes The Angel Esmeralda, a collection of nine previously published short stories that originally appeared as far back as 1979.

The necessities of the story form — compression of character and incident — are often at odds with the strengths and even the interests of DeLillo, whose great preoccupation is an expansive sense of dread. His novels rise or fall on the execution of his tone, which can sometimes devolve into what B. R. Myers, in an infamous essay condemning contemporary fiction, referred to as "the safe, catchall vagueness of astrologists and palm readers." DeLillo's fiction has often been hailed as prescient, but it's fair to ask whether his "catchall" approach simply makes it easy to retrofit his vision to whatever grand tragedy or moment of social dysfunction comes along.

There are hazy notions of foreboding and emptiness in several of these stories, one character sensing "the thundering approach of something unimaginable," another "searching for something he could not identify." A few of the stories — including "Baader- Meinhof," about strangers who meet at an art gallery, and "The Runner," in which two strangers share conjecture about a brazen crime they witness — come off as sketches of thought experiments rather than full-bodied, complete products. After the book is finished, its people are less memorable than what they fear: earthquakes, germs, random violence, lack of other intelligent life in the universe. Characters aren't everything, but DeLillo's frequently feel like reductive conduits for his morbid and paranoid worldview.

When he pays just enough attention to people, his larger concerns benefit. In "Human Moments in World War III," first published in 1983, the narrator-astronaut and his colleague Vollmer monitor the titular conflict from space:

It is not too early in the war to discern nostalgic references to earlier wars. All wars refer back. Ships, planes, entire operations are named after ancient battles, simpler weapons, what we perceive as conflicts of nobler intent. This recon-interceptor is called Tomahawk II. When I sit at the firing panel I look at a photograph of Vollmer's granddad when he was a young man in sagging khakis and a shallow helmet, standing in a bare field, a rifle strapped to his shoulder. This is a human moment, and it reminds me that war, among other things, is a form of longing.
"The Angel Esmeralda" appeared in Esquire in 1994 and was expanded to become two memorable sections of Underworld, one of them appearing very near the end of the novel. It follows two nuns, one old and one young, who help the needy in the South Bronx and become particularly concerned about an elusive girl who appears untethered to family of any sort. It bustles with life more than any other story here, but given that DeLillo fans have likely already read Underworld, republication of this original iteration is not much of an event. And revisiting it in the novel after reading it here, one finds out how it was improved before being sewn into the larger work, with one key character developed and several sentences sharpened.

One of the best stories here is "Midnight in Dostoevsky," in which two student friends try to agree on the details they imagine about the life of an old man in their college town: "Does he have to be Russian to read Dostoevsky?" one asks, and the other responds, "That's not the point. The point is that it all fits together. It's a formulation, it's artful, it's structured." They end up falling out over whether actually talking to the man would be worthwhile.

In so overtly expressing his interest in the stories people invent for themselves and others, DeLillo allows for a subtle sense of play that's missing elsewhere — like in "Hammer and Sickle," the worst story in this book by a good stretch. Originally published in Harper's in late 2010, it's set in a minimum-security prison for white-collar criminals, and its timely themes are overwhelmed by a ridiculous conceit earnestly presented: the two young daughters of one of the prisoners broadcast a financial markets report that the incarcerated watch on TV. The girls, evidently provided a script by their mother, rattle off reams of quintessentially wooly DeLillo utterances:
The word is Dubai.

This is the word crossing continents and oceans at the shocking speed of light.

Markets are sinking quickly.

Paris, Frankfurt, London.
The children's show is a premise beyond saving, but the other stories are sufficiently representative of DeLillo's usual themes and strategies that his fiercely devoted fans will welcome the opportunity to have this scattered work in one place. The less devoted will be reminded that DeLillo's incantatory style works best when it has ample room to gather heft, and when his worry has a specific object — the JFK assassination in Libra, the specter of nuclear war in Underworld — and they will wait for his next substantial obsession.

