Philosopher René Descartes is famous for his statement, “I think, therefore I am.” In The Body Artist, the title character Lauren Hartke might have said, “I sense, therefore I am,” and the mysterious Mr. Tuttle, “I will thought, therefore I am be.” Through these two characters, author Don DeLillo poses questions about the nature of reality.
The central story of The Body Artist can be interpreted many ways. One reviewer has called the book a ghost story. It also can be read as a set of odd coincidences, or as the narration of Lauren Hartke’s daydreams or hallucinations of her dead husband.
The book opens with a one-paragraph description of a scene, showing acute awareness of details of the world that most often are overlooked. The identity of the sensitive narrator of this paragraph is never revealed; DeLillo’s reason for including it likely is to alert the reader to pay close attention to details in the narrative that follows.
The remainder of the first chapter describes a commonplace scene of a man and woman eating breakfast. DeLillo deliberately fails to establish these characters—he identifies few physical characteristics and refers to them mostly as “he” and “she.” They have been together long enough to separate their lives: it is his toast and her cereal, his coffee and cup, her weather. The man, however, cannot recall whether the woman drinks juice in the morning; he says that they have not been together long enough for him to notice such details.
The woman, however, is acutely aware of her surroundings and details. She notices how the tap water runs clear, then becomes opaque, and she can feel the blue of her jeans as she dries her hands on them. The narrator shares her perspective, sensuously describing the rented house in which the couple lives, an old house with several working fireplaces, animals in the walls, and mildew everywhere. Given the woman’s sensitivity to her surroundings, it merits attention both that she mentions to the man an unusual sound she recently heard in the house and that she finds in her mouth a hair that she cannot identify as belonging to her or to the man.
This opening chapter establishes several traits of the woman that are integral to interpretation of the book. First, she tends to forget things. For example, she prepares a bowl of cereal and carries it to the table, forgetting to bring a spoon; she turns on the radio to hear the weather report but then forgets to listen to it; and she walks across the kitchen and forgets, by the time she reaches the other side, what prompted the trip. Second, she tends to immerse herself in the newspaper. After reading a few paragraphs, she begins to imagine the people and events being described, then uses them as the launching pad for her own imagination, creating new stories and situations. Her mental state is thus established as attentive to detail and highly imaginative but also prone to lapses, which might be momentary or might be the tip of larger problems with her mind.
Between chapters 1 and 2 is the obituary of Rey Robles, the man in chapter 1. He is found dead in the Manhattan apartment of his first wife, having committed suicide by gunshot at the age of sixty-four. The obituary states that during the decline of his career as a film director (fittingly, his films are described as “landscapes of estrangement”), he became depressed and became an alcoholic. It further states that he is survived by his third wife, Lauren Hartke; she is described as a “body artist,” with no further explanation.
The second chapter, like the first, begins with a brief narrative not connected directly to the main story. In this second-person account of “you” driving along a highway, almost everything you see seems as though it is happening or appears as if it was something else. The opening of chapter 6 is another second-person account of “you” dropping a paperclip, at first not realizing you had dropped it, then having it disappear when you reach down to pick it up. Chapter 7 opens with a single sentence, again in the second person, in which “you” see a dead squirrel that turns out to be a strip of burlap, but nevertheless you feel terror and pity. These brief passages remind the reader—drawn into the narrated experiences by the use of “you”—that the world can be interpreted in different ways and that things that do not exist can still evoke emotion.
At the beginning of chapter 2, Lauren returns to the house, taken on a six-month lease, that was the only place in which she and Rey had lived together while married. During her first days back, she hears again the peculiar noise that she heard in the first chapter. She traces the noise to a bedroom and finds a man, wearing only white underwear and a...
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