“Human Moments in World War III,” by Don DeLillo
First appeared in Esquire in July 1983; collected in The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories (on Google Books); printed in Granta 11: Greetings from Prague in spring 1984 (subscribers can read online here; buy the issue here); published by PEN America here on September 10th, 2010, the year DeLillo received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction; also anthologized in American Gothic Tales, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
I read this when I was pretty young and it took me a while to appreciate it, mainly, I think, because of my tendency to distrust what I can’t unequivocally understand. Even so, certain lines haunted me with their sheer rightness:
The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.
I am standing at the corner of Fourth and Main, where thousands are dead of unknown causes, their scorched bodies piled in the street.
The colors and all.
The narrator doesn’t quite manage to evade his real topic. He admits: “I try to keep the results of the operation out of my mind, the whole point of it, the outcome of these sequences of precise and esoteric steps. But often I fail. I let the image in, I think the thought, I even say the word at times.” And we see him fail. I don’t think it hurts the story. It’s all very darkly funny, the banality of the two men’s lives, the way they talk around what they’re doing.
The plot, I think, takes place inside the narrator himself. He’s caught between the need for real meaning in his life and the need to keep his long-distance murders at a long distance. For that reason he is threatened by Vollmer’s philosophizing, but comes to depend on it. Vollmer’s last line seems to indicate that he too has learned to avoid thinking too much, feeling too much, expressing himself too openly. He will no longer serve to give the narrator’s life its vicarious meaning. The narrator is on his own now, and in all likelihood he would be just as isolated no matter who was with him. The circumstances make real “human moments” impossible.
The use of the present tense seems apt because the narrator has not yet come to terms with what’s going on, and may never. Also because he is trying, however unsuccessfully, not to look beyond the present moment.
Rereading now, I get a glimpse of the impact DeLillo must have had on David Foster Wallace, particularly in the dialogue (“It sounded human in all sorts of ways”).