John Williams is the founder and editor of the literary website The Second Pass (www.thesecondPass.com). His work as a freelance writer has appeared in Slate, McSweeney?s, Stop Smiling, The Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Sun, and other publications.

Reviewer: John Williams

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451659092
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 10/2/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 406,440
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.48 (d)

Meet the Author

Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is the author of fifteen novels and winner of the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize for his complete body of work, and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2010, he was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Prize. In October 2012, DeLillo receives the Carl Sandburg Literary Award for his body of work.

Biography

Growing up in his working class Bronx neighborhood in the 1940s and '50s, Don De Lillo was far more interested in sports than in books. A listless student, he did not develop an interest in reading until he was 18 and working a summer job as a parking attendant. Desperate to fill in the long, boring hours of downtime, he discovered the literature of Faulkner, Joyce, and Hemingway. He attended Fordham University and worked in advertising for several years before seriously pursuing a writing career.

When De Lillo's first novel, Americana, was published in 1971, it received modest reviews. Seven books followed over the next 14 years, steadily generating more critical praise but few sales. Then, in 1985, he hit pay dirt with White Noise, a brooding postmodern masterpiece about a Midwestern college professor and his family in the aftermath of an airborne toxic accident. It proved to be De Lillo's breakthrough, earning him both a National Book Award and an avid cult following.

Since then, De Lillo has gone on to produce a string of superb "literary" novels that fairly brim with big ideas yet also capture the essence of contemporary culture in all its infuriating banality. Cited by younger writers like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace as a major influence, De Lillo remains a reserved and private, albeit gracious and genteel man who seems a bit uncomfortable with fame.

Among the many honors De Lillo has received are the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize for Libra (1989); the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Mao II (1991); and the Jerusalem Prize, William Dean Howells Medal, and the Riccardo Bacchelli International Award for his magnum opus Underworld (1997). In addition, three of his novels received high marks on a 2006 survey sponsored by The New York Times to name the single best work of American fiction of the last 25 years.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Cleo Birdwell
    2. Hometown:
      Westchester County, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 20, 1936
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York City
    1. Education:
      Fordham University, 1958

Read an Excerpt

The Angel Esmeralda


  • HUMAN MOMENTS IN WORLD WAR III

A note about Vollmer. He no longer describes the earth as a library globe or a map that has come alive, as a cosmic eye staring into deep space. This last was his most ambitious fling at imagery. The war has changed the way he sees the earth. The earth is land and water, the dwelling place of mortal men, in elevated dictionary terms. He doesn’t see it anymore (storm-spiraled, sea-bright, breathing heat and haze and color) as an occasion for picturesque language, for easeful play or speculation.

At two hundred and twenty kilometers we see ship wakes and the larger airports. Icebergs, lightning bolts, sand dunes. I point out lava flows and cold-core eddies. That silver ribbon off the Irish coast, I tell him, is an oil slick.

This is my third orbital mission, Vollmer’s first. He is an engineering genius, a communications and weapons genius, and maybe other kinds of genius as well. As mission specialist I’m content to be in charge. (The word specialist, in the standard usage of Colorado Command, refers here to someone who does not specialize.) Our spacecraft is designed primarily to gather intelligence. The refinement of the quantum-burn technique enables us to make frequent adjustments of orbit without firing rockets every time. We swing out into high wide trajectories, the whole earth as our psychic light, to inspect unmanned and possibly hostile satellites. We orbit tightly, snugly, take intimate looks at surface activities in untraveled places.

The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.

I try not to think big thoughts or submit to rambling abstractions. But the urge sometimes comes over me. Earth orbit puts men into philosophical temper. How can we help it? We see the planet complete, we have a privileged vista. In our attempts to be equal to the experience, we tend to meditate importantly on subjects like the human condition. It makes a man feel universal, floating over the continents, seeing the rim of the world, a line as clear as a compass arc, knowing it is just a turning of the bend to Atlantic twilight, to sediment plumes and kelp beds, an island chain glowing in the dusky sea.

I tell myself it is only scenery. I want to think of our life here as ordinary, as a housekeeping arrangement, an unlikely but workable setup caused by a housing shortage or spring floods in the valley.

