Strange and solitary as she is, Lauren Hartke—the body artist—joins a large troupe of artists inhabiting DeLillo’s novels. A filmmaker narrates Americana, another filmmaker participates in the endless talk of The Names, and it is a filmmaker, in The Body Artist, who has widowed Lauren Hartke by his suicide. There are also Bucky Wunderlick, the AWOL rock star of Great Jones Street, and his upstairs neighbor, Fenig, a writer of pornographic children’s books; and Bill Gray, the reclusive novelist of Mao II, posing for the photographer Brita Nilsson; and in Underworld, among several others, Klara Sax, the painter of retired B-52 bombers. DeLillo’s characters are artists even when they are not: In Underworld, “Bronzini thought that walking was an art.”
Artists are heroes of perception, and Don DeLillo has seen more clearly than anyone else “the dazzling hedgerows” of the supermarket aisles, and he has heard with preternatural clarity “the steady and almost unendurable whispering of ventilation” in motels. In The Body Artist, there are note-perfect descriptions of midday traffic and orange juice containers. If your heart is broken or your family is unhappy, any number of competent novelists can accompany you in these feelings and give you back your “perceptions all sorted and endorsed.” (I am borrowing DeLillo’s terms.) But when it comes to mounded garbage and white noise, “the esperanto of jet lag” and “ten thousand wisps of disinformation,” it sometimes seems that no one but DeLillo has really nailed the sensation of living in America today.
Our sense of the importance, even the necessity, of having a writer like DeLillo in our midst makes the disappointment of The Body Artist especially keen. The book is a disappointment, and part of the trouble is that the artist Don DeLillo has farmed out too much of his own work to his artist character, leaving her with little to do in the world beyond taking note of it.
The novel begins well enough, beautifully even, “on a bright strong day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness.” We see Lauren Hartke and her filmmaker husband, Rey, as they share breakfast and the sections of the newspaper. See is indeed the word, since DeLillo’s effects are deliberately and spectacularly visual: “Then he poured the juice and watched a skim of sizzling foam appear at the top of the glass.” This first chapter partakes of all the breathless clarity of the brilliant morning it describes, and probably belongs, as Virginia Woolf would say, among the “cut flowers of English prose.” It’s in succeeding chapters, after the death of Rey and the advent of Mr. Tuttle, that the clarity goes and the confusion sets in.
Who is Mr. Tuttle? Good question. After Rey’s suicide, Lauren returns alone to the rented house of the opening chapter and quickly discovers that she is not alone after all. That is, she seems to find on the third floor a vague and damaged male human of no discernible age. He looks a bit like an old teacher of hers and hence the name she gives him—a desperate label slapped onto an incomprehensible phenomenon. Mr. Tuttle doesn’t say much, and what he does say makes for a kind of vacuous language poetry. He is also possessed of an uncanny verbatim recollection of the conversations Lauren has had with Rey in this very house. Is Mr. Tuttle then a flesh-and-blood tape recorder? The pulped soul of the dead husband? An idiot savant of temporality? (“I am the moment,” he says. “I will leave the moment.”) Lauren’s art is performance art, and Mr. Tuttle vanishes once she has learned to mimic or channel him in a performance piece. This implies that he was a ghost needing to be exorcised, yet Lauren had bathed and fed him.
We ought to be moved by this sense that all that survives the marriage of two sophisticated people is something naked and needy, inarticulate about everything but the passage of time. But Lauren’s relationship to Mr. Tuttle, and to the memory of her husband, is just spectatorship and artistry and theory. She comes to seem hardly more passionate and alive than muttering, autistic Mr. Tuttle.
Before writing The Body Artist, DeLillo gave a talk on the responsibilities of the writer called “The Hunger Artist,” his title borrowed from Kafka. But Kafka knew not to try to account for the unaccountable in his stories. The spell The Body Artist might cast is continually broken by Lauren’s questions about whether Mr. Tuttle is homeless or retarded or what, and whether she shouldn’t contact the relevant authorities. This effort at verisimilitude only reminds us what an unreal sort of woman it is who finds a strange man sitting in his underwear in her house and doesn’t at all worry for her safety. And where fear is absent, desire—the great engine of most novels—is usually missing as well.
The incarnate mystery of Mr. Tuttle gone away, Lauren’s face still wears “a decorative band, a trace across the eyes of the prospect of wonders.” This sounds lovely and right, and no doubt that is the look in our own eyes as we read DeLillo. The wonders keep coming—yet wonder has its strict limits. Wonder is passivity, and one reason Libra succeeded so well as a novel is that history had given DeLillo, in Lee Harvey Oswald, a hero who wanted something and had to act. More often DeLillo’s characters are heroes of perception and nothing more, just as the overpopulation of artists suggests. Their talk is speculative smoke, their adulteries studies in anomie rather than acts of lust. This is not to suggest that the choice is between Lauren and Oswald, between art and terrorism—even if Mao II comes close to suggesting just that. But DeLillo would be even more the novelist we require if he saw the dilemma of finding a way to act, in the world of traffic and TV and motels, half so clearly as he sees this world itself.