Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Eerie and Strange (In a Good Way)

I can hardly begin to say how other-worldly Don DeLillo's novella, The Body Artist, is. At any moment I expected it to fold in on itself, revealing that its plot and characters are only a reverie of the mind, or perhaps a dream. Amidst this trance of disbelief, the plot unrolls smoothly and steadily, adding strangeness upon strangeness.

Lauren the performance artist and Rey the painter talk past each other in the kitchen of the house they share, gauzy somehow with a premonition of trouble to come. A newspaper article, reproduced, tells of Rey's suicide. Lauren stays in the house and soon discovers that she and the house are both haunted by a mysterious young man she calls Mr. Tuttle. He lives upstairs somehow, whether by guile, desocialization, or escape from a mental institution, it's impossible to say. Grieving the death of her husband, losing track of time, Lauren become obsessed with Mr. Tuttle, his quirky distance from everything that passes for normal life, and his uncanny ability to hear and parrot conversations from her own past, bringing them into the present. Ultimately, she pours the experience into her art.

That's an unusual plot but fairly easily described. What's more difficult to convey is the atmosphere DeLillo creates, sparely contorting his language to create vignettes that move, in which every detail seems significant, every variation exquisite. With pauses and repetitions, his economical prose makes every word count.

Lauren's body is her artwork and she shapes it to her will. Her life is her artwork, too, while she transitions from wife to widow to whatever comes next, adopting what she will need in the future and paring away the rest.


In the morning she heard the noise. It had the same sort of distinctness she'd noted the first time, about three months ago, when she and Rey had gone upstairs to investigate. He said it was a squirrel or a raccoon trapped somewhere. She thought it was a calculated stealth. It had a certain measured quality. She didn't think it was an animal noise. . . .

She found him the next day in a small bedroom off the large empty room at the far end of the hall on the third floor. He was smallish and fine-boned and at first she thought he was a kid, sandy-haired and roused from a deep sleep, or medicated maybe.

He sat on the edge of the bed in his underwear. In the first seconds she thought he was inevitable. She felt her way back in time to the earlier indications that there was someone in the house and she arrived at this instant, unerringly, with her perceptions all sorted and endorsed.

Note: This book counts toward the Color Coded Reading Challenge (brown) and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2018.                   

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