 • • • 

Vollmer does the systems checklist and goes to his hammock to rest. He is twenty-three years old, a boy with a longish head and close-cropped hair. He talks about northern Minnesota as he removes the objects in his personal-preference kit, placing them on an adjacent Velcro surface for tender inspection. I have a 1901 silver dollar in my personal-preference kit. Little else of note. Vollmer has graduation pictures, bottle caps, small stones from his backyard. I don’t know whether he chose these items himself or whether they were pressed on him by parents who feared that his life in space would be lacking in human moments.

Our hammocks are human moments, I suppose, although I don’t know whether Colorado Command planned it that way. We eat hot dogs and almond crunch bars and apply lip balm as part of the presleep checklist. We wear slippers at the firing panel. Vollmer’s football jersey is a human moment. Outsize, purple and white, of polyester mesh, bearing the number 79, a big man’s number, a prime of no particular distinction, it makes him look stoop-shouldered, abnormally long-framed.

“I still get depressed on Sundays,” he says.

“Do we have Sundays here?”

“No, but they have them there and I still feel them. I always know when it’s Sunday.”

“Why do you get depressed?”

“The slowness of Sundays. Something about the glare, the smell of warm grass, the church service, the relatives visiting in nice clothes. The whole day kind of lasts forever.”

“I didn’t like Sundays either.”

“They were slow but not lazy-slow. They were long and hot, or long and cold. In summer my grandmother made lemonade. There was a routine. The whole day was kind of set up beforehand and the routine almost never changed. Orbital routine is different. It’s satisfying. It gives our time a shape and substance. Those Sundays were shapeless despite the fact you knew what was coming, who was coming, what we’d all say. You knew the first words out of the mouth of each person before anyone spoke. I was the only kid in the group. People were happy to see me. I used to want to hide.”

“What’s wrong with lemonade?” I ask.

A battle-management satellite, unmanned, reports high-energy laser activity in orbital sector Dolores. We take out our laser kits and study them for half an hour. The beaming procedure is complex, and because the panel operates on joint control only, we must rehearse the sets of established measures with the utmost care.

 • • • 

A note about the earth. The earth is the preserve of day and night. It contains a sane and balanced variation, a natural waking and sleeping, or so it seems to someone deprived of this tidal effect.

This is why Vollmer’s remark about Sundays in Minnesota struck me as interesting. He still feels, or claims he feels, or thinks he feels, that inherently earthbound rhythm.

To men at this remove, it is as though things exist in their particular physical form in order to reveal the hidden simplicity of some powerful mathematical truth. The earth reveals to us the simple awesome beauty of day and night. It is there to contain and incorporate these conceptual events.

 • • • 

Vollmer in his shorts and suction clogs resembles a high school swimmer, all but hairless, an unfinished man not aware he is open to cruel scrutiny, not aware he is without devices, standing with arms folded in a place of echoing voices and chlorine fumes. There is something stupid in the sound of his voice. It is too direct, a deep voice from high in the mouth, slightly insistent, a little loud. Vollmer has never said a stupid thing in my presence. It is just his voice that is stupid, a grave and naked bass, a voice without inflection or breath.

We are not cramped here. The flight deck and crew quarters are thoughtfully designed. Food is fair to good. There are books, videocassettes, news and music. We do the manual checklists, the oral checklists, the simulated firings with no sign of boredom or carelessness. If anything, we are getting better at our tasks all the time. The only danger is conversation.

