This week, I return to the classroom for another semester of teaching literature and composition at Montgomery County Community College. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that some of the students in my literature courses have trouble making the transition from writing about more “general” topics in composition courses to writing about literature in my American and Contemporary Literature courses. To help with that transition, I’ve put together the following notes on writing about literature. These notes will appear on my blog over the next few days and will outline one approach to writing a paper for an English class. I welcome any feedback from teachers or students of literature — or from anyone who’s interested in writing about literature for that matter!
Let’s get it out in the open: Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmerelda makes for a great drinking game. If you take a shot every time a character in this collection reaches in vain for a word or ponders its origins, you’ll be on the floor in no time.*
“What is it that smells so fantastic?” asks a stranded tourist in one story. “I wish I knew the names.”
“Don’t you sometimes feel a power in you?” asks an astronaut in another. “An extreme state of good health sort of… There’s probably a German word for it.”
“An anorak would have a fur-lined hood. Consider the origin of the word.”
“There was a name for the outfit she was wearing and I nearly knew it, nearly had it, then it slipped away.”
“There was a word he wanted to apply to her. It was a medical or psychological term, and it took a long moment before he could think of it, anorexic, one of those words that carries its meaning with a vengeance.”
To an extent, DeLillo’s interest in words and their origins feels like an affectation—his signature move, as it were. Less generously, one might call it a crutch. At the same time, though, it’s not like the author is just filling space when his characters plumb the depths of their minds in search of the right words to describe the world around them. There’s always a bigger point, perhaps the main point he’s trying to explore in all of his work: language is what makes us human.
Yet language doesn’t just happen, DeLillo is at pains to point out. It has a history that’s rooted in our desperate need to make sense of the world. We are a species that attaches words to objects, ideas, and other phenomena in order to communicate with each other, a species that subsequently ties these words together to create strings of language, a species, furthermore, that spins these strings into grand systems of thought, bodies of knowledge that attempt to describe the universe and, in the act of describing, tame the chaos. This is exactly what DeLillo’s characters are trying to do throughout this collection and his fiction in general—to find the words that will allow them to make sense of an otherwise senseless world.
Of course, if DeLillo’s fiction is about using language to divine order from chaos, it’s also about what happens when your attempt to make sense of the world bumps up against mine. DeLillo explores this tension throughout The Angel Esmerelda on scales ranging from the personal to the global.
A married couple disagrees over a fellow traveler’s country of origin.
Witnesses to a kidnapping offer competing theories as to its motive.
An old-school nun argues with a colleague over a mysterious apparition.
A pair of college students have a falling out over the prospect of speaking to the hooded figure who walks the streets of their sleepy hamlet
Precocious children trade snappy comments on the world’s collapsing economy.
Astronauts watch helplessly while World War III rages below.
Through it all, there is the potential for dialogue, for real communication, but there are no guarantees. We’re awash in theories, overwhelmed with ideas, each of us struggling to convey our thoughts to the other even as we wish for a more transcendent mode of communication. But no such mode exists, DeLillo insists throughout The Angel Esmerelda.
All we have are words.
*Assuming you share my low tolerance for alcohol.