Slow, Spare, and Painful

Slow, Spare, and Painful

2002-05-10
The Body Artist
The Body Artist
New York: Scribner, 2001. $22.00.

Steffen Hantke reviews the reviewers of Don DeLillo’s Body Artist, dispelling the notion that, after Underworld, the shorter book is necessarily a slighter one.

The book a novelist produces right after a massive career-defining novel is often measured by its predecessor, and, not surprisingly, found lacking. It is not easy for a novel to eke out its existence in the long shadow of a Big Book. Critics and readers have registered a palpable sense of disappointment when Pynchon’s follow up to Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland, was published. Joseph McElroy’s The Letter Left To Me, which came right after his encyclopedic Women and Men, left less of a mark than it would have, had it appeared at a different point in its creator’s career. Even William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic, which is cut essentially from the same cloth as its masterful antecedent JR, failed to garner equally glowing reviews. The only writers who seem exempt from this “follow-up letdown” are those who either diversify, such as David Foster Wallace, whose Infinite Jest has been followed by publications in a variety of genres except that of the novel; or the ones who produce Big Books at a rate so staggering that there hardly seems to be room for anything but Big Books, such as William Vollmann, who produced the third installment of the “Seven Dreams” series, Argall, which weighs in at over 700 pages, right after the publication of the equally massive The Royal Family.

The disappointment of readers and critics, to be sure, must be reflected by the writers’ bafflement over what to do next after writing a Big Book. How high do they set the bar for themselves? Judging by the practices of the publishing industry, if you write for a living, no Big Book can ever produce returns adequate to your investment. I wonder if Gaddis or McElroy ever sat down after finishing their respective Big Books and calculated how much they had made by the hour during the five, seven, or ten years that it took to finish their novels (Gaddis probably did). They better not, or else they’d probably quit their profession and look for one instead that guarantees at least minimum wage.

Don DeLillo faces “follow-up letdown” with the publication of his most recent novel, The Body Artist. Having published the highly acclaimed Underworld in 1998, a massive novel many readers, including myself, considered a literary landmark and a defining moment in his writing career, DeLillo has to live up to the judgement of critics who are well aware of follow-up letdown. David Seed, writing in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, might be the least judgmental among them. As he points out the difference between Underworld and The Body Artist, he calls attention simply to “the startling contrast” between the “historical spread” of one and the “taut drama” of the other (189). More typical of the response to the novel, however, is Tom Deignan’s tone of exasperation as he exclaims: “Leave it to Don DeLillo to follow up Underworld with a slim novella that conceivably could be used as a bookmark for its hefty, much acclaimed predecessor” (Commonweal 28). Stephen Amidon in the New Statesman complains that The Body Artist is “a small, gloomy and forgettable book” (53) compared to the “colossal 1997 novel Underworld ” (52). Fleshing out the comparison, he speculates, “It was tempting to think that the reclusive author’s next step [following Underworld ] might take him into the boundless literary territory occupied only by the likes of Proust and Tolstoy” (52). Unfortunately, “defying any such expectations, DeLillo has in fact published his briefest work to date,” proving himself never “less forthcoming” (52). Amidon expresses his hope that The Body Artist constitutes “an aberration from [DeLillo’s] remarkable body of work rather than a sombre, dead-end culmination of it” (53). Cleverly circumnavigating the quality, or lack, of The Body Artist, Nick Gillespie calls its publication “a literary event of no small significance” (Reason 60). The fact that it has been “written up everywhere… - the New York Times even saw fit to review it twice? (60) is a sign that DeLillo’s notorious personal reclusiveness has not significantly impeded the canonization of his writing.

A stray voice in this chorus of detractors is Benjamin Kunkel’s review in the Village Voice. If we discount reviews like Paul Gray’s in the January 29, 2001 issue of Time (65), which ignore the theme of “follow-up letdown” because they are essentially middlebrow plot summaries masquerading as reviews, Kunkel is in fact the only one who pays no attention to the predecessor of The Body Artist. Though he considers the book “a [keen] disappointment” (72), he attributes its failure entirely to thematic concerns (“DeLillo has farmed out too much of his own work to his artist character”). The absence of any mention of “follow-up letdown” in Kunkel’s review draws attention to the dogged persistence of this observation in all other reviews I have cited. It is by far the one theme that dominates the collective response to the novel. Apart from noticing, and bemoaning, the discrepancy between Underworld and The Body Artist, however, few reviewers make an attempt to examine whether there are other connections between the two books. Kunkel explores the figure of the artist throughout all of DeLillo’s work, paying little attention to the exact moment in which one book follows the other in DeLillo’s career. Reviewers like Tom Deignan equate length with scope, and thus with quality, and dismiss The Body Artist on grounds of what they perceive as a failure of nerve and ambition on the part of its author. Neither position strikes me as particularly revealing in regard to either DeLillo’s development as a writer, or to the significance of The Body Artist as a free-standing text.