I try to keep our conversations on an everyday plane. I make it a point to talk about small things, routine things. This makes sense to me. It seems a sound tactic, under the circumstances, to restrict our talk to familiar topics, minor matters. I want to build a structure of the commonplace. But Vollmer has a tendency to bring up enormous subjects. He wants to talk about war and the weapons of war. He wants to discuss global strategies, global aggressions. I tell him now that he has stopped describing the earth as a cosmic eye he wants to see it as a game board or computer model. He looks at me plain-faced and tries to get me into a theoretical argument: selective space-based attacks versus long, drawn-out, well-modulated land-sea-air engagements. He quotes experts, mentions sources. What am I supposed to say? He will suggest that people are disappointed in the war. The war is dragging into its third week. There is a sense in which it is worn out, played out. He gathers this from the news broadcasts we periodically receive. Something in the announcer’s voice hints at a letdown, a fatigue, a faint bitterness about—something. Vollmer is probably right about this. I’ve heard it myself in the tone of the broadcaster’s voice, in the voice of Colorado Command, despite the fact that our news is censored, that they are not telling us things they feel we shouldn’t know, in our special situation, our exposed and sensitive position. In his direct and stupid-sounding and uncannily perceptive way, young Vollmer says that people are not enjoying this war to the same extent that people have always enjoyed and nourished themselves on war, as a heightening, a periodic intensity. What I object to in Vollmer is that he often shares my deep-reaching and most reluctantly held convictions. Coming from that mild face, in that earnest resonant run-on voice, these ideas unnerve and worry me as they never do when they remain unspoken. I want words to be secretive, to cling to a darkness in the deepest interior. Vollmer’s candor exposes something painful.

 • • • 

It is not too early in the war to discern nostalgic references to earlier wars. All wars refer back. Ships, planes, entire operations are named after ancient battles, simpler weapons, what we perceive as conflicts of nobler intent. This recon-interceptor is called Tomahawk II. When I sit at the firing panel I look at a photograph of Vollmer’s granddad when he was a young man in sagging khakis and a shallow helmet, standing in a bare field, a rifle strapped to his shoulder. This is a human moment, and it reminds me that war, among other things, is a form of longing.

 • • • 

We dock with the command station, take on food, exchange cassettes. The war is going well, they tell us, although it isn’t likely they know much more than we do.

Then we separate.

The maneuver is flawless and I am feeling happy and satisfied, having resumed human contact with the nearest form of the outside world, having traded quips and manly insults, traded voices, traded news and rumors—buzzes, rumbles, scuttlebutt. We stow our supplies of broccoli and apple cider and fruit cocktail and butterscotch pudding. I feel a homey emotion, putting away the colorfully packaged goods, a sensation of prosperous well-being, the consumer’s solid comfort.

 • • • 

Vollmer’s T-shirt bears the word inscription.

“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves,” he says. “They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city—but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellow feeling where there was only suspicion and fear. Strangers talking to each other, meals by candlelight when the power fails. The war would ennoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared. But what happens when the sense of shared crisis begins to dwindle much sooner than anyone expected? We begin to think the feeling lasts longer in snowstorms.”

 • • • 

A note about selective noise. Forty-eight hours ago I was monitoring data on the mission console when a voice broke in on my report to Colorado Command. The voice was unenhanced, heavy with static. I checked my headset, checked the switches and lights. Seconds later the command signal resumed and I heard our flight-dynamics officer ask me to switch to the redundant sense frequencer. I did this but it only caused the weak voice to return, a voice that carried with it a strange and unspecifiable poignancy. I seemed somehow to recognize it. I don’t mean I knew who was speaking. It was the tone I recognized, the touching quality of some half-remembered and tender event, even through the static, the sonic mist.

In any case, Colorado Command resumed transmission in a matter of seconds.

“We have a deviate, Tomahawk.”

“We copy. There’s a voice.”

“We have gross oscillation here.”

“There’s some interference. I have gone redundant but I’m not sure it’s helping.”

“We are clearing an outframe to locate source.”

“Thank you, Colorado.”

“It is probably just selective noise. You are negative red on the step-function quad.”

“It was a voice,” I told them.

“We have just received an affirm on selective noise.”

“I could hear words, in English.”

“We copy selective noise.”

“Someone was talking, Colorado.”

“What do you think selective noise is?”

“I don’t know what it is.”

“You are getting a spill from one of the unmanneds.”

“If it’s an unmanned, how could it be sending a voice?”

“It is not a voice as such, Tomahawk. It is selective noise. We have some real firm telemetry on that.”

