The eponymous body artist of Don DeLillo's 12th novel is a performance artist named Karen Hartke whose show, Body Time, is described by one reviewer as "obscure, slow, difficult, and sometimes agonizing." The artist "wanted her audience to feel time go by, viscerally, even painfully. This is what happened, causing walkouts among the less committed." I cringe to say this, but I can imagine the publishing equivalent of a theater walkout—bookstore returns and remaindering—in response to The Body Artist because the novel is all the things Karen Hartke's performance piece is (though it's also a lot more). It makes absolutely no attempt to entertain, and the vast following DeLillo accrued with White Noise, Libra and Underworld will, excepting the thoroughly committed, no doubt pass this one over.
The advance word on The Body Artist—born, I'm guessing, from
marketing panic—is that it's a "minimalist" novel, but there's nothing here that's going to remind anybody of Raymond Carver or Bobbie Ann Mason. The book is hardly minimalist (defined memorably, and none too lovingly, by David Foster Wallace as fiction that "diverges from the really real in its extreme economy, its Prussian contempt for leisure, its obsession with the confining limitations of its own space, its grim proximity to its own horizon"). In fact, as Karen says of her own performance piece, The Body Artist "is probably too eventful. I put too much into it. It ought to be sparer." "Event-ful" about what is another question.
What DeLillo is doing is a form of reductive elementalism, closer to what Beckett did with the Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnamable trilogy, to early Robbe-Grillet, to the '60s films of Resnais and Antonioni, and to books of his own like Great Jones Street, which was about an alienated rock star hiding out in a small room, studying "the really real"—the elemental density of his surroundings—and trying to strike a match in the metaphysical dark.
But the biggest reference point, as far as I can tell, and the easiest entrance into a novel whose integrity of intention has an ascetic, practically religious rigor, is German philosopher Martin Heidegger. (I can see all you uncommitteds wetting the tips of your fingers to turn the page about now.) Heidegger was obsessed with the concept of Being, and so is this novel. There's no way to adequately summarize what Heidegger meant by the term here; let's just say it has to do with contemplating, and feeling astonished by, Leibniz's old question: "Why is there being at all and not nothing?" Heidegger insisted it was the primal, all-but-buried question and spent half a century clearing a path toward thinking about it. Karen Hartke is stuck on the Being question, too. In a tour de force of a first chapter, Karen and her husband go through their morning breakfast routine, still "a little puddled in dream melt," and the Heideggerian touches are everywhere: moments when "the smallest leaf falling is stabbed with self-awareness," or when Karen "stopped dead and held her breath" in the presence of a bird outside her window: "she thought she'd somehow only now learned how to look. She'd never seen a thing so clearly. . . . She was alert to the clarity of the moment but knew it was ending already."
This awareness of the concreteness of things, intensified by an awareness of the fleetingness of time, makes the moment grow more luminous, lit up from within: it's as if Karen sees the world through the radiant eyes of van Gogh.
And then her husband, with whom she is deeply in love, kills himself out of the blue.
At first Karen feels dislodged, unhinged: the "world feels lost inside her," and her only plan is "to organize time until she could live again." Holed up in a house in the woods, watching a live Internet feed of a quiet two-lane highway in Kotka, Finland, she all but cuts off communication with everyone. When a friend gets through on the phone and asks, "Are you lonely?" Karen answers, "Everyone's lonely. This is something else."
This something else is what she begins to observe, almost dispassion-ately, and it soon takes shape as an awareness of the deep oddness, weirdness and absurdity of being alive at all. We're not talking about "what's the point of it all?" sentimentality; we're talking about the fundamental strangeness of consciousness itself. And this deep oddness reaches an apotheosis when a strange little man—nameless, ageless, historyless and terminally sad—shows up in her house in his underwear, like a foundling.
This man, whom Karen calls Mr. Tuttle, has a "thinness of physical address" and gives off an aura of existing "as if"—hypothetically, not actually. Still, he's very definitely there—he's no apparition born of her grief. He eats, sleeps, bathes, talks. When he speaks, he
"shadow-inches through a sentence," sometimes imitating Karen's speech, sometimes the speech of her dead husband. She doesn't understand how he does it.
Mr. Tuttle is at first an immensely frustrating presence (to Karen and the reader), uttering what seems like nonsense ("say some words to say some words"), possibly just an escapee from a nuthouse, but with strange capacities to call up the past perfectly and to even experience the future before it happens. With "no protective surface . . . alone and unable to improvise" the way most humans can, he can't bear much reality: once, Karen takes him on a trip to the mall; when she's done shopping, she finds him in the car, sitting in his own piss and shit. (Mr. Tuttle couldn't survive an hour in the consumer/media maelstrom of White Noise.) Eventually, she comes to realize that this little man lives "in a kind of time that had no narrative quality," that "he laps and seeps, somehow, into other reaches of being, other time-lives, and this is an aspect of his bewilderment and pain." In his seeming ability to live outside time, he "violates the limits of the human."
This ontological education begins to inform the performance piece Karen is working on. She begins to strip herself down, imitating Mr. Tuttle's elementary level of engagement toward life, or Being, itself. She literally rids herself of excess skin, hair, fat. By the time she performs, "she is colorless, bloodless, and ageless. She is rawboned and slightly bug-eyed. Her hair looks terroristic. It is not trimmed but chopped and the
natural chestnut luster is ash white now, with faint pink traces." The performance turns out to be "about who we are when we are not rehearsing who we are."
It's an incredibly risky book, among other things taking on the dubious task of characterizing a being—Mr. Tuttle—whose tangible characteristics are all but leached away. To borrow from Heidegger again, there's virtually nothing "ontic" about him. His entire existence is addressed not to the everydayness of things but to the ontological: he seems dumb-facedly but provocatively present before the mystery of Life itself.
Does all this work on the page? Let me tell you something. I started reading this on the day I took some tests to determine whether I had cancer and finished it three days later when I discovered I was clean. As I read, my mind was, as Samuel Johnson said of such periods, wonderfully concentrated, and I didn't hear a bum note in The Body Artist. I didn't care if the pace was glacial, if it was difficult or obscure. All I felt was that this was an honest voice writing the hard poetry of mortal confrontation, and as in touch with the abiding mysteries of being, time and death as anything I've read in a long time.
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