DeLillo himself has always shown a keen awareness of the expectations weighing in on him after he started attaining canonical status. During a writing career spanning more than twenty years and eleven novels (twelve if you count Amazons, published under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell), DeLillo has gone from being a hot insider tip during the 1980s to being a writer canonized during his lifetime. Penguin’s “study edition” of White Noise, the novel marking the crucial turning-point in his career, which comes complete with annotated bibliography and textual apparatus, testifies to this status. As an astute observer of contemporary culture, DeLillo is aware of the outward transformation of his books as well. Looking at the mass market edition of Amazons or Players, which play heavily on the visual tropes of sex and violence, I am reminded of the passage in Mao II in which DeLillo comments on the “two lean novels [of writer Bill Gray, who has achieved canonical status during his lifetime] in their latest trade editions, a matched pair banded in austere umbers and rusts” (20). This description of a publisher giving its author the canonical treatment is uncannily reminiscent of the recent editions of DeLillo’s own novels, including Mao II itself. It shows remarkable foresight and intuition on DeLillo’s part, though hopefully not in the sense that DeLillo has anticipated his own career in that of Bill Gray (driven into privacy by fame, Gray endlessly tinkers with his Great Book, which remains unfinished at the time of his death). Still, DeLillo’s self-awareness makes him the type of writer from whom some still expect that rare animal on the endangered species list, the Great American Novel. Though it does not look like DeLillo will be making Oprah’s Book Club any time soon, more critical attention is directed at him than ever before. Critical attention is not only directed at what is between the covers of his books, but also at what type and shape they are. A new DeLillo novel is an “event,” that fateful intersection of publishing hype, marketing strategies, and reader expectations. The book as object and event carries significance.

Thus, much of the public reception of The Body Artist was geared toward the shape of the novel, that is to say, its length, a paltry 124 pages, with large print and generous margins. Is this even a novel, some reviewers were asking? What it is, came the response, is a symptom of DeLillo’s status as a writer, especially after the critical and commercial success of Underworld. Those in a less than generous mood considered the publication of a small book like The Body Artist ($22, plus tax) the publisher’s way to throw around the weight of one of its star authors. This cynical outlook has unfortunately been confirmed by Scribner’s recent decision to release DeLillo’s novella Pafko at the Wall, which was first published in Harper’s in 1992 and then incorporated into Underworld in 1997, as a book of equally diminutive dimensions as The Body Artist. Notwithstanding the $16 plus taxes for the additional 96 pages of Pafko at the Wall, there are those who see these two books as symptom of the malaise I mentioned above, DeLillo trying to decide how to follow a Big Book, and trying to do it right.

Discussing the length of The Body Artist should not be left exclusively to those considering the facts of publication themselves as significant. If the brevity of the novel is one of its aspects that sticks out, then its enigmatic quality is the other. There does not seem to be enough information for the reader to make sense of the plot. Given this conspicuous deficiency, a novel this short has to be about the things that are missing, the things its author has deleted or left out. Despite the density of the poetic language, the novel reads like a rough draft for a longer book. Or, perhaps more appropriately, a severely pared down version of a book that used to be longer, and from which, during a painstaking process of revision, the author has removed everything not essential. It is this severity that strikes most readers first: a married couple at breakfast; a woman in a house, first alone, then in the company of a stranger whose appearance in an upstairs room of this house remains as unexplained and mysterious as his eventual disappearance.

Thanks to DeLillo’s dazzling poetic language, the novel’s narrative austerity comes across first and foremost as an effect of style. Elusive, elliptic, and allusive, DeLillo’s language draws attention to information that is only present in a state of latency. Consider this passage in which Lauren Hartke, the eponymous body artist, separates the sections of the Sunday paper:

…there are people being tortured halfway around the world, who speak another language, and you have conversations with them more or less uncontrollably until you become aware you are doing it and then you stop, seeing whatever is in front of you at the time, like half a glass of juice in your husband’s hand. (19)

Like the stranger’s hair Lauren picks off the tip of her tongue, or the voices on the radio speaking Hindi, the outside world impinges upon the enclosed space of privacy. In the run-on sentences DeLillo puts into Lauren’s mouth, what impinges upon the interior monologue is conversation, verbal communication, dialogue. Another person, the addressee of these words, hovers around the speech patterns, waiting to shiver into solidity. As Lauren’s meditation on the newspaper suggests, the impingement always stems from a return of the observer’s gaze. Eventually, the world always looks back at you, the Cartesian cogito blinks out, and you are involved. In another moment of the breakfast scene, Lauren looks out the window watching a bird, appreciating “the clean shock of its appearance” (22). As she tries to “work past the details to the bird itself,” there is suddenly a sense that she is as much an object of scrutiny as the bird. “When birds look into houses, what impossible worlds they see,” she muses, experiencing “a kind of inquisitive chill that felt a little like a challenge.” In other words, here’s looking at you, kid!

Though the birdwatching scene suggests an intensely private experience, a dehistoricized meditation on cognition, the previous passage I quoted makes it clear that these philosophical meditations are deeply political as well. If looking at the world never grants you a safe position on the outside, then it matters that there are “people being tortured halfway around the world, who speak another language,” even if this unsettling fact is only making its way into our living-rooms via the radio.

