Aside from everything he's done for American literature—giving us in White Noisethe most accessible and direly funny novel we have about the mysteries of postmodern culture, and in Underworld, maybe the premier fictional metanarrative of United States history since World War II—Don DeLillo has served for writers as a model of integrity and artistic conscience. Immune to the allures of the celebrity and consumer culture that in his work he has analyzed with peerless intelligence and stylistic force, exercising in his own life the "silence, exile and cunning" that allowed one of his own heroes, James Joyce, to acquire maximal artistic freedom, DeLillo has managed to penetrate the Zeitgeist without ever being of it, like some guileful Minotaur with easy access in and out of the labyrinth. And in a memoir-laden literary culture where writers seem masochistically ready to crucify themselves on the cross of self-display, DeLillo has made sure his work can never be seen as a platform for mere personal revelation, particularly not for the easily clichd dramas of the struggles of the artist.
Not that DeLillo hasn't written about writers and artists before—Bucky Wunderlick's rock star in Great Jones Street, conceptual artist Klara Sax in Underworld, the marvelous Laurie Anderson-like Lauren Hartke in The Body Artist—but all of them seem carefully distanced from DeLillo. Even his portrait of the reclusive writer Bill Gray in Mao II seems designed to be anything but self-revelatory: Gray, unable to produce a third book after his first two have made him a cult figure, seems modeled more on Harold Brodkey than on DeLillo. But in DeLillo's new play, Love-Lies-Bleeding, published in book form but not yet given a major stage production, DeLillo gives us Alex Macklin, a 70-year-old artist—DeLillo was 69 when he wrote this—that perhaps gives us the best glimpse yet into the concerns, anxieties and regrets of an obsessed writer heading into what appears to be a harrowing eighth decade, and raging, raging against the dying of the light.
Having said this, let me add that Love-Lies-Bleeding, on the surface, at least, seems inspired not by artistic struggle but by the Terri Schiavo case, in which various family members squabbled over whether to pull the plug on a woman hooked up to machines and living—as Macklin is here—in a "persistent vegetative state." That squabbling supplies the narrative tension here too. Alex the artist sits in a near coma—through 70 percent of the play—in a wooden chair, hooked up to tubes while relatives argue over whether they should euthanize him. The relatives include his current wife Lia, whose love for him is so intense that she feels his right to die naturally, even painfully, shouldn't be taken away from him: "He has the right to suffer. This is what being in the world means. At times we suffer." Then there is his son Sean, whom Alex abandoned as a child and whose obsession with "knowing" his father in every respect is outdone by a hatred of the man so intense that he very much would like to see Alex dead. Finally, there is the ambivalent Toinette, an ex-wife who characterizes her marriage to Alex both as "living in the same skin" and as a battle between "enemies." DeLillo keeps the media out of it—he said his piece about media exploitation in his last play, Valparaiso—and never reduces the play to mere moral debate. In fact, we never really feel the outcome—that they'll let Alex die—is in doubt. The drama, such as it is, comes from what gets revealed about the three relatives as they ponder and then execute the "mercy killing." As drama, it's pretty stark, Beckett-like stuff, with the presence of a helpless, motionless body sitting onstage perhaps the most audacious thing about it. DeLillo has been obsessed with death his whole career, but he's never literalized it—Here, look at the body, the soon-to-be corpse, people!—as much as he does here.
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The relatives' self-revelations, however, don't feel especially inspired—by DeLilloan standards, anyway—and the only time the play really comes alive for me is in Act 2, when we get a flashback to six years previously, when Alex was hale, hearty and meeting ex-wife Toinette somewhere out West, where Alex is creating an art installation in a cave in the mountains. Here we get to see Alex's rage to create, passionate and contagious, as well as the humor and charisma that his relatives respond to in the other two acts. And it's here, too, where we get to really see how much of a shit the man has been—a coke fiend, a bad father ("Having a child. It was an encroachment of the worst sort. It violated your seclusion, your private turmoil"), a man who treated his wives as "pussy," someone for whom life is the mess you leave in the wake of your precious works of art. DeLillo has no children and has been married to the same woman for decades, but the intensity of regret in this play by an artist who, for all his obsession, has created nothing he has confidence will endure, is striking.
What's it like to live so inside your art that you become callous to the daily cares of those close to you? There's an illuminating joke about that here. "Two tiny young fish are swimming in the sea. They come upon an older fish. He says to them, 'Hey, fellas, how's the water?' The two young fish swim on past. They swim for many miles. Finally, one fish says to the other, 'What the fuck is water?'"
"The water" is metaphor for a lot in this play—especially death as the medium we swim in all our lives but ignore—but it's also the world of art, which artists use to ward off, they hope, death's finality by providing them with a degree of immortality, but which might just be the delusion immuring them from the consequences of their own self-obsessions. DeLillo, one of the great novelists alive, seems in Love-Lies-Bleeding to be questioning the value of his own life's work and wondering whether the sacrifices have been worth it. It's a sad, vulnerable piece of work, not really successful as drama, but an intriguing look at the self-doubts of its author.
LOVE-LIES-BLEEDING BY DON DELILLO; SCRIBNER. SOFTCOVER, 112 PAGES, $15.