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The Angel Esmeralda
DON DELILLO in conversation with JONATHAN FRANZEN
October 24, 2012
LIVE from the New York Public Library
Celeste Bartos Forum
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Good evening. I hope you enjoyed this short with Zadie Smith. It seemed right for tonight where elective affinities and matters of taste may come into play. My name is Paul Holdengräber, and I’m the Director of LIVE from the New York Public Library. As many of you have heard me say before, my goal at the Library is simply to make the lions roar, to make a heavy institution dance, and, when successful, to make it levitate.
Among the upcoming events, on November 2nd you might want to join us when Joe Klein will be in conversation with Salman Kahn and Carlos Slim on education. On November 7th, Henry Rollins will be in conversation with Damian Echols of the West Memphis Three. And on November 12th, I will be speaking with Andrew Solomon, author of the forthcoming book Far From the Tree, one of the most extraordinary works I have read in recent and not-so-recent memory. We end the season with Chris Ware in conversation with Zadie Smith.
It is my great pleasure and honor to welcome two of the greatest living writers in conversation with each other. I know little of what will happen tonight. I know that Don DeLillo will read for twelve and a half minutes and Jonathan Franzen will join him afterwards for a conversation, followed possibly by a Q & A, I think, and a book signing, I hope. The rest we leave to chance and pleasure.
Don DeLillo is the author of fifteen novels including Underworld, Falling Man, White Noise, and Libra, but rather than reading his biography, as it were, I asked him as I’ve asked everyone for the last four or five years to give me a biography, a haiku or if you’re very modern a tweet in seven words that might define them. In an interview in Guernica magazine Don DeLillo spoke of the conditions under which he wrote his first novel in 1964. “I lived in a very minimal kind of way. My telephone would be four dollars and thirty cents every month. I was paying a rent of sixty dollars a month, and I was becoming a writer, so in one sense I was ignoring the movements of the time.” The seven words that Don DeLillo submitted to me was: “Bronx boy wondering why he is here.”
Jonathan Franzen is the author of four novels—Freedom, Corrections, Strong Motion, and The Twenty-Seventh City—but rather than reading his biography I asked him to also provide me with seven words. Until the moment when he arrived here, until he arrived here, I would have said that Jonathan Franzen, like Bartleby the Scrivener, preferred not to, (laughter) but tonight, knowing that Don DeLillo had given me seven words and feeling rather ashamed than he hadn’t, he gave me his seven words. I’ll read his seven words: “St. Louis. Philadelphia. Berlin. Boston. Queens. Manhattan. Santa Cruz.” Enjoy the reading, the conversation, and your questions, and Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo’s answers. And now Don DeLillo will read. Please welcome Don DeLillo.
DON DELILLO: I will read from my recent collection of stories The Angel Esmeralda. The story I will read is “Human Moments in World War III,” which was published in Esquire thirty years ago, I believe. It’s quite a long story. I will read excerpts from the story. “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. Outsized, 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.”
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 set 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.
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 2. 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, rifle strapped to his shoulder. This is a human moment and it reminds me that war, among other things, is a form of longing.
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 know 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.
About ten hours later Vollmer heard the voice. Then he heard two or three other voices. There 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.
We listen to the old radio shows. Light flares and spreads against 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 have a 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 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 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 dream 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.
JONATHAN FRANZEN: We didn’t strategize. Thank you all for coming tonight. There is no living American writer who has meant more to me over my years as a writer than Don, so it’s an honor to be on the stage with you. I wrote down a few questions.
DON DELILLO: They’re awfully long.
JONATHAN FRANZEN: There’s one longish one. I’m just going to tuck right into the questions and we’ll see how this goes.
When did you start writing stories? Was there a period of apprenticeship before Americana when you were doing short things?
DON DELILLO: Yes, I did only short stories for quite a spell and only intermittently. I hadn’t yet become what even I would call a writer. I was skipping along, so to speak, and I published two or three of these stories, to my enormous surprise. I remember the first short story I published.
JONATHAN FRANZEN: What was it called?
DON DELILLO: I think it was called “The River Jordan,” or maybe that was the second one. I think it was “The River Jordan.”
JONATHAN FRANZEN: I didn’t notice that one in this book.
DON DELILLO: No, a number of stories are not in the book. The book consists of what I and my editor Nan Graham think of as the best stories and they range from 1979 to last year. Before that, yes, there were other stories and maybe we’ll do another very obscure publication twenty-two years after I die. But in the meantime, I published a story in Epoch magazine, I think it was “The River Jordan” and the minute I got the remarkable letter from the editor of the publication—whose name I remember because it’s so different from my own name, it’s Baxter Hathaway, (laughter) and I was—first, I was stunned, I think I was twenty-two or twenty-three years old at the time. I was stunned. And the second thought was that I wanted to write back to him and say, “Please, I was only kidding. I can do better.” (laughter) That’s how it started.