The critical discourse that deals with phenomena that are present in their absence, and vice versa, is one that, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet been brought to bear upon DeLillo’s work. Perhaps because he is not a genre writer, it would seem far-fetched, upon first glance, to think of The Body Artist as a ghost story. Reviewer Tom Deignan makes the suggestion that the novel “can be seen as an intimate, unsettling update of another short work by a master novelist - Henry James’s ‘The Real Thing’ ” (29). Deignan suggests the metaphor of the ghost - after all, “The Real Thing” is a staple in anthologies of “literary” ghost stories - but he fails to unpack it. As the readers of these anthologies know all too well, and I am sure Deignan does too, at least since Toni Morrison’s Beloved, ghosts have become a respectable trope for the literary mainstream. Morrison also made sure that ghosts are endowed with a palpable physical body, complete with all its messy functions. The ghost in The Body Artist, who is very much a bodily presence, is an unidentified man who appears in Lauren Hartke’s summer house. He reminds her eerily, uncannily of her husband Rey, who committed suicide not much earlier. At a loss for a proper response, Lauren names the strangely helpless man Mr. Tuttle, after a high school science teacher. As this provisional name suggests, other people lurk in Mr. Tuttle, most notably Lauren’s late husband Rey. Since Mr. Tuttle’s face has “an unfinished look” (45), he becomes a screen on which Lauren projects all those who are all the more present for being physically absent. Since Rey’s suicide has shaken her sense of self, she tends to feel like a shadow of her former self at times, which is why she starts hearing her own voice, “unearthly almost” and “deeply disturbing” coming from Mr. Tuttle (50). “He seemed to be assuming her part in a conversation with someone” (51), conjuring up both Lauren and Rey at the same time. Like the computer screen on which Lauren watches a live video feed from a deserted country road in Finland, Mr. Tuttle serves as a point of entry through which the outside world comes crowding in on Lauren Hartke, on the world of the novel, and on DeLillo’s readers.

Ultimately, it is difficult to ignore the self-reflexive dimension of a novel as concerned with style as The Body Artist. In an interview with Tom LeClair conducted in 1979, DeLillo outlines how style in the novel reflects back on the writer:

What writing means to me is trying to make interesting, clear, beautiful language. Working at sentences and rhythms is probably the most satisfying thing I do as a writer. I think after a while a writer can begin to know himself through his language. He sees someone or something reflected back at him from these constructions. Over the years it’s possible for a writer to shape himself as a human being through the language he uses. I think written language, fiction, goes that deep. (83)

As I have suggested in my review of Underworld, published in ebr in 1998 DeLillo stands at a point of his career where he is taking inventory, pausing to consider where to go next. There is a sense of thematic satiation in Underworld. It is a novel full of stuff, of history, of grave themes. In it, DeLillo gathers all his prior accomplishments into one massive text. Underworld summarizes the thematic preoccupations of his previous novels. The Body Artist recapitulates this sense of completion and closure on a stylistic level. The novel displays an artistic prose at work that is at its tightest, densest, most focused, and most intimate. Yet it also manages to convey a sense of impingements from great distances, of the vastness and complexity of the world generating its language. While Underworld is loaded with the weight of global politics, ecology, Cold War history, and a host of other macrocosmic contexts, The Body Artist floats, seemingly unencumbered by such thematic weight. It is not that DeLillo has cut the cords completely, producing a version of Flaubert’s “book about nothing” in which style has attained such a state of purity and perfection that it operates regardless of all referentiality. On the contrary, all the macrocosmic contexts are still present in The Body Artist, but DeLillo demotes them to a spectral presence. They are ghosts, lingering persistently on the margins of our field of vision.

Assigning the macrocosmic themes to a spectral existence, DeLillo focuses our attention on the language itself, this instrument with which the writer constructs and by which he knows himself. The intensity of the preoccupation with style, together with the recurring theme of the collapsing Cartesian cogito, suggests that The Body Artist completes the summarizing gesture DeLillo began with Underworld. Most of DeLillo’s readers will catch glimpses of Underworld as the ghostly shadow palpable in the silences, absences, and ellipses of The Body Artist. Now that he has completed the project of constructing himself through fiction, and contemplated himself in the two novels that enact this gesture of completion, I cannot think of a reader presuming to predict what he is going to do next. With an aptly chosen title, LeClair’s and McCaffery’s collection of interviews, which features DeLillo early in his career, articulates the sense of excitement and risk that comes with the place in which the older, more mature DeLillo finds himself yet again, a place in which Anything Can Happen.

Works Cited

Amidon, Stephen. “Tasting the Breeze.” New Statesman (February 5, 2001): 52-3.

Deignan, Tom. “Sensation & Sensibility.” Commonweal (April 20, 2001): 28-9.

Gillespie, Nick. “Don DeLillo’s Bum Luck.” Reason (May 2001): 60-1.

Gray, Paul. “Shadows from Beyond.” Time (January 29, 2001): 65.

LeClair, Tom, and Larry McCaffery. “Don DeLillo.” Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983. 79-91.