The Body Artist
by Don DeLillo
Scribner, 124 pp., $22.00
After a Divine Comedy, why not haiku? So The Body Artist is seven hundred pages shorter than Underworld. Don DeLillo deserves a breather. Since Underworld, the best English-language novel of the Nineties, somehow failed to win either a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award, he may even deserve a free pass. When I suggested to one of the NBA fiction jurors that maybe her panel had been blitzed on dopamine, she insisted that all five of them felt Underworld could have been cut by at least two hundred pages, somehow.
“Somehow,” thinks Lauren Hartke in The Body Artist. “The weakest word in the language. And more or less. And maybe. Always maybe. She was always maybeing.” (Doesn’t this sound like Joan Didion? It often seems that DeLillo and Didion are crouched on the same fault line, alert to the same tectonic tremor, full of the same nameless, blue-eyed willies.)
But which two hundred pages? A writer goes on for as long as it takes to finish what needs saying, more or less. All DeLillo did was to dream the whole repressed history of American cold war culture, from J. Edgar Hoover to AIDS. If you are too lazy for nomadic wandering in such a brilliant maze, stick to stock quotations. And now he is likely to be punished for this starvation diet. Where are the politics? Where are the conspiracies? Still, some breathers are also a gasp. We have been wonderstruck often enough by the minimal—a Mondrian or Sung scroll.
Anyway, DeLillo’s back. Each of his eleven previous novels has been a far-flung language system, where the gravity is variable. Each includes the prose equivalent of an action painting, a Godard film, a jazz chorale, and an explosive charge like Semtex. They have been witty in turn about motels and supermarkets, movies and television, football and rock-and-rock, baseball and atom bombs, advertising and organized crime, science fiction and the stock exchange, intelligence agencies and terrorist sects. But they are also full of dense light, black bees, deserts, caves, and cults; of prophets and pilgrims. And these pilgrims, as hungry for meaning as Greek goats, are forever chewing through slick packaging, surface chatter, static cling, coded circuits, and layered film, past numbers, letters, and ideas, to “the fallen wonder of the world.” Since he is smarter than we are, better informed, and a lot more sensitive to beauty and dread, trust him.
Rey Robles is a sixty-four-year-old film director with cult status but dim prospects. His third wife, Lauren Hartke, is a thirty-six-year-old performance artist alert to birds and weather. They have rented a house in the blueberry barrens on the lobsterboat coast of New England. We meet them one morning in the kitchen, talking through each other’s smoke. Rey accuses Lauren: “You like everything. You love everything. You’re my happy home.” Lauren is trying to see the two of them, “still a little puddled in dream melt,” from the point of view of the …