“It sounded like a voice.”

“It is supposed to sound like a voice. But it is not a voice as such. It is enhanced.”

“It sounded unenhanced. It sounded human in all sorts of ways.”

“It is signals and they are spilling from geosynchronous orbit. This is your deviate. You are getting voice codes from twenty-two thousand miles. It is basically a weather report. We will correct, Tomahawk. In the meantime, advise you stay redundant.”

About ten hours later Vollmer heard the voice. Then he heard two or three other voices. They were people speaking, people in conversation. He gestured to me as he listened, pointed to the headset, then raised his shoulders, held his hands apart to indicate surprise and bafflement. In the swarming noise (as he said later) it wasn’t easy to get the drift of what people were saying. The static was frequent, the references were somewhat elusive, but Vollmer mentioned how intensely affecting these voices were, even when the signals were at their weakest. One thing he did know: it wasn’t selective noise. A quality of purest, sweetest sadness issued from remote space. He wasn’t sure, but he thought there was also a background noise integral to the conversation. Laughter. The sound of people laughing.

In other transmissions we’ve been able to recognize theme music, an announcer’s introduction, wisecracks and bursts of applause, commercials for products whose long-lost brand names evoke the golden antiquity of great cities buried in sand and river silt.

Somehow we are picking up signals from radio programs of forty, fifty, sixty years ago.

 • • • 

Our current task is to collect imagery data on troop deployment. Vollmer surrounds his Hasselblad, engrossed in some microadjustment. There is a seaward bulge of stratocumulus. Sun glint and littoral drift. I see blooms of plankton in a blue of such Persian richness it seems an animal rapture, a color change to express some form of intuitive delight. As the surface features unfurl I list them aloud by name. It is the only game I play in space, reciting the earth names, the nomenclature of contour and structure. Glacial scour, moraine debris. Shatter-coning at the edge of a multi-ring impact site. A resurgent caldera, a mass of castellated rimrock. Over the sand seas now. Parabolic dunes, star dunes, straight dunes with radial crests. The emptier the land, the more luminous and precise the names for its features. Vollmer says the thing science does best is name the features of the world.

He has degrees in science and technology. He was a scholarship winner, an honors student, a research assistant. He ran science projects, read technical papers in the deeppitched earnest voice that rolls off the roof of his mouth. As mission specialist (generalist), I sometimes resent his nonscientific perceptions, the glimmerings of maturity and balanced judgment. I am beginning to feel slightly preempted. I want him to stick to systems, onboard guidance, data parameters. His human insights make me nervous.

“I’m happy,” he says.

These words are delivered with matter-of-fact finality, and the simple statement affects me powerfully. It frightens me, in fact. What does he mean he’s happy? Isn’t happiness totally outside our frame of reference? How can he think it is possible to be happy here? I want to say to him, “This is just a housekeeping arrangement, a series of more or less routine tasks. Attend to your tasks, do your testing, run through your checklists.” I want to say, “Forget the measure of our vision, the sweep of things, the war itself, the terrible death. Forget the overarching night, the stars as static points, as mathematical fields. Forget the cosmic solitude, the upwelling awe and dread.”

I want to say, “Happiness is not a fact of this experience, at least not to the extent that one is bold enough to speak of it.”

 • • • 

Laser technology contains a core of foreboding and myth. It is a clean sort of lethal package we are dealing with, a well-behaved beam of photons, an engineered coherence, but we approach the weapon with our minds full of ancient warnings and fears. (There ought to be a term for this ironic condition: primitive fear of the weapons we are advanced enough to design and produce.) Maybe this is why the project managers were ordered to work out a firing procedure that depends on the coordinated actions of two men—two temperaments, two souls—operating the controls together. Fear of the power of light, the pure stuff of the universe.

A single dark mind in a moment of inspiration might think it liberating to fling a concentrated beam at some lumbering humpbacked Boeing making its commercial rounds at thirty thousand feet.

