The Body Artist

Simultaneously Imaginary and Real
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 22 2001 3:16 PM

The Body Artist

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Dear Sarah,

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It's conceivable that, if The Body Artist were the slender first offering of an unknown author, we--or at least I--would like it more. Granted, it would not have been so prominently reviewed in various outlets (including this one) and would not arrive adorned with such fulsome jacket copy. ("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." And what did you bring to the new century, Sarah? I brought a six-pack of Budweiser and some leftover Entemann's pound cake. Help yourselves, everyone!) But one might be more inclined to give a writer less burdened with expectation the benefit of the doubt, and one might be more willing to excuse lapses, overreaches, and underwriting. I think it took some guts for DeLillo to follow Underworld with this, and I admire the way he has pushed himself in some new directions, trying his hand at Japanese brush-stroke miniaturism after several decades of wide-canvas action painting.

In any case, in spite of my grouchiness yesterday, there were parts of this novel I liked very much, and I took it seriously even when I didn't much like it. The first section, when Rey and Lauren putter around the kitchen in what will be their last morning together, contained some beautiful renderings of the dailyness of marriage and of the way cohabitation blurs the boundaries of individuality and possession. I loved those little inventory sentences--"They both used the computer but it was spiritually his" and especially "It was his toast, it was her weather." This catalog of ordinary moments in time, punctuated by Lauren's mysterious discovery of an unplaceable hair in her breakfast, sets up the last section, in which grief is shown to be precisely the loss of such unremarkable, unmemorable spots of time. A person is around, and then they aren't, and the anger and sorrow that attend this absence seem doubly incommensurate--at once too small (How can a feeling equal a person?) and too vast (How can you grieve toast crumbs and second-hand smoke?). I agree that the ending, in which Lauren in effect brings Rey back to life in order properly to let him go, was both moving and, in a highly original way, accurate. But it also seemed to happen, like the rest of the book, in a void.

But back, finally, to the middle. There is the possibility, broached by at least one of our readers, that Mr. Tuttle is nothing more than the projection of Lauren's grief. This is something like what I was trying to suggest in calling him an uncanny figure--the objective embodiment of an interior state that can't be recognized as such by the person projecting it. But then there is the matter of that hair, which must be his and which means that he was indeed in the house before Rey's death. And here I thought, oddly enough, of Libra, DeLillo's novel about Lee Harvey Oswald, in which the actual Oswald coexists with a CIA conspiracy that invents his exact double. That book gives the perennially indeterminate question about the Kennedy assassination--did Oswald act alone, or was there a vast conspiracy?--a logically unsettling but curiously plausible answer: both. The Body Artist may work the same way: Tuttle is both a physical stranger in the actual house and the projection of Lauren's grief, a serendipitous creature who supplies her with some kind of relief--above all with something to do, something to think about--by being simultaneously imaginary and real. This possibility would have been more interesting if DeLillo had handled the middle section more deftly and perhaps indulged the spookiness of his conceit a bit more.

Well, Sarah, I've enjoyed this. Until next time.

Best,
Tony

The Body Artist

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