Eighteen Pages of Genius – Then Modernist Mandarinism

The Body Artist , by Don DeLillo. Scribner, 129 pages, $22.

In what’s becoming a signature of Don DeLillo’s fiction, The Body Artist begins with a tour de force that the remainder of the book can’t quite live up to. ( Underworld , an entirely different sort of book, has the same structural quirk.) The first 18 pages describe a few hours in the life of a couple, Rey and Lauren, as they breakfast in a rented seaside house–a scene that seems utterly ordinary, despite its ominous introduction as “this final morning.”

The couple’s breakfast is as mundane as the 1951 baseball game that kicks off Underworld is legendary, but Mr. DeLillo handles it with the same reverence. This morning scene is a lovely, perfect rendering of domestic intimacy, the absent-minded dance of two people rummaging through drawers, pouring juice and turning the radio off and on; she pressing down the toaster lever a second time to make sure his bread gets properly browned, he borrowing her spoon to scoop out the flesh of a fig to spread on the toast, and she wordlessly leaning forward to take a bite. They converse distractedly, each remark staggering out after the speaker has already begun to think of something else: “She crossed to the cabinet and took down the box and then caught the fridge door before it swung shut. She reached in for the milk, realizing what it was he’d said that she hadn’t heard about eight seconds ago.”

At the same time, Lauren takes pains to notice things: “how water from the tap turned opaque in seconds. It ran silvery and clear and then in seconds turned opaque.” She muses at length on the odor of the soya granules she sprinkles on her cereal, “somewhere between body odor, yes, in the lower extremities and some authentic podlife of the earth, deep and seeded. But that didn’t describe it. She read a story in the paper about a child abandoned in some godforsaken. Nothing described it. It was pure smell. It was the thing that smell is, apart from all sources.” She suffers regret when she forgets to taste a mouthful of her cereal and is transfixed by a blue jay perched on the feeder outside the window as she tries “to work past the details to the bird itself.” This is Mr. DeLillo at his uncanny best. There’s genius in the way he makes this morning so vivid: not by describing the world but by recording the way it registers on a human mind, specifically Lauren’s, among drifting fragments of memory and imagined conversations with the people she reads about.

A newspaper clipping follows, explaining that Rey, a Spanish-born film director, has shot himself in the New York apartment of his first wife, and that Lauren is his third wife and a “body artist.” In the next chapter, Lauren returns to the house, wandering from room to room, performing minor chores. She’s still observant, but with a kind of soreness, so that when “the wax paper separated from the roll in rat-a-tat sequence, advancing along the notched edge of the box … she heard it along her spine.” She is sunk in grief, unable to see the sky as she once did, as “soul extension, dumb guttural wonder,” staring instead for hours at a live streaming-video feed from a camera trained on a quiet road in Kotka, Finland, because it is “real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on. It thrived on the circumstance.”

Then Lauren finds a man in an upstairs bedroom, a discovery that resolves the mystery of certain noises she’s heard, noises that Rey also heard in the days before his death. The man is small, unthreatening and very strange, wearing only white boxers and a T-shirt and talking in a “halting,” “self-taught” way. Instead of telephoning around to local mental hospitals or the police, she clothes and feeds him, studying him assiduously. The way he speaks, particularly his difficulty with tenses, fascinates her. She begins tape-recording their conversations. She hears “elements of her voice, the clipped delivery, the slight buzz deep in the throat, her pitch, her sound.”

Even more unsettling, the nameless man begins to talk just like Rey, repeating swatches of conversations from weeks before: “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.” This strange, small man (who she calls Mr. Tuttle, after a former teacher) “knew how to make her husband live in the air that rushed from his lungs.” Part of Lauren believes that he has been hiding in the house, eavesdropping, but part of her begins to suspect that he exists outside of time: “His future is unnamed. It is simultaneous, somehow, with the present. Neither happens before or after the other and they are equally accessible.”

The Body Artist grows increasingly enigmatic. Who is Lauren’s peculiar guest? The sheen of moisture across his forehead and cheeks when she first finds him, his spindly body and large head, and Lauren’s own inclination to bathe and feed him by hand, make him seem infantile, even fetal. That he carries Rey and Lauren’s voices within him suggests that he’s a revenant of their extinguished love, or a manifestation of Lauren’s grief. Mr. DeLillo is not the sort of writer to provide obvious answers, but Lauren’s encounters with Mr. Tuttle lead to much metaphysical and linguistic speculation: “There has to be an imaginary point, a nonplace where language intersects with our perceptions of time and space, and he is a stranger at this crossing, without words or bearings.”

Like the dragon in a Chinese parade, The Body Artist is a spectacular head followed by a less impressive tail. After the riveting specificity of the breakfast scene, Lauren’s philosophical ruminations and even the puzzle of the visiting homunculus feel unoriginal, the routine devices of modernist fiction. There are occasional flashes of DeLillo wizardry (an exquisite account of how it feels to register, from the fringe of perception, a paper clip falling off a desk, for example), but they make the rest of the novel feel vague and listless.

No one writes more exhilarating set-pieces than Mr. DeLillo, but he’s not especially good with character and plot–something of a liability when it comes to writing novels. He doesn’t really do dialogue; his people either chat aimlessly or launch into monologues, decanting data and theories. Solitude is their natural state. The most momentous conversation in The Body Artist , the one in which Lauren recognizes that Mr. Tuttle is parroting talks she’s had with Rey–an opportunity for virtuoso writing if there ever was one–gets summarized rather than dramatized.

When Mr. DeLillo does conduct a foray into human interaction, he can be emotionally tone-deaf. In the middle of the novel, Rey’s first wife, Isabel, telephones to tell Lauren that Rey’s suicide was “a thing that was going to happen …. For years he was going to do this thing …. This man, it was not a question of chemicals in his brain. It was him who he was. Frankly you didn’t have time to find out …. And I know exactly how his mind was working. He said to himself two things. This is a woman I know forever. And maybe she will not mind the mess.” Mr. DeLillo handles the scene so perfunctorily that he seems oblivious to Isabel’s terrible cruelty. For him, the conversation merely provides a way to dispense with prosaic questions about Rey’s motives and Lauren’s likely feelings of guilt so that he can move on to the abstractions that really interest him. How a young widow might feel to be told by her husband’s first wife that she never really knew him, that she was merely a clueless latecomer–and what kind of vindictiveness would cause the first wife to say such a thing–seem to be matters of mere psychology beneath this author’s notice. The trouble is, this time around Mr. DeLillo has chosen a theme–grief–that’s stubbornly personal.

Precisely because it begins on so earthy a note, it’s frustrating that The Body Artist dissipates into sterile philosophizing. No one but Mr. DeLillo could have written this novel’s first 18 pages; the same can’t be said for such sentences as this: “Past, present and future are not amenities of language. Time unfolds into the seams of being. It passes through you, making and shaping.” An inclination to pontificate has always been this author’s Achilles’ heel, and more’s the pity, because no one can match Mr. DeLillo when he’s got both feet on the ground.

Laura Miller is the New York editorial director of Salon. Eighteen Pages of Genius – Then Modernist Mandarinism