Vollmer and I approach the firing panel. The panel is designed in such a way that the joint operators must sit back to back. The reason for this, although Colorado Command never specifically said so, is to keep us from seeing each other’s face. Colorado wants to be sure that weapons personnel in particular are not influenced by each other’s tics and perturbations. We are back to back, therefore, harnessed in our seats, ready to begin, Vollmer in his purple-and-white jersey, his fleeced pad-abouts.

This is only a test.

I start the playback. At the sound of a prerecorded voice command, we each insert a modal key in its proper slot. Together we count down from five and then turn the keys one-quarter left. This puts the system in what is called an open-minded mode. We count down from three. The enhanced voice says, You are open-minded now.

Vollmer speaks into his voiceprint analyzer.

“This is code B for bluegrass. Request voice-identity clearance.”

We count down from five and then speak into our voiceprint analyzers. We say whatever comes into our heads. The point is simply to produce a voiceprint that matches the print in the memory bank. This ensures that the men at the panel are the same men authorized to be there when the system is in an open-minded mode.

This is what comes into my head: “I am standing at the corner of Fourth and Main, where thousands are dead of unknown causes, their scorched bodies piled in the street.”

We count down from three. The enhanced voice says, You are cleared to proceed to lock-in position.

We turn our modal keys half right. I activate the logic chip and study the numbers on my screen. Vollmer disengages voiceprint and puts us in voice circuit rapport with the onboard computer’s sensing mesh. We count down from five. The enhanced voice says, You are locked in now.

As we move from one step to the next a growing satisfaction passes through me—the pleasure of elite and secret skills, a life in which every breath is governed by specific rules, by patterns, codes, controls. I try to keep the results of the operation out of my mind, the whole point of it, the outcome of these sequences of precise and esoteric steps. But often I fail. I let the image in, I think the thought, I even say the word at times. This is confusing, of course. I feel tricked. My pleasure feels betrayed, as if it had a life of its own, a childlike or intelligent-animal existence independent of the man at the firing panel.

We count down from five. Vollmer releases the lever that unwinds the systems-purging disk. My pulse marker shows green at three-second intervals. We count down from three. We turn the modal keys three-quarters right. I activate the beam sequencer. We turn the keys one-quarter right. We count down from three. Bluegrass music plays over the squawk box. The enhanced voice says, You are moded to fire now.

 • • • 

We study our world-map kits.

“Don’t you sometimes feel a power in you?” Vollmer says. “An extreme state of good health, sort of. An arrogant healthiness. That’s it. You are feeling so good you begin thinking you’re a little superior to other people. A kind of life-strength. An optimism about yourself that you generate almost at the expense of others. Don’t you sometimes feel this?”

(Yes, as a matter of fact.)

“There’s probably a German word for it. But the point I want to make is that this powerful feeling is so—I don’t know—delicate. That’s it. One day you feel it, the next day you are suddenly puny and doomed. A single little thing goes wrong, you feel doomed, you feel utterly weak and defeated and unable to act powerfully or even sensibly. Everyone else is lucky, you are unlucky, hapless, sad, ineffectual and doomed.”

(Yes, yes.)

By chance, we are over the Missouri River now, looking toward the Red Lakes of Minnesota. I watch Vollmer go through his map kit, trying to match the two worlds. This is a deep and mysterious happiness, to confirm the accuracy of a map. He seems immensely satisfied. He keeps saying, “That’s it, that’s it.”

Vollmer talks about childhood. In orbit he has begun to think about his early years for the first time. He is surprised at the power of these memories. As he speaks he keeps his head turned to the window. Minnesota is a human moment. Upper Red Lake, Lower Red Lake. He clearly feels he can see himself there.

“Kids don’t take walks,” he says. “They don’t sunbathe or sit on the porch.”

He seems to be saying that children’s lives are too well supplied to accommodate the spells of reinforced being that the rest of us depend on. A deft enough thought but not to be pursued. It is time to prepare for a quantum burn.

