Skip to main content

The Body Artist


The Body Artist


After the 12-course meal that was Don DeLillo's 1997 magnum
opus, UNDERWORLD, his new novel, THE BODY ARTIST, running only 124
large-type pages, may strike readers as a mere after-dinner mint.
But don't be fooled; this is a novella that demands --- and
deserves --- slow, careful study. It's a book you may well want to
read three times: once for the story, again for the spare, solemn
prose, and a third time for the metaphysical
"body artist" of the title is Lauren Hartke, a young woman who
practices a discipline that incorporates equal parts pantomime,
contortionism, and ventriloquy. She lives with her husband, Rey, a
forgotten director of art-house films, in a rented house on a
lonely stretch of New England coast.
Following Rey's unexpected suicide, Lauren resumes her life
only to discover one day a strange person sitting on a bed in a
disused room, an otherworldly man-child who speaks in cryptic
utterances that lack context and syntax. She assumes that he
suffers from autism or mental illness and plans to notify
authorities; but changes her mind after hearing him repeat, word
for word and intonation for intonation, a conversation she had with
Rey on the day of his death.
man says other inexplicable things, discussing events, such as an
approaching rainstorm, as though they had already happened. As the
days go by, Lauren fixates on the man, whom she calls Mr. Tuttle
after a schoolteacher from her childhood. She imagines him to be,
like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5, adrift in
an undifferentiated sea of time, a figure whose lack of any past or
future makes him a stranger to his own life. What captivates her
above all is his apparent ability to channel Rey: "[H]e knew how to
make her husband live in the air that rushed from his lungs into
his vocal folds --- air to sounds, sounds to words, words the man
shaped fatefully on his lips and tongue."
Then, just as suddenly as he appeared, Mr. Tuttle vanished
again, and Lauren is left alone to make sense of the episode
through her esoteric art, and to begin the grieving process
a plot that is both as simple as a haiku and as complex as particle
physics, simultaneously occupying multiple quantum states. Is Mr.
Tuttle really an unwilling time traveler? Is Lauren no more than a
desperate woman whose grief and isolation have made her irrational?
Are time and identity really the same substance, like matter and
Rewarding as the book can be as a metaphysical exploration,
readers of THE BODY ARTIST may find themselves frustrated by its
protagonist, who comes off as something of a cipher. Inscrutable to
begin with, she seems to fade before our eyes as the story unfolds,
becoming faint and insubstantial like Mr. Tuttle as she disengages
from everything around her. "I am Lauren. But less and less," she
tells herself. As the story nears its ambiguous conclusion, she
seems in danger of vanishing too, but it is hard to care, so alien
has she become. Even her thoughts have come to resemble Mr.
Tuttle's: "Being here has come to me. Because it was lonely, this
coast in the season, and because she had to touch the newel every
Still, for those more interested in meanings than answers, THE
BODY ARTIST is a quietly engrossing tale from one of America's most
brilliant and serious-minded writers.

Reviewed by Jeff Bercovici on January 21, 2011

The Body Artist

  • Publication Date: February 6, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 074320395X
  • ISBN-13: 9780743203951