by Michael Anft
Don DeLillo's magnum opuses--Underworld, Mao II--rank as exemplars of modernist derring-do and postmodern retooling. With their photographic depictions and complex but wonderfully controlled narrative arcs, DeLillo's novels fall firmly within the literary tradition of, say, James Joyce or William Gaddis. But DeLillo's inclusion of nonfictional characters, his propensity for entangled, plangent plot strains, and his ability to tie unlikely ends together in abstruse yet satisfying ways jacks up the usual standard for writerliness. Because DeLillo can so effectively and simultaneously work both sides of the street, his much-vaunted masterworks have not only become fine examples of the end-of-the-millennium novel, they've largely defined it.
How to top such a career history? You don't--at least not by doing the same things. In The Body Artist, DeLillo's 12th novel, the author steps back from the macro approach and cranks out a novella. In a brisk 124 pages, DeLillo lays out the inner life of Lauren Hartke, a woman who employs her body as a canvas for her edgy performance art. DeLillo's choice of a performance artist as his protagonist is one reason why some critics have accused him of elitism. But by making Hartke his main character, DeLillo is able to rifle through the psyche of the on-the-edge artist in search of motivation and resilience--the book's underlying raison d'être. While The Body Artist explores the redemptiveness of art--its ability to help its practitioners make sense of the impersonality of the universe--the book's soul centers upon how much of life is utterly unknowable.
As the book opens--with Hartke and her husband, an aging filmmaker, slogging their way through a vacation breakfast--DeLillo hints at the paradox of representation: As artists make distinctions and descriptions, they aren't necessarily getting at the heart of what something actually is.
Hartke's relationship with her husband, Rey, ends abruptly when he kills himself in a former wife's apartment. His widow's grief hinges on various remembered gestures and her muted anger at the suicide. The author then takes us on a side trip into the macabre, evoking a vaguely Kafkaesque turn of characterization. A harmless savant who has apparently been squatting in the couple's rented vacation house can't speak for himself, and Hartke dubs this half-man/half-mystery "Mr. Tuttle." Although he is apparently devoid of his own personality, Tuttle can, like a tape recorder, utter bits of conversation that Rey and Hartke had in the days before his death, forcing Hartke to face the enigma of her relationship with Rey, his death, and the jabbering mystery before her. Tuttle represents the void that artists cannot really cross, one they try to bridge through the act of faith that underlies creation. That he is almost alien in his lack of sentience reminds Hartke of this:
He was staring at her. He seemed to be staring but probably wasn't. She didn't think his eye was able to search out and shape things. Not like normal anyway. The eye is supposed to shape and process and paint. It tells us a story we want to believe.
True to form, Hartke (and by extension, DeLillo) includes Tuttle in her highly symbolic work, using him in the only way artists know to deal with the ultimate mystery of life.