 • • • 

We listen to the old radio shows. Light flares and spreads across the blue-banded edge, sunrise, sunset, the urban grids in shadow. A man and a woman trade well-timed remarks, light, pointed, bantering. There is a sweetness in the tenor voice of the young man singing, a simple vigor that time and distance and random noise have enveloped in eloquence and yearning. Every sound, every lilt of strings has this veneer of age. Vollmer says he remembers these programs, although of course he has never heard them before. What odd happenstance, what flourish or grace of the laws of physics enables us to pick up these signals? Traveled voices, chambered and dense. At times they have the detached and surreal quality of aural hallucination, voices in attic rooms, the complaints of dead relatives. But the sound effects are full of urgency and verve. Cars turn dangerous corners, crisp gunfire fills the night. It was, it is, wartime. Wartime for Duz and Grape-Nuts Flakes. Comedians make fun of the way the enemy talks. We hear hysterical mock German, moonshine Japanese. The cities are in light, the listening millions, fed, met comfortably in drowsy rooms, at war, as the night comes softly down. Vollmer says he recalls specific moments, the comic inflections, the announcer’s fat-man laughter. He recalls individual voices rising from the laughter of the studio audience, the cackle of a St. Louis businessman, the brassy wail of a high-shouldered blonde just arrived in California, where women wear their hair this year in aromatic bales.

 • • • 

Vollmer drifts across the wardroom upside down, eating an almond crunch.

He sometimes floats free of his hammock, sleeping in a fetal crouch, bumping into walls, adhering to a corner of the ceiling grid.

“Give me a minute to think of the name,” he says in his sleep.

He says he dreams of vertical spaces from which he looks, as a boy, at—something. My dreams are the heavy kind, the kind that are hard to wake from, to rise out of. They are strong enough to pull me back down, dense enough to leave me with a heavy head, a drugged and bloated feeling. There are episodes of faceless gratification, vaguely disturbing.

 • • • 

“It’s almost unbelievable when you think of it, how they live there in all that ice and sand and mountainous wilderness. Look at it,” he says. “Huge barren deserts, huge oceans. How do they endure all those terrible things? The floods alone. The earthquakes alone make it crazy to live there. Look at those fault systems. They’re so big, there’s so many of them. The volcanic eruptions alone. What could be more frightening than a volcanic eruption? How do they endure avalanches, year after year, with numbing regularity? It’s hard to believe people live there. The floods alone. You can see whole huge discolored areas, all flooded out, washed out. How do they survive, where do they go? Look at the cloud buildups. Look at that swirling storm center. What about the people who live in the path of a storm like that? It must be packing incredible winds. The lightning alone. People exposed on beaches, near trees and telephone poles. Look at the cities with their spangled lights spreading in all directions. Try to imagine the crime and violence. Look at the smoke pall hanging low. What does that mean in terms of respiratory disorders? It’s crazy. Who would live there? The deserts, how they encroach. Every year they claim more and more arable land. How enormous those snowfields are. Look at the massive storm fronts over the ocean. There are ships down there, small craft, some of them. Try to imagine the waves, the rocking. The hurricanes alone. The tidal waves. Look at those coastal communities exposed to tidal waves. What could be more frightening than a tidal wave? But they live there, they stay there. Where could they go?”

 • • • 

I want to talk to him about calorie intake, the effectiveness of the earplugs and nasal decongestants. The earplugs are human moments. The apple cider and the broccoli are human moments. Vollmer himself is a human moment, never more so than when he forgets there is a war.

The close-cropped hair and longish head. The mild blue eyes that bulge slightly. The protuberant eyes of long-bodied people with stooped shoulders. The long hands and wrists. The mild face. The easy face of a handyman in a panel truck that has an extension ladder fixed to the roof and a scuffed license plate, green and white, with the state motto beneath the digits. That kind of face.

He offers to give me a haircut. What an interesting thing a haircut is, when you think of it. Before the war there were time slots reserved for such activities. Houston not only had everything scheduled well in advance but constantly monitored us for whatever meager feedback might result. We were wired, taped, scanned, diagnosed and metered. We were men in space, objects worthy of the most scrupulous care, the deepest sentiments and anxieties.

