The Body Artist
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 blue jay at the outside feeder. Rey drives off. But instead of returning with a can of Ajax, he goes all the way to New York to shoot himself in the apartment of his first wife, a furious fashion consultant.
About Rey, we learn that he was born in Barcelona, grew up in the Soviet Union after his father was killed in the Spanish Civil War, came of age in Paris as a street juggler and bit-part player, moved to Los Angeles for a spaghetti western, and became what his obituary calls a “poet of lonely places,” of “people in landscapes of estrangement.” None of this matters. Although any other DeLillo novel would have explored a character like Rey at length and in situ—Madrid! Moscow! postwar Left Bank! postmodern LA!—this one is mysteriously incurious about how he lived and why he died. It insists on knowing as little about him as, apparently, his third wife does. Mostly, it wants to watch a bereft Lauren decide whether to blame herself, to unzip and spill her beings: “She heard herself say, ‘I am Lauren,’ like a character in black spandex in a science-fiction film.” And later on: “I am Lauren. But less and less.”
About Lauren, we are told that her father is a classical scholar on an archaeological dig in the Aegean, her mother was a symphony orchestra harpist who died when she was nine, her brother is a State Department specialist on China, and she majored in philosophy at college before dropping out to join a troupe of Seattle street performers. This would seem to matter a lot, especially the dead mother: “It wasn’t her fault. It had nothing to do with her.” Did Lauren’s mother also commit suicide? Maybe. But, once again, what Lauren doesn’t know, DeLillo won’t tell.
What happens next is that Lauren returns to the blueberry barrens, finds a stranger in her rented house, and undergoes a series of spiritual calisthenics unique in our literature, a kind of emergency yoga. It’s as if Henry James, after The Turn of the Screw, had teamed up with his brother William, after The Varieties of Religious Experience, to write a ghost story in which—somehow!—Rumi’s whirling dervish met Conrad’s Secret Sharer.
There are at least three DeLillos. There is, first of all, the poster boy for postmodernism—the wised-up child of randomness and incongruity; the Geronimo of vandalism, bricolage, and mediascape pastiche; the conspiracy theorist of corporate power, government secrecy, malign systems, and the “whole enormous rot and glut and glare” of pop culture and consumer violence; the hang-glider on waves of paranoia. In Libra, Lee Harvey Oswald is told: “This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” In Underworld, Matt Shay senses “some deeper meaning that existed solely to keep him from knowing what it was.”
This first DeLillo, cryptic and reclusive, has issued bulletins from zones of dread on “the claustrophobia of vast spaces” and “the curse of unbelonging”; on miniature golf, serial killers, “abandoned meanings” and “crisis sociology”; on the incantatory power of nostalgia and cliché. In White Noise, a whole town is so afraid of invisible death that the local college and local supermarket sell it like a product and sing it like a jingle: pain relievers and cough suppressants; Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue; Random Access Memory, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and Mutual Assured Destruction. In his play The Day Room, where straitjackets are called camisoles and you can’t tell the doctors from the actors from the maniacs, we are equally menaced by heavy water, alkaline rain, thermal inversions, lackluster industrials, and saturated fats. Ratner’s Star instructs us, like a curse: “BREATHE! GLEAM! VERBALIZE! DIE!”
Having diagnosed “an epidemic of seeing,” Poster Boy disperses his cunning among the multimedia like so many angel-headed pixels, and speaks in all their tongues. Movies, for instance: According to Great Jones Street, “The whole concept of movies is so fundamentally Egyptian. Movies are dreams. Pyramids. Great rivers of sleep.” The impossible mission in Running Dog is to find a porn film shot in Hitler’s bunker. Volterra in The Names seeks to catch on camera the alphabet killer cult, Ta Onomata, in the very act of snuff: “Film is more than the twentieth-century art. It’s another part of the twentieth-century mind. It’s the world seen from inside.” Murray in White Noise is asked to teach a course in the cinema of car crashes. In Underworld, when they aren’t watching Eisenstein or the Zapruder assassination snippet, they look at surveillance tape of the Texas Highway Serial Killer.
There is more about television: Ratner’s Star imagines a game show, “Abort That Fetus!” Players ends with “serial grief” on a motel TV screen. Libra begins with Oswald and his mother watching “blue heads” in the Bronx, either Racket Squad or Dragnet. Karen, the ex-Moonie in Mao II, can’t get enough of the nightly news, “the terror that came blowing through the fog”: “She took it all in, she believed it all, pain, ecstasy, dog food, all the seraphic matter, the baby bliss that falls from the air.” Murray in White Noise tells his students that TV offers “incredible amounts of psychic data,” “opens ancient memories of world birth,” “welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up the picture pattern,” and “practically overflows with sacred formulas.”
And this brief canvass doesn’t do justice to his anthropologizing of such superstitions as advertising, which shows up in almost every novel from Americana (commercials for death on hate radio) to Underworld (the outdoor billboard with the angel Esmeralda and the orange juice ad). Or spectator sports: football in End Zone, baseball in Underworld, and ice hockey in Amazons (published in 1980 under the nom de plume of “Cleo Birdwell”). Or automatic sliding doors, brand-name T-shirts, Pop Art, and UFOs. While the Internet won’t show up until the end of Underworld, it is a principal player in The Body Artist. So is the telephone answering machine, although not even DeLillo can improve on his earlier riff in Mao II:
The machine makes everything a message, which narrows the range of discourse and destroys the poetry of nobody home. Home is a failed idea. People are no longer home or not home. They’re either picking up or not picking up.
No wonder they love him on the Foggy Bottoms of Academe, all those professors paddling their guitars like kayaks upstream on pop culture’s pissy waters. His rock lyrics and graffiti, his Elvis and Hitler, his mimicry and brain fade, would seem to confirm them in their suspicion that everything in the data drizzle and the magnetic flash is equally weightless or trivial; that all books, films, ads, TV shows, baseball cards, and music videos are socially constructed compost heaps of previous texts, at best unwilling stooges and at worst bad-faith purveyors of the usual dominant discourse; and that all of us, Chicken Littles and Tiny Tims, are likewise each the helpless vector of forces we can’t even locate, much less modify.
But there is a second DeLillo—call him the Bombhead—for whom dread is more than a pomo lollipop, for whom the Holocaust and Hiroshima are watermarks on a black page, for whom not just consumer culture but also politics and history drift deathward, like the falling of matter in the universe. Who hit the road in Americana? “Sons of the chemistry sets in the five-walled city,” running away from the Pentagon’s war on Vietnam, ending up in Dealey Plaza in dreadful Dallas. In End Zone, Major Staley was a crew member on the Nagasaki bombing mission. In Great Jones Street, before they get him with a trope-killing hypodermic syringe, Bucky the rock musician will lay tracks like “VC Sweetheart” and “Cold War Lover.”
What scientists discover in Ratner’s Star is that the signal they thought they had picked up from outer space is in fact the boomerang echo of a chain reaction from our own distant past, when we blew ourselves up and had to start civilization all over again in a postatomic cave. Why are so many Americans abroad in The Names? “Bank loans, arms credits, goods, technology. Technicians are the infiltrators of ancient societies. They speak a secret language. They bring new kinds of death.” John F. Kennedy actually dies in Libra, no matter what the black-op agents thought they were up to with their masquerade. In the bottom circle of Underworld‘s hell—deeper down than the bomb shelters, commodity pits, and radioactive waste; than denial, repression, and the fossil fuels of memory—there is a village of deformed children not on any map of Kazakhstan.