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.
Besides this career-long leitmotif of death-dealing technology and Bombhead jitters, this morbid fascination with “the language of the mathematics of war, nuclear game theory, that bone country of tech data and little clicking words,” there is his obsession with the blood-intimate relationship between intelligence agencies and terrorists; his sympathy as both a writer and a PEN activist for poet-hostages and jailbird intellectuals; and the scorching pages he has written on our urban homeless—the soot-faced pushers of shopping carts, the sleepers in tents and subway tunnels, the missing children on milk cartons, the women who live in garbage bags, “like some Bombay cartoon.” Not for them a fireproof Libra cubicle full of “theories that gleam like jade idols.”
Finally, there is DeLillo the secret sadhu, a holy man in search of God. The “christblood colors” that Sister Edgar finds on the World Wide Web in Underworld in the rumble and pulse of a fireball, in the skirted stem and smoking platinum cap of a mushroom cloud, when she taps out www.dd.- com/miraculum and gets a fifty-eight-megaton bomb, have their symbolic equivalents in the other novels, too, from Dymphna, Americana’s Nervous Breakdown Saint, to Saint Vincent who won’t even answer the telephone at his own hospital in Great Jones Street, to the White Noise nun who only pretends to believe in heaven because somebody has to. In Americana, End Zone, Ratner’s Star, Running Dog, and Mao II, there are Calvinists with bagpipes, revivalists who speak in tongues and play with snakes, armored icons and silent Luthers looking down from two-tiered Gothic windows, and a Fordham lad who strangles a German shepherd with his rosary beads. About the lapses of the Catholic Church, a character in Americana will explain: “It’s like the lying and cheating General Motors does. You still need cars.”
Nor is all of this just because DeLillo himself was trained by Jesuits at Fordham. His is a hounding after something sacred so ecumenical, it’s almost promiscuous. In these pages we also inhale passing spores of animism, Taoism, Vedanta, Zen; the stray obelisk, the surprise mosaic, and the Buddhist swastika; the sperm demons of Kabbala, Hindu cosmology, and hermaphroditic doll-gods; even such “hyperatavistic” blood-cults as the Happy Valley Regenade Faction in Great Jones Street and the serial-killing Ta Onomata in The Names. Owen in The Names will note that “if Greek or Latin characters are paving stones, then Arabic is rain”; next wonder, “Was religion the point of language?”; and finally get the message, in Aramaic: “The river of language is God.” Mao II informs us, “When the Old God goes, they pray to flies and bottletops.”And none of this is any less peculiar than the Aztec custom of pouring the blood of slaughtered victims into the mouths of idols, or how a Mandingo priest will “hold a newborn child in his arms, whisper in its ear and spit three times in its face.”
It seems to me to have been the Secret Sadhu’s enterprise from the beginning, inside the Wurlitzer and glitterdome, to listen for deeper chords than disco, to seek a saving grace in more complex structures like number theory or linguistics. In Ratner’s Star, for instance, he explores mathematics as an “avant-garde”; whole-numbered harmonies and “the strangeness, beauty and freedom of repeated sequences”; “ancient and naive astronomies of bone and stone” and the modern argument between particles and waves about the substance and nature of light; the splendid examples of Archimedes, “killed by dreamless Romans,” and Descartes, buried without his right hand. He ends up, alas, with “recursive undecidability” and a “noncognate celestial anomaly.” Endor, the mathematician turned Kabbalist, may marvel aloud: “Einstein and Kafka! They knew each other! They stood in the same room and talked! Einstein and Kafka!” But we don’t know what they said.
