Saturday, January 01, 2011

Short-a-Day: Don DeLillo's "Hammer and Sickle"

Originally published in Harper's Magazine, December 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): x.

I'd like to give Harper's and DeLilo the benefit of the doubt and say that this story was simply too intellectual for me, but I'm not sure that's entirely fair. Jerold Bradway, lightweight criminal in a minimum security prison that's built around an abandoned soccer field (near a supposedly haunted school), spends his days ruminating about how best to become a phantasm, "someone who slips in and out of physical reality," a creature that, like the news, can be depended on to disappear. Certainly Jerold doesn't think much of himself or his circumstances; he is simply a man in the midst of free enterprise, whatever that means.

Also occurring in the story: the prisoners are currently watching a program in which two children read complex financial reports that have been broken down, by their mother, into a sort of half-ironic half-serious singsong:

"Greece is ready to restore trust."
"Aid package of 40 billion dollars."
"How do they say thank-you in Greek?"
"Say it again, slowly."
"F. Harry Stowe."
"F. Harry Stowe."
They exchanged a fist bump, deadpan, without looking at each other.

These two girls also happen to be Jerold's children, and their programming culminates in a technical error that leaves one stubborn daughter staring into the camera for several minutes, discomforting the world with her silence, until the feed finally dies. There's clearly supposed to be some connection between their financial talks and the father's crime -- Jerold's bunkmate Norman Bloch pretty much says this -- but it doesn't land for me, nor does any of the vague background on some of the other prisoners, like Sylvan Telfair, whom Jerald believes to be deserving of special treatment, and Feliks Zuber, the dying mastermind behind a financial collapse that happened to take out a few smaller governments, too.

Is this all just a meditation on the meaning of security? Financial/physical/mental? Perhaps, but in a story this long, it's perhaps a little hard to tie all of the little relevances together. The title itself, which derives from one of the newscasts in which the girls emphasize that the workers need to rise up, seems particularly oblique, a relic of communism that just hangs there. As I said, I'd like to give this story some credit, but to me, it's bankrupt.


ericgarcia said...

what does hammer and sickle have to do with the story ?

ericgarcia said...

what doses the title have to do with the story ? i dont understand