To read a collection of short stories in 2011 is to think about the nature of the most American of literary forms.
To read Don DeLillo's new book, The Angel Esmeralda, his first short story collection, is to think that it's past time, or perhaps the exact right time, for the short story to make the comeback it richly deserves.
Since the 19th century or so, the novel has been the unit of measure, the thing on which the art of fiction has been judged. To write great novels is to be seen as writing great fiction.
This is not to say the short story didn't have its own vogue well into the 20th century. Check out a copy of The New Yorker from the 1940s or '50s. There are multiple pieces of fiction in every issue. In. Every. Issue.
But authors love to complain, and rightly so, about the ever-shrinking market for short fiction. The novel is the unit; short stories are this other, smaller thing.
DeLillo's novels changed lives. He's a crucial figure in 20th-century American literature, and his novels — Great Jones Street, Underworld, White Noise — are read and reread for their vision, their guts, their tightly woven images, the picture of 20th-century life in all its chaotic valences.
His papers reside at the Ransom Center. He won the Jerusalem Prize, the National Book Award, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award.
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories is his first collection of short fiction.
The prose in these nine stories sings and throbs and burrows as much as anything in his longer work, highlighting his stunning thematic versatility and consistency of voice.
The earlier writer is perhaps slightly more descriptively direct — in the oldest story, "Creation," about a couple attempting and failing to leave an island, a man drives through "total rain." In the newest story, "The Starveling," the Cross Bronx Expressway is called, simply, "biblical." From "Human Moments in World War III," a bit of science fiction that dates from 1983 (a year when a third World War seemed awfully likely), to the title story, from the Clinton administration, his prose is perhaps more open, word to word, but the images are always razors.
The point is that there is nothing in these stories that is inferior to his novels. Nothing.
Of course, themes are developed for longer periods in longer work, but the pleasure of the words is even more potent in the shorter form.
DeLillo's novels are monuments, but The Angel Esmeralda reminds me: Perhaps it is time for the short story to be the unit by which modern literature is judged. What better time than now, when our culture has no time for anything, for the return of the concentrated blast of meaning?
We might be moving that way by default. Just look at Jennifer Egan's excellent A Visit From the Goon Squad, which won both the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. It hangs together beautifully, but any chapter in that book could be removed and published on its own. The novel is almost modular.
And genre fiction has a very different relationship to the short story. In science fiction, the short story remains a vital piece of the cultural puzzle, and some novels, called "fix-ups," are still sometimes sewn together from stories, as if the story is the single and the novel the album.
In fact, the artistic supremacy of the album over the single — which has been the de facto view since, oh, around Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, Sgt. Pepper — is strikingly similar to the reign of the novel over the short story.
But in the age of the iPod, the song as cultural unit has made a striking comeback. The music industry is clinging to the notion of the album; everyone else seems fine with cutting the thing up, for individual songs leaked over the Internet to be cultural events.
This sort of thing needs to happen for the short story. Instead of being second always to the easily marketable, packageable novel, the short story needs a better seat at the table.
Digital delivery of fiction means that length of a work doesn't really matter as much as it once did. The imposing totality of DeLillo's Underworld looks exactly the same on your iPad as "Creation" does.
This same sort of logic applies to the perennially underrated novella, the form that dares not speak its name, to make a digital return. (Seriously, when it's something like A Clockwork Orange, A Christmas Carol or Breakfast at Tiffany's, we call them "short novels" over here, and don't you forget it.)
The Angel Esmeralda, this survey of a major writer in nine tight knots, reinforces that I am ready for shorter fiction to become common coin, for stories to be discussed with the same gravity as the novel.