Don DeLillo has never been one to shy away from big topics. He has made a practice of writing the Great American Novel — or at least coming close — again and again and again, taking on the Kennedy assassination, theoretical mathematics, the open road, and such classic national pastimes as consumerism, football, rock & roll and environmental catastrophe. There are few dark corners left to the American psyche into which he has not at some point crawled in the 12 novels he has penned over the last three decades. He explores our native paranoia and the guilt of empire, our driving thirst for apocalypse, the communities of alienation that technology builds, the terrorism implicit in the culture of the image. He finds what scattered meanings are left to find after a century of disaster and dislocation, plays with them, puns with them, shines them up and lays them out for all to see.
Four years ago, DeLillo published Underworld, an 800-page monster about baseball, the Cold War, New York, J. Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce, and just about everyone and everything else you might squeeze out of the last 50 years. That monumental effort seems to have allowed him to focus on simpler things. 1999 brought a two-act play, Valparaiso, that turns a business traveler‘s airline misadventure into a search for his ”naked shitmost self.“ (He finds, predictably, ”In the final spiral strand, nobody, soul-lonely, smoke.“) This year brings The Body Artist, an elegant little novel that, despite its slimness (a mere 124 pages), refuses to keep to little topics.
Purely on a plot level, The Body Artist resembles nothing so much as a fairy tale, a rather more sophisticated and disturbing version of, say, ”Goldilocks and the Three Bears.“ Lauren Hartke, the performance artist of the title, lives in a secluded and rambling old home somewhere on the New England coast with her filmmaker husband, Rey Robles. The first chapter is an obsessively detailed account of their last breakfast together in which barely a motion or a scrap of dialogue goes unrecorded: ”Okay, she put the bowl on the table. She went to the stove, got the kettle and filled it from the tap. He changed stations on the radio and said something she missed. She took the kettle back to the stove because this is how you live a life even if you don’t know it . . .“
The breakfast concludes with Rey looking for his keys to go out for a drive, he says, to town to buy some groceries. Instead, he drives to his first wife‘s apartment in New York, where he shoots himself. This is, you see, a fairy tale about mourning. After the funeral, ignoring her friends’ advice, Lauren returns to the country house where she had lived with Rey, and, having for some time found signs that there was someone else in the house — strange noises, strange hairs — she discovers that she is not alone. One morning she finds a man in his underwear sitting on the edge of a bed in an unused room. ”He was smallish and fine-bodied and at first she thought he was a kid, sandy-haired and roused from deep sleep, or medicated maybe.“
He does not, or cannot, tell her his name, or why he‘s there, how long he has been there or where he should be. It never occurs to Lauren to be frightened, and though she considers taking him ”to someone in a position of authority, a doctor or administrator,“ she never does. She soon learns that the impish Mr. Tuttle, as she privately names him, lives ”outside the easy sway of eitheror,“ that he seems to have no sense of time unfolding from past to present, of ”the standard sun-kissed chronology of events.“ He speaks in the past tense about things that have not yet happened. ”It rained very much,“ he says, before the clouds have even broken.
Spookier still, he reveals a talent for near-perfect mimicry, parroting entire conversations, not as they unfold, but as they happened weeks before, between Lauren and Rey, who thought they were alone in the house. ”This was not some communication with the dead. It was Rey alive in the course of a talk he’d had with her, in this room, not long after they‘d come here.“ Communication with the dead or not, it is all she has of Rey, and her relations with this spectral, half-present man become the substance of her mourning. She starts taping Mr. Tuttle’s dialogues, pressing him to speak, beginning to need him. She tries to understand him, to understand time as he experiences it (or not), when he does something still odder, and begins reciting scraps of her speech days before she says them. ”This is a man,“ she realizes, ”who remembers the future.“ He stops eating, stops speaking, and disappears as suddenly as he appeared.
The book does not end here. DeLillo gives us a magazine article written by one of Lauren‘s friends about the performance piece she put together after Mr. Tuttle’s departure, which parallels the obituary for Rey that appears earlier in the book and, like that section, feels tacked on, a too-obvious expository device. And there is one last haunting chapter, depicting Lauren alone in the house by the sea, her sense of time, and of self, shattered.
If its single-mindedness, its focus, stands out among DeLillo‘s novels, there is still much that is familiar in The Body Artist. There is the extreme self-consciousness of the narrative voice, as if the entire novel were told by the character in Ratner’s Star who had the disarming habit of speaking ordinary words as if they were in quotation marks; Lauren sees Mr. Tuttle in the bath: ”His hands were barely out of the water, the sliver of soap, the washcloth bunched. Soap is called a sliver in this figuration.“ The prose here has the familiar choppy syntax DeLillo usually reserves for dialogue, which often renders his descriptions more poetic than prosaic, lending them disquieting depth and beauty: ”There was a sternness of judgment in the barrens, shades of flamed earth under darkish skies, and in the boulders sea-strewn at the edge of the pine woods, an old stony temper, a rigor of oath-taking and obduracy.“
And, as in most of DeLillo‘s novels, there is the constant theme of obsession coupled with dread, of characters pulled outside of their ”small, ravishing routines,“ out of what Rey calls the ”terror of another ordinary day,“ and pushed to the very edges of language, of logic, of meaning. In this case it is narrative that DeLillo explores, not in the purely literary sense — in that respect The Body Artist is fairly conventional — but in the sense of making sense of time, of laying moments in a row, causally linked, comprehensible: ”Time is the only narrative that matters. It stretches events and makes it possible for us to suffer and come out of it and see death happen and come out of it.“ But loss breaks the narrative, makes nonsense of time, and Lauren is not sure she wants to come out of it. ”Why not sink into it? Let death bring you down. Give death its sway. Why shouldn’t the death of a person you love bring you into lurid ruin?“
Mr. Tuttle, her mysterious, elfin visitor, forces her to articulate the questions drawn out of her grief: ”He didn‘t know how to measure himself to what we call the Now. What is that anyway? It’s possible there‘s no such thing for those who do not take it as a matter of faith.“ Lauren, fortunately, never answers that question, though she asks it repeatedly in many different ways. And the DeLillo fairy tale, fortunately, like the DeLillo epic novel, provides no moral, no tidy life lesson. It has the far more salutary effect of undoing life lessons, undercutting cliches, exposing the abyss that lurks beneath, beside and amidst our ordinary lives.