Now there is a war. Nobody cares about my hair, what I eat, how I feel about the spacecraft’s decor, and it is not Houston but Colorado we are in touch with. We are no longer delicate biological specimens adrift in an alien environment. The enemy can kill us with its photons, its mesons, its charged particles faster than any calcium deficiency or trouble of the inner ear, faster than any dusting of micrometeoroids. The emotions have changed. We’ve stopped being candidates for an embarrassing demise, the kind of mistake or unforeseen event that tends to make a nation grope for the appropriate response. As men in war, we can be certain, dying, that we will arouse uncomplicated sorrows, the open and dependable feelings that grateful nations count on to embellish the simplest ceremony.

 • • • 

A note about the universe. Vollmer is on the verge of deciding that our planet is alone in harboring intelligent life. We are an accident and we happened only once. (What a remark to make, in egg-shaped orbit, to someone who doesn’t want to discuss the larger questions.) He feels this way because of the war.

The war, he says, will bring about an end to the idea that the universe swarms, as they say, with life. Other astronauts have looked past the star points and imagined infinite possibility, grape-clustered worlds teeming with higher forms. But this was before the war. Our view is changing even now, his and mine, he says, as we drift across the firmament.

Is Vollmer saying that cosmic optimism is a luxury reserved for periods between world wars? Do we project our current failure and despair out toward the star clouds, the endless night? After all, he says, where are they? If they exist, why has there been no sign, not one, not any, not a single indication that serious people might cling to, not a whisper, a radio pulse, a shadow? The war tells us it is foolish to believe.

 • • • 

Our dialogues with Colorado Command are beginning to sound like computer-generated teatime chat. Vollmer tolerates Colorado’s jargon only to a point. He is critical of their more debased locutions and doesn’t mind letting them know. Why, then, if I agree with his views on this matter, am I becoming irritated by his complaints? Is he too young to champion the language? Does he have the experience, the professional standing to scold our flight-dynamics officer, our conceptual-paradigm officer, our status consultants on waste-management systems and evasion-related zonal options? Or is it something else completely, something unrelated to Colorado Command and our communications with them? Is it the sound of his voice? Is it just his voice that is driving me crazy?

 • • • 

Vollmer has entered a strange phase. He spends all his time at the window now, looking down at the earth. He says little or nothing. He simply wants to look, do nothing but look. The oceans, the continents, the archipelagoes. We are configured in what is called a cross-orbit series and there is no repetition from one swing around the earth to the next. He sits there looking. He takes meals at the window, does checklists at the window, barely glancing at the instruction sheets as we pass over tropical storms, over grass fires and major ranges. I keep waiting for him to return to his prewar habit of using quaint phrases to describe the earth: it’s a beach ball, a sun-ripened fruit. But he simply looks out the window, eating almond crunches, the wrappers floating away. The view clearly fills his consciousness. It is powerful enough to silence him, to still the voice that rolls off the roof of his mouth, to leave him turned in the seat, twisted uncomfortably for hours at a time.

The view is endlessly fulfilling. It is like the answer to a lifetime of questions and vague cravings. It satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars, whatever obsessions eat at the night side of his mind, whatever sweet and dreamy yearning he has ever felt for nameless places faraway, whatever earth sense he possesses, the neural pulse of some wilder awareness, a sympathy for beasts, whatever belief in an immanent vital force, the Lord of Creation, whatever secret harboring of the idea of human oneness, whatever wishfulness and simplehearted hope, whatever of too much and not enough, all at once and little by little, whatever burning urge to escape responsibility and routine, escape his own overspecialization, the circumscribed and inward-spiraling self, whatever remnants of his boyish longing to fly, his dreams of strange spaces and eerie heights, his fantasies of happy death, whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings—lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space—all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.

“It is just so interesting,” he says at last. “The colors and all.”

The colors and all.

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  • Posted October 12, 2011

    Need to Read It First

    The Book has not yet been published as far as I know. The ship date is 11/15. Can only anticipate it will be vintage Delillo

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