Short fiction -- the short story, in particular, even if it went by the name of "tale" -- was the Big News in literary America for centuries. Literally.
From Hawthorne and Poe to Anderson, Hemingway and Fitzgerald to Porter, O'Connor and Welty to O'Hara, Salinger, Updike and Cheever to Barthelme, Paley and Gass, what happened in the short story was headline news in our literature.
The last American writer, in fact, to be the literary version of Headline News (rather than a public adoption by Oprah) was Raymond Carver.
It isn't that there aren't new places to go in the American short story. Lydia Davis, for one, is showing us all manner of extraordinary ways to reinvent short fiction in a digital age, just as Eliot Weinberger (a friend of Davis', I've learned) is among those reinventing the essay.
It's just that the stylistic newsmakers of American literature are toiling elsewhere these days. Some would say in comics and graphic novels while others -- more cogently -- would say they're chest-deep into something we've taken to calling "creative nonfiction" (Dave Eggers, etc.) because there's an awful lot of it these days and you need a phrase that's blandly generic to encompass it all.
So where does that leave the American short story, once a gaudy and brave new world with Barthelme and Paley and a radical parallax change when Carver, Richard Ford and Andre Dubus transformed the line of vision entirely?
Still, literary news though of a different sort. While everyone south of Davis may be in a holding pattern, there is still Big News possible from a book of American short stories.
"The Angel Esmeralda" marks the first time Don DeLillo, in a career of more than half a century, has collected some stories into one book. He's been writing them all his creative life, but for his first collection of them ever, he gave us nine, a rather fateful number of stories in volume ever since J.D. Salinger chose that number for what may be the most famous generic title in American prose.
"Stay Awake," in a much more subtle way, may be announcing a fresh realignment inside the holding patterns of the American short story in a digital age (where, for instance, we can all snap right into Wikipedia and immediately discover that the last name of the much-praised writer of novels and stories is pronounced "Shawn." Think of all the fumbling that ardent readers did decades ago wondering how to pronounce the last name of, say, Jean Rhys -- Reese -- before the current age of computer omni-information at everyone's fingertips.).
What seems to be happening in "Stay Awake" is that we're in a place where a deceptively new kind of dark Gothic fiction seems to have grown out of the stark, minimalist social landscaping of Carver and Dubus and Ford.
Though DeLillo has never before published a book of short stories, he is, in his virtuoso way, easily excerptable in shorter, often astonishingly pyrotechnic pieces from his novels, especially his magnum opus "Underworld."
There is no question that the DeLillo of these stories is often very close to a joker. But then DeLillo jokes are very much their own thing and have their own profundity.
"Creation," the earliest story in "The Angel Esmeralda," is from 1979 and tells us about a tropical airline nightmare that turns into an extramarital dalliance. In "Hammer and Sickle," from 2010 -- the longest story in the book -- a prisoner in one of a jail's "common rooms" watches, on a flat-screen TV, as his two "earnestly amateurish" daughters reported on the "day's market activity" on a children's TV channel.
The girls are "Laurie and Kate, ten and twelve" and all of this is presented in DeLillo's nightmare deadpan, so that "Laurie's eyes showed fleeting panic in her remarks about the Nasdaq Composite." (Here's early DeLillo partisan John Leonard telling us about DeLillo's novel "Libra": "Don DeLillo's cold and brilliant novel begins with thirteen year old Lee Harvey Oswald and his mother -- that American Medea, Margeurite -- watching television in the Bronx. For 'inward-spinning' Oswald, his mother is a television. Her voice falls through 'a hole in the air.' She stays up late to compare test patterns.")
At the end of DeLillo's story, "Human Moments in World War III," one of two orbiting soldiers in future space sits all the time looking through a window at an earth which he may have to zap with lasers. "The view is endlessly fulfilling. It is like the answer to a lifetime of questions and vague cravings" as if it were the ultimate in, well, cosmic television."
The stories in Dan Chaon's "Stay Awake" are related and likely to get the reader to follow their titular injunction. People and things and circumstances reappear, transformed from one to the next. Darkness and horror are always around. We begin, in "The Bees," with a guilt-ridden husband -- a recovered alcoholic -- whose previous family he destroyed, now worried to distraction about a son who screams at night in all the pain he caused the son he walked out on.
Another story ends "all across the city, the light folded into itself, and the darkness spread out its arms."
Dark pasts overhang a lot of Chaon's world of what might be called "K-mart Gothic." Damnation and derangement are common.
He's best known for his acclaimed novels "Await Your Reply" and "You Remind Me of Me" and his even more acclaimed story collection "Among the Missing."
The epigraph of Chaon's powerful book -- a dark overhang all its own, 250 pages worth -- is from Stan Laurel: "I had a dream I was awake and I woke up to find myself asleep."
Chaon's stories are about those who aren't so lucky.
Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books Editor.
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories
By Don DeLillo
211 pages, $24
By Dan Chaon
Ballantine254 pages, $25