Tales from the cryptic

Remember when Michael Jordan tried to make it as a pro baseball player? “Michael,” you wanted to say, “what the hell are you thinking? You’re already the very best there is at one thing. Just keep doing that!”

That’s more or less how I felt reading Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist. DeLillo justifiably has been acclaimed as one of the great novelists of our time on the strength of big, dazzling works like Underworld and White Noise, showing himself to be a master at juggling scores of characters, working through decades of recent history and spinning dense plots that can sustain interest over the course of 700-800 pages. He has a brilliant eye for pop culture reference points, an uncanny ear for dialogue and a wonderful ability to do all of this and still address The Big Questions that so many contemporary authors would rather steer clear of.

Now, as if to confound expectations, DeLillo offers The Body Artist, a small, intimate novella in which only one character is rendered in any detail and in which almost nothing actually happens. It’s as if DeLillo has decided to play by someone else’s rules, and it is, by DeLillo’s lofty standards, a failure.

The story concerns Lauren Hartke, a 36-year-old performance artist, whom we meet having breakfast with her husband, Rey Robles, a has-been film director. The scene is a meticulously observed meditation on the routines and psychological boundaries that evolve between couples as we watch them absently make toast, trade barbs and listen to the weather report. It turns out to be their last breakfast together, as we read in a newspaper clipping sandwiched between the first and second chapters that Robles subsequently drove to the home of an ex-wife and killed himself. What follows is a mysterious metaphysical parable, as Hartke struggles to come to terms with this shattering event—“Why shouldn’t the death of a person you love bring you to lurid ruin?”—and ultimately gives her feelings form in a performance of her “body art,” which we read about in another newspaper piece set between chapters.

Central to this post-modern fable is the presence of Mr. Tuttle, a middle-aged man who appears without explanation in the attic of the house Hartke and Robles shared. Mr. Tuttle does not answer questions about who he is or where he came from. When he does speak, it is in cryptic riddles that seem to echo the musings on the meaninglessness of language we find in works like Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape or Waiting for Godot: “Coming and going I am leaving,” “Being has come to me” and so forth. Mr. Tuttle also displays an uncanny skill for mimicry. Is he an escaped mental patient? A spirit? Where did he come from? How long has he been there?

None of these questions are answered. But after Mr. Tuttle disappears, Hartke learns to imitate him, somehow managing to transform her body into a semblance of Tuttle’s for the performance she gives near the end of the book. It’s all very cryptic, but I would guess that Mr. Tuttle exists only in Hartke’s mind, and that DeLillo intends him to serve as a kind of metaphor for the externalization of personal experience that takes place as she seeks to turn her inner life into art.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to a very satisfying read. DeLillo, as post-modernist, possesses neither the humor of a Beckett, the terror of a Kafka or the wonder of a Garcia Marquez, and The Body Artist never really comes to life. While DeLillo undoubtedly deserves credit for this decidedly non-commercial stab at diversification, most readers will want to bypass The Body Artist in favor of DeLillo’s other works, which find this outstanding writer playing to his strengths rather than exposing his weaknesses.