Understanding The Body Artist

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Don Delillo has been a well known writer for as long as I have been alive. He’s been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and probably should have won the Nobel prize if it weren’t for  Bob Dylan. For this week’s post, I will discuss his 2001 novella, The Body Artist. Being that my Master’s thesis revolves around the particular functions and uses of metafiction, I find this story particularly intriguing. However, I also found The Body Artist to be both intriguing and frustrating, in equal parts. While it is a very short novella, The Body Artist is not a simple casual read. It is almost a prerequisite to have an analytic eye when reading through this story.

On the forefront there is always a sense of confusion and loneliness through every part of the book. The fact that a small, strange, and almost alien-like male figure briefly takes up residence with the newly widowed main character is both strange and concerning. Is Lauren (the widow) suffering a mental breakdown? Is Mr. Tuttle (the creature) actually there, or is he simply a creation of her overactive imagination? Is this all just a more elaborate version of her newspaper daydreaming described in chapter one? (Delillo 16). She reads the newspaper while eating breakfast and drifts away imagining that the articles are events occurring in her own life. This is incredibly important as shortly after her argumentative breakfast scene she is confronted with the death of her husband. Also of strong importance are the birds she watches through the window. She realizes that this particular bird is a nest thief and contemplates “the impossible world they see” when they view her through the window (24). This is important, because Mr. Tuttle acts as a nest thief once her husband Rey is no longer with her. The small man who mimics Rey’s actions is foreshadowed by the bird outside her window. So, is Mr. Tuttle just some sort of Waif? Has he really been there spying on them, learning to mimic their gestures and voices? In the end, we are left guessing, as it seems Lauren is as well.

No matter the nature of Mr. Tuttle, his presence in her home is somewhat disturbing. She longs for her late husband so strongly that she is willing to adopt this strange being into her life. Despite his ability to recreate brief moments of her memories, Mr. Tuttle is a one way road. He does not offer her true companionship, he is not a replacement for Rey, and he only emphasizes her own loneliness. He is the same as the live feed of the empty road in Kotka Finland. She is just left focