Views & Reviews: The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

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Views & Reviews        

Turn of the Screw

It’s dangerous being a lonely, sexually frustrated widow in a rented house in the middle of the winter on an isolated coast. If you’re not careful, you may start hearing things — creepy nocturnal sounds from the far side of the house. And before long, you’ll start seeing things. Like a small, sandy-haired, sunken-chinned young man, sitting in his underwear in a small bedroom on the third floor. A slow-witted, half-coherent man, gifted with a strange power: the ability to recreate the conversations you used to have with your late husband.

“How do you know what I said to my husband?” demands Lauren Hartke, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s novella, The Body Artist. “Where were you? Were you here, somewhere, listening? My voice. It sounded word for word. Tell me about this.”

But the young man won’t, can’t explain himself, and his opacity moves Lauren to abject pleading: “Talk like him. Say something he said that you remember. Or say whatever comes into your head. That is better. Say whatever comes into your head, just so it is him. I will not ask you how you are able to do it. I only want to listen.”

Lauren names the intruder Mr. Tuttle after the high-school science teacher he resembles, but she never does learn his real identity, and she’s the only one who ever sees him. And when we learn that Lauren is also a chameleonic performance artist who can transform herself into other people, we have to wonder if Mr. Tuttle isn’t the refracted projection of Lauren’s own thwarted desires — an “erotic reverie,” as Lauren herself suggests.

Which would make The Body Artist nothing more than a ghost story, I suppose, except that in DeLillo’s hands, it’s a ghost story with outsize ambition. For DeLillo has bigger things on his mind than one widow’s peculiar grieving process. He wants to explore the solubility of identity, the way bodies and souls merge and separate. He wants, like John Ashbery, to examine the nature of perception. (“She was alert to the clarity of the moment but knew it was ending already. She felt it in the blue jay. Or maybe not . . . “) He wants to affirm the importance of bearing witness to each other — through acts as simple as lying together in bed.

“They are two real bodies in a room. This is how she feels them, in the slivered heart of the half-second it takes to edge around the doorpost, with hands that touch and rub and mouths that open slowly. His cock is rising in her slack pink fist. Their mouths are ajar for tongues, nipples, fingers, whatever projections of flesh, and for whispers of was and is, and their eyes come open into the soul of the other.”

That’s DeLillo, all right. People in his world can’t just have sex; they have to eyeball each other’s souls. The Body Artist is dense with this kind of spiritual perspiration. It harbors so much ontological activity in such a confined setting I was reminded at times of Ingmar Bergman at his most clouded — that sense of an artist buried so deep in his own cerebellum he can’t quite pull his way back to the light. Maybe if DeLillo had given himself more elbow room, he could have found a way to articulate his themes, to show us just what attracted him to this story. At its current length, though — a mere 124 pages — The Body Artist feels like nothing more than metaphysical noodling.

And that’s seriously disappointing because when DeLillo is on his game, there’s no more gifted writer in America. And to be sure, some of those gifts are on display in The Body Artist; it’s just that, this time, DeLillo doesn’t seem quite in command of them. Yes, he can capture “the deep silence of other places” and “all the shadow-dappled stuff of an undividable moment on a normal morning going crazy in ways so humanly routine you can’t even stop and take note.” But he seems more intent here on ringing endless variations on the same iconic details — birds at a bird feeder, a live-streaming video feed from Finland, a mug of coffee. And yes, he has a wonderful ear for how human speech can render itself opaque, but the speech here too often degenerates into rigid, overly stylized formula. Listen to Lauren interrogating her mysterious house guest.

“I said this what I said.”

“You said this. That you somehow.”

“Somehow. What is somehow?”

“Shut up. That you somehow but never mind. When the lease ends. Or something else completely.”

DeLillo, I think, wants to fill his characters’ mouths with a kind of higher nonsense — a Dadaist jumble where words are broken down and then reassembled. To my ear, though, it just sounds barren and distractingly pretentious. I found myself missing the expansiveness of DeLillo’s previous books, the close naturalistic detail and the historical daisy chains, and I missed his rowdy humor — like the dead-on nightclub rant he invented for Lenny Bruce in Underworld. (Only one moment in The Body Artist made me laugh: when Lauren wonders, “Am I the first human to abduct an alien?”)

I guess I like DeLillo best when he lets a little bit of vulgarity into his soul, when he’s meditating on landfills and reincarnating J. Edgar Hoover in a nun’s habit. The Body Artist doesn’t have a vulgar bone in its body, and that may be part of its problem. DeLillo wants us to feel the intangible pull that humans exert on each other, but he hasn’t given us enough of the body’s tangible, thrilling magic. He’s locked himself inside his own tower of prose and turned the key.

Louis Bayard and, Inc.