Reflections: The Body Artist

The Body Artist (2001), by Don DeLillo, falls into the peculiar genre of the "short novel" alongside works like The Stranger and Of Mice and Men. Short novels beg to be considered on different terms than longer pieces; they are often engaged in a hyper-focused description of one particular event or experience. In a longer novel, this would be precious or over-bearing, but in short fiction it is a kind of art: the micro-biology of the literary, if you will.

DeLillo here focuses on the intense mental anxiety produced when we confront the inexplicable. Lauren, the body artist, first faces the odd circumstances surrounding her husband's death and then the appearance of Mr. Tuttle, the name Lauren gives to a man child of unknown provenance who she discovers camping out in her home. Tuttle is incapable of creating comprehensible utterances but can reprise those he's heard before with eerie accuracy. In the rambling house that she has rented, she shares a space with her husband's ghost and the imitative Mr. Tuttle who brings his voice and gesticulations back to her at unpredictable intervals.

Lauren's response to the emotional challenges she faces is to rehearse them publicly in her professional role as a performance artist. Baffling her audience, she reenacts the odd occurrences of her life. In this regard she shares more than one might think with her Mr. Tuttle, putting on a show that aims to create human connection about abnormal events while simply underlining its impossibility.

Focusing in such detail on the odd events in Lauren's life and the strange mind that receives and processes them requires a narrative language far from ordinary. To recount the story of Lauren's coping requires, from the start, a language of its own that denies the order inherent in grammar and accepted nomenclature. The narrative voice sings a kind of poetry that walks a line between the now less than shocking language of stream of consciousness and an imagined representation of what mentalese would sound like if, paradoxically, it were put into words.

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