The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

Stashed inside my copy of The Body Artist is a postcard, a faded yellow card with a simple line drawing in turquoise ink of an outdoor scene and some kind of creature on it, a muskrat perhaps, cheerfully stepping over the roots of a tree, and written on the card is a message which reads “I do hope that you feel much better soon and that you will fully recover very soon. I am sure that the babies to come will help. All my love.” and it is signed, I think, Annette or a name that looks a lot like Annette but could be something else. In a different pen, in the top right corner, is a note “Repl 11/2/91” which dates the postcard, though it could have been a year before whoever the recipient was replied, there is no way to know. The postcard came with the book, which I bought secondhand from somewhere on the internet so whoever it was must have decided to give this book away, postcard-and-all which is how I come to be in possession of it. I wonder about this postcard; I keep it, always, stashed in the book. I wonder about the person who received it, whether they miscarried or suffered some other terrible loss that babies to come alone would serve to expunge. It is a little slice of time caught between the pages, appropriate for this slim book in which time, language, cause and effect and the bounds of plausibility are stretched to breaking.

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The Body Artist was the first book I read by DeLillo. I read it a long time ago and hated it and gave my copy away, only to seek out another one when I realised my mistake, when I’d discovered I loved DeLillo and wanted to test my prior judgement which, it turned out, was quite wrong or a casualty, perhaps, of mistiming. It is a slight yet complex book full of unspokenness and incoherent time, where events occur before they happen and memory seeps into reality, blurring the boundaries of both. It begins with a couple at breakfast: Lauren Hartke – the ‘body artist’ of the title – and her husband Rey Robles an ageing movie director. The book is worth reading for this opening scene alone, it is, perhaps, the most perfect rendering of a couple having breakfast together, their comings and goings, mis-hearings, the intimacies and the silences and the monologue running in the mind which overrides everything which is happening outside of it. It is, though Lauren doesn’t know it, their last breakfast. Robles drives from their home, a rented place in the woods by the sea, to the apartment of his first wife where he kills himself. The rest of the book follows the time after Robles’s death, when Lauren returns to their home and begins to reconstruct her life.

“If there is no sequential order except for what we engender to make us safe in the world, then maybe it is possible, what, to cross from one nameless state to another, except that it clearly isn’t.”

Here Lauren encounters Mr. Tuttle. That is not his name but a name she gives him. She never knows his name, nor if he is real or even if he is real who or what he is. Mr Tuttle is the noise in the house both she and Rey heard before his death. A ghost perhaps. He is a man, young perhaps or perhaps not, who appears one day sitting on a bed in one of the rooms wearing just his underwear. Mr Tuttle does not express himself as those adept with language express themselves. He appears to have no concept of the past, present or the future. All states intermingle in his speech. DeLillo uses the spectre of Mr Tuttle to challenge our concepts of language, to break it apart, to test how it works and what happens when it doesn’t. Underlying all language is something mysterious, it is something which I have often thought about; the way that language bridges an unbridgeable gap, how I expect – no, demand –  that when I say ‘blue’ the receiver, the other person, both knows what I mean by ‘blue’ and, the greater leap, experiences it in the same way. Yet this is a flawed sense, which DeLillo cracks open both through Hartke and Mr Tuttle, their strange interactions.

“There’s a code in the simplest conversation that tells the speakers what’s going on outside the bare acoustics. This was missing when they talked. There was a missing beat. It was hard for her to find the tempo. All they had were unadjusted words. She lost touch with him, lost interest sometimes, couldn’t locate rhythmic intervals or time cues or even the mutters and hums, the audible pauses that pace a remark. He didn’t register facial responses to things she said and this threw her off. There were no grades of emphasis here and flatness there. She began to understand that their talk had no time sense and that all the references at the unspoken level, the things a man speaking Dutch might share with a man speaking Chinese – all this was missing here.”

Mr Tuttle breaks Lauren’s sense of language, space and time. Only in her body is she secured and centred. Her body is a landscape over which she has unique and supreme control. Offset against the esoteric musings on linguistics, the strangeness of Mr Tuttle’s appearance and Hartke’s behaviour towards him is the concrete and visceral reality of her body and the way she uses it. In the body work Lauren transcends the need for language, to express and explain what has happened to her, to understand Robles’s death and her life and how it moves forward.

“Her bodywork made everything transparent. She saw and thought clearly, which might only mean that there was little that needed seeing and not a lot to think about. But maybe it went deeper, the poses she assumed and held for long periods, the gyrate exaggerations, the snake shapes and flower bends, the prayerful spans of systematic breathing, life lived irreducibly as sheer respiration. First breathe, then pant, then gasp. It made her go taut and saucer-eyed, arteries flaring in her neck, those hours of breathing so urgent and absurd that she came out the other end in a kind of pristine light, feeling what it meant to be alive.”

I recently watched the movie Arrival, a movie which is both beautiful and thought-provoking, which addresses language and how it shapes experience and it feels like this is something DeLillo is doing here, though even less directly. There is a sense of serendipity in having just seen the movie and then read this book. There’s a theory that language shapes experience, that it moulds how we think and how we interact with and respond to the world. It’s never clear if Mr Tuttle is real, what his presence means or how his interaction matters beyond his effect on Lauren. Mr Tuttle is a mirror reflecting the life and experiences of both Lauren and Rey, he speaks in their voices and with their tones as Lauren will speak in his voice and tone, emulate his movements, in a performance piece she delivers towards the end of the book. Is he less real than she, or more so? There are no answers here, DeLillo is not a writer who delivers either answers or, necessarily, a traditional story, but there are so many questions, so many beautiful thoughts, that it doesn’t matter in the end, if there is such a thing as the end or just a series of beginnings or moments we string together with words and call a life.

As usual, it is DeLillo’s use of language which draws the whole thing together, which elevates this beyond just a strange, unsettling story to something more extraordinary. After struggling my way through Walden, just the opening paragraph lifted me back into a different mental space, it pricked tears into my eyes because I knew what was coming. Nothing coherent or necessarily understandable but a meditative form of writing which soothes whilst obfuscating the concrete reality of everything I daily take for granted. The power of words, the experience which underlies the expression and the feeble, insignificant ways in which we bridge that divide between one isolated soul and another. Our perception of time passing. The certainty of death which all DeLillo’s work addresses, death and our relationship to it. It is a strange, unsettling and difficult to place book but that, too, is its power. A book to return to in the future, if a future exists at all.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
This entry was posted in fiction, outwith, philosophy, re-read. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

  1. I’m very poor at going back to novels or authors I’ve struggled with but your example makes me thing I shouldn’t be so dismissive, particularly as DeLillo is one on those authors. That postcard is almost piece of flash fiction too!

    • bookbii says:

      I doubt I’d have returned to The Body Artist in isolation, but having read so many other books by DeLillo I felt it deserved a second chance. It also helps that it’s extremely short! I think it’s maybe 120ish pages long. Easy to give it a second chance.

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