In The Names, that amazing thriller, he turns from the language of science to utterance itself—secret syllables of blood recollection, alphabets that spell the name of God, signs wrested from the “terrible holy gibberish.” He looks for the “transparent word” in the palace of Knossos, in Sanskrit pavilions, on Ashoka’s rocks. But always it’s beyond reach. “Don’t go too far,” he cautions us about volcanic Crete. “There’s the Minotaur, the labyrinth. Darker things. Beneath the lilies and antelopes and blue monkeys.” Until a computer translates Linear A, we can’t even guess what the Minoans might have been secretly up to. DeLillo, who has seen the sign of a double axe on a pillar crypt in a tomb-cave, like a sinister graffito, seems to be hinting at human sacrifice. Only after his “risk analyst” antihero is mortified to learn that, all along, he has been working for the CIA, will he be ready to read the meaning of the Acropolis:
This is what I found, deeper than the art and mathematics embodied in the structure, the optical exactitudes. I found a cry for pity. This is what remains to the mauled stones in their blue surround, this open cry, this voice we know as our own. …I move past the scaffolding and walk down the steps, hearing one language after another, rich, harsh, mysterious, strong. This is what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant or slaughtered rams. Our offering is language.
No wonder that Bill Gray, the Salingerlike blocked novelist in Mao II, can no longer see himself in his own sentences. No wonder that Bronzini, the music teacher in Underworld, wants to stop a little girl in mid-hopscotch, to “stop everything for half a second, atomic clocks, body clocks, the microworld in which physicists search for time—and then run it backwards, unjump the girl, rewind the life, give us all a chance to do it over.” In his very first novel, DeLillo complained: “Saints talk to birds but only lunatics get an answer.”
Which brings us back to Lauren in her rented house, because the Secret Sadhu wrote The Body Artist. She has sentenced herself to solitude and discipline: “There were too many things to understand and finally just one.” Still, almost immediately, not even counting her erotic reveries or the Tippi Hedren birds, she has company. An upstairs noise, a “calculated stealth,” proves to be a middle-aged man in his underwear who can’t tell her who he is or where he came from. Instead of calling around, she feeds his face and bathes his body. “He had a foundling quality—lost and found—and she was, she guessed, the finder.” So the stranger she names “Mr. Tuttle” is incorporated into her discipline, her tripartite strip search.
At odd hours, she logs on to her computer to look at “a live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland.” This is Kotka, where it always the middle of the night and a webcam is always watching empty asphalt. “She didn’t know the meaning of this feed but took it as an act of floating poetry.” Besides: “It emptied her mind and made her feel the deep silence of other places, the mystery of seeing over the world to a place stripped of everything but a road that approaches and recedes, both realities occuring at once.”
When she isn’t feeding the birds or not answering the phone, she punishes her body: cat stretch, headstand, neckroll; snake shapes, flower bends, “prayerful spans of systematic breathing”; all-fours, rump up, head cranks, wheeling; emery board, pumice stone, “clippers and creams that activated the verbs of abridgement and excision”; wax strip, cold sizzle, oatmeal scrub, and bleach: “This was her work, to disappear from her former venues of aspect and bearing and to become a blankness, a body slate erased of every past resemblance.” In the mirror, she wants to see someone “classically unseen, the person you are trained to look through, bled of familiar effect, a spook in the night static of every public toilet.”
She reads aloud to Mr. Tuttle from a textbook on human anatomy, coaches him at nursery rhymes in French, and asks questions and records his enigmatic answers on the tape machine to which Rey had once confided his film ideas. This is what Mr. Tuttle says: “It is not able.” “The trees are some of them.” “Talk to me. I am talking.” “I know how much this house. Alone by the sea.” “Say some words to say some words.” “I said this what I said.” “I am doing. This yet that.” “I know him where he was.” “A thing of the most. Days yes years.” And: “What is somehow?”
It is as if Lauren were, at once, Jane Goodall and Noam Chomsky, grilling Doris Lessing’s Ben. Maybe he’s from Kotka, Finland. Unless: “Am I the first human to abduct an alien?” But as these chats meander on so weirdly, like verbal Rorschachs, verging at one extreme on the aphasic and at another on the glossolalic, Mr. Tuttle seems to shift shapes, from graveyard ghost to spirit guide to dybbuk; from Jung’s anima to Conrad’s Secret Sharer to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Considering all those birds at the feeder, he could even be the lapwing in the Sufi parable of soul migration, flying away from the ego toward the Absolute.
