The Body Artist
For thirty years, since the publication of his first novel Americana, Don DeLillo has lived in the skin of our times. He has found a voice for the forgotten souls who haunt the fringes of our culture and for its larger-than-life, real-life figures. His language is defiantly, radiantly American.
Now, to a new century, he has brought The Body Artist. In this spare, seductive novel, he inhabits the muted world of Lauren Hartke, an artist whose work defies the limits of the body. Lauren is living on a lonely coast, in a rambling rented house, where she encounters a strange, ageless man, a man with uncanny knowledge of her own life. Together they begin a journey into the wilderness of time—time, love and human perception.
As the Seattle Times said of DeLillo’s last novel, “Masterpieces teach you how to read them.” The Body Artist is a haunting, beautiful and profoundly moving novel from one of the finest writers of our time.
Don DeLillo’s reputation rests on a series of large-canvas novels, in which he’s proven to be the foremost diagnostician of our national psyche. In The Body Artist, however, he sacrifices breadth for depth, narrowing his focus to a single life, a single death. The protagonist is Lauren Hartke, who we see sharing breakfast with her husband, Rey, in the opening pages. This 18-page sequence is a tour de force (albeit a less showy one than the author’s initial salvo in Underworld)—an intricate, funny notation of Lauren’s consciousness as she pours cereal, peers out the window, and makes idle chat. Rey, alas, will proceed directly from the breakfast table to the home of his former wife, where he’ll unceremoniously blow his brains out.
What follows is one of the strangest ghost stories since The Turn of the Screw. And like James’s tale, it seems to partake of at least seven kinds of ambiguity, leaving the reader to sort out its riddles. Returning to their summer rental after Rey’s funeral, Lauren discovers a strange stowaway living in a spare room: an inarticulate young man, perhaps retarded, who may have been there for weeks. His very presence is hard for her to pin down: “There was something elusive in his aspect, moment to moment, a thinning of physical address.” Yet soon this mysterious figure begins to speak in Rey’s voice, and her own, playing back entire conversations from the days preceding the suicide. Has Lauren’s husband been reincarnated? Or is the man simply an eavesdropping idiot savant, reproducing sentences he’d heard earlier from his concealment?
DeLillo refuses any definitive answer. Instead he lets Lauren steep in her grief and growing puzzlement, and speculates in his own voice about this apparent intersection of past and present, life and death. At times his rhetoric gets away from him, an odd thing for such a superbly controlled writer. “How could such a surplus of vulnerability find itself alone in the world?” he asks, sounding as though he’s discussing a sick puppy. And Lauren’s performances—for she is the body artist of the title—sound pretty awful, the kind of thing Artaud might have cooked up for an aerobics class. Still, when DeLillo reins in the abstractions and bears down, the results are heartbreaking:
Why shouldn’t the death of a person you love bring you into lurid ruin? You don’t know how to love the ones you love until they disappear abruptly. Then you understand how thinly distanced from their suffering, how sparing of self you often were, only rarely unguarded of heart, working your networks of give-and-take.
At this stage of his career, a thin book is an adventure for DeLillo. So is his willingness to risk sentimentality, to immerse us in personal rather than national traumas. For all its flaws, then, The Body Artist is a real, raw accomplishment, and a reminder that bigger, even for so capacious an imagination as DeLillo’s, isn’t always better. —James Marcus
Barnes and Noble
In whatever form Don DeLillo chooses to write, there is simply no other American author who has so consistently pushed the boundaries of fiction in his effort to capture the zeitgeist. In The Body Artist, DeLillo tells the hallucinatory tale of performance artist Lauren Hartke in the days following the suicide of her husband, filmmaker Rey Robles. Finishing out their lease of a rented house on the coast, living in a self-imposed exile, Lauren discovers a mysterious man in the bedroom upstairs who is able to repeat—verbatim—entire conversations she had with her husband before his death but does not seem to know his own name or where he came from.
DeLillo’s emphasis on behavior and the inadequacies of language in The Body Artist will remind readers more of his plays (Valparaiso, The Day Room) than of his novels, and yet, in just a few pages—128, as compared to the sweeping, masterful Underworld‘s 800-plus—DeLillo still manages to draw a rich portrait of contemporary American life in all its quotidian glory. Describing Lauren in the kitchen on the morning her husband will commit suicide, he writes, “She took the kettle back to the stove because this is how you live a life even if you don’t know it.” In this opening scene, Lauren and Rey silently struggle to assign meaning and relevance to an ordinary moment. They have a routine; they know what comes next. But they can’t say what it is. They seem cut off from their own actions. How do you articulate the emotion that accompanies eating breakfast with your spouse? As Rey puts it, “I want to say something but what.” When they finish eating, Rey drives to his ex-wife’s apartment in Manhattan to kill himself.
The question remains open as to whether or not the strange man (whom Lauren affectionately names Mr. Tuttle, after an English teacher of hers, when she finds him upstairs) exists at all, or if he is merely a figment of her imagination. But Mr. Tuttle’s origins are entirely beside the point. He has no origins. He defies description. He is neither old nor young. “Maybe this man experiences another kind of reality where he is here and there, before and after.” And leave it to DeLillo to connect this enigma to the Internet. There is a live, 24-hour web site Lauren enjoys viewing: It shows an empty road in Kotka, Finland. Occasionally a car drives by or a person crosses the screen, but generally nothing happens. Lauren is fascinated by the notion that across the globe, at this very moment, this is happening, an episode “real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on.” This may also be the best way to describe The Body Artist, a book in which “it all happens around the word seem.”
In DeLillo’s unique brand of lucid, albeit elliptical, prose, The Body Artist addresses the very questions Gauguin inscribed on his famous painting: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? Lauren Hartke answers these questions by transforming the absurdities of her daily life—that hours can seem long or short and still be hours; how a thing can look like something other than itself—into a beautiful, suggestive live performance. Through her art, Lauren transcends the limits of language and body, approaching an understanding of her husband’s death and more clearly discerning her own original nature. And in a brilliant act of spiritual ventriloquism, DeLillo, “the poet of lonely places,” dresses himself up in this character, placing us in the extreme situation of her search for an experience of meaning she can call living.