The Book Club

The Body Artist

Dear Tony,

It’s so nice to be able to have this dialogue with you, because I would feel truly feeble if I had to work out The Body Artist, the latest novel by Don DeLillo, all on my own. It’s an easy book to read, because it’s so short, but it’s a difficult book to understand, because it’s so opaque. Part of me believes it is a provocative, moving work that has a lot to say about issues that consume us all, issues of loss and time and the self. But part of me can’t escape the little philistine voice inside me that kept repeating “Huh?” as I read it, telling me that its characters were more irritating than interesting and that they should just get a grip. Is the book full of essential truth? Probably. Is it too pretentious for its own good? Probably not. But at times, I felt it was too pretentious for my own good.

DeLillo’s last book, Underworld, a big, sprawling work that looked at the second half of the 20th century in a macro and a micro way–with great themes of politics and history and destiny interweaved with small scenes of family dynamics and quotidian domesticity–was generally acclaimed as a masterpiece, and quite right, too, I thought. It’s also the only other DeLillo I’ve ever read, so I’m by no means an expert in the oeuvre–just a (more or less) alert reader of the recent work.

So, I came to The Body Artist with a great deal of curiosity, wondering what DeLillo would do for an encore. I should say now that I found Underworld breathtaking and awe-inspiring and thrilling in many ways, but also curiously heartless. Maybe that’s not quite the right way of saying it. I thought it was brilliant, but found that it didn’t grip me emotionally, except from time to time. I admired it and loved its language and audacity, but at the same time I found it something of a chore to read. It took me nearly a month, if I remember correctly, and during that month I also read several other books that went down a lot more easily, because they had clear plots and vivid characters that seemed like living people rather than pawns in the service of the author’s Big Ideas and Sweeping Narrative. (It was like leaving for air in the middle of a long, worthy, brilliant movie with subtitles–Cries and Whispers, maybe, though Underworld of course lacked all that Scandinavian bleakness–grabbing an extra-large bag of M&M’s, and sneaking into The Philadelphia Story down at the other end of the Multiplex.) When I finished Underworld, I was exhilarated by this most ambitious of books, yes, but also relieved that it was over and I could move on.

So. After the sweep and heft of Underworld, The Body Artist is a slim, intimate book, with just one protagonist and a handful of supporting players. It begins with a scene that seems quintessentially DeLillo-ian (if I can say that, based on my knowledge of these two books): A couple is having breakfast in a rented house on an unidentified coast, their conversation a spectacular study in missed emotional and verbal connections. They begin sentences, forget what they were about to say, and stop in the middle. They talk around each other. They go off on private reveries. It’s wonderfully done, a fascinating effort to try to depict the way people–and in this case, a man and a woman who, we will soon learn, are living at the most extreme of cross-purposes on this seemingly banal morning–really talk, in contrast to conversations in most novels, where the sentences are neat and ordered and thoughts move along in logical, too-linear pathways. There are a lot of “what?”s in this section. Some of the dialogue reads like out-takes from “Waiting for Godot.”

“Weren’t you going to tell me something?”He said, “What?”She put a hand on his shoulder and moved past to her side of the table. The birds broke off the feeder in a wing-whir that was all b’s and r’s, the letter b followed by a series of vibrato r’s. But that wasn’t it at all. That wasn’t anything like it.”You said something. I don’t know. The house.””It’s not interesting. Forget it.””I don’t want to forget it.””It’s not interesting. Let me put it another way. It’s boring.””Tell me anyway.””It’s too early. It’s an effort. It’s boring.””You’re sitting there talking. Tell me,” she said.She took a bite of cereal and read the paper.”It’s an effort. It’s like what. It’s like pushing a boulder.”

This scene, which has a growing ominousness about it (the second paragraph begins, “It happened this final morning that they were here at the same time …” and you’re left with that little phrase, “final morning,” hanging over you) takes all of 25 pages. The rest of the book is about how the woman in the scene, a young woman who is something called a body artist, which is like being a performance artist, deals with what comes next. Which is this: After the breakfast, her husband, who (we now learn) is an older film director who once enjoyed great acclaim but whose last movies have been flops, leaves the house and drives straight to New York, where he goes to the home of his former wife, sits down in an armchair, and shoots himself in the head.

So, the young widow tries to come to grips with the director’s death, mostly by trying to capture his essence again, to recreate in her mind something of their brief life together so she can make sense of it. She is aided in this endeavor by a truly weird person (who may not be real): a pale Boo Radley-esque man-boy who appears to have been living undetected in the house and who is slow or retarded or not of this world, but who has an uncanny gift for mimicry and who soon begins to repeat back (it seems to her) conversations she had with her dead husband. She hears her voice and her words; then she hears her husband’s voice and his words; and she behaves toward this strange man in ways that are stranger even than his nonsensical conversation. Meanwhile, she’s taping his conversation in an effort, she thinks, to capture her husband on tape.

Parts of the book were just brilliant. Parts jarred terribly, and seemed either lazy or ill-conceived–I wasn’t sure which. And parts annoyed the hell out of me. And I’m going to leave it at that, and explain what I mean next time. And now you have to say what you think.

All best to you,