In sequence, Lauren suspects: That words for him have phases, like the moon. That he has placed her in “a set of counter-surroundings, of simultaneous insides and outsides.” That he mimics phrases he’s heard in hiding, including her voice and Rey’s. That he lives “in a kind of time that has no narrative quality.” That he doesn’t know how “to measure himself to what we call the Now.” That he is “a piece of found art” whose future is unnamed. That he is “alone and unable to improvise, make himself up,” “drifts from one reality to another,” and “laps and seeps, somehow, into other reaches of being,” in “bewilderment and pain,” because “he is in another structure, another culture,” where time, rather than a narrative, is something “sheer and bare, empty of shelter.”
“Why,” she wonders, “do I think I’m standing closer to you than you are to me?” But then what pops out of his mouth is this:
Coming and going I am leaving. I will go and come. Leaving has come to me. We all, shall all, will all be left. Because I am here and where. And I will go or not or never. And I have seen what I will see. If I am where I will be. Because nothing comes between me.
Beyond eerie, this is profoundly Delphic and sort of Godot. Lauren cracks:
It came out of him nonstop and it wasn’t schizophrenic speech or the whoop of rippling bodies shocked by God. He sat pale and still. She watched him. It was pure chant, transparent, or was he saying something to her? She felt an elation that made it hard for her to listen carefully. Was he telling her what it was like to be him, to live in his body and mind? She tried to hear this but could not. The words ran on, sensuous and empty, and she wanted him to laugh with her, to follow her out of herself. This is the point, yes, this is the stir of true amazement. And some terror at the edge, or fear of believing, some displacement of the self, but this is the point, this is the wedge into ecstasy, the old deep meaning of the word, your eyes rolling upward in your skull.
Whoever he is, he is “here in the howl of the world. This was the howling face, the stark, the not-as-if of things,” “a man who remembers the future.” And it is from this howling face, and the mortification of her own flesh, and the video stream from Finland, and the voice on the answering machine, and the maddened birds on the blueberry barrens, that Lauren will later fashion her lacerating performance in a “dungeon space” at the Boston Center for the Arts, her one-woman Body Time—“a still life that’s living, not painted.”
Well, you are probably thinking of “The Hunger Artist.” And so was DeLillo, at least last May at the New York Public Library, when he put together Kafka’s story with the imprisonment of Wei Jingsheng in China and the performance art of a Russian emigre in a Soho cage, pretending to be a dog with a rubber lamb chop. I am also reminded of the strange in Camus and the nauseous in Sartre, of novels in German by Peter Handke and Christa Wolf, and of novels in Japanese by Kobo Abe and Junichiro Tanizaki, who would have loved Lauren’s foot fetishism. For that matter, Paul Valéry suggests himself: fremissements d’une feuille effacée (“shiverings of an effaced leaf”).
But the bird talks back to the saint. If fairy tales and epic quests hang together according to time-tested recipes, so do most mystic journeys toward Enlightenment, from Heraclitus and Siddhartha to Saint John of the Cross and William Blake; from Gnostics, Kabbalists, and the Indian ecstatics, to the flight of the Persian plover across the Seven Valleys to Self-Annihilation. The pilgrim is a soul, the bad weather is symbolic, and so is the migration. In this geography of the invisible, there are voices and visions, detachments and amazements, ravens and hounds, dark nights and rivers of light, awe and apparition, abandonment and madness, ecstasy and trance.
So it is for Lauren, scourging self, embracing mystery, reinscripting her own body for her stricken art, deciding who she will be next. And so it is for DeLillo, too, who had to abandon politics, history, personality, small talk, lyrical exhilaration, literature, and other minds, even irony, even velocity, to follow her into her howling chastisements. Not a cry for pity this time in the mauled stones. But of her grief, the two of them have made something indelible—a piercingly pure blue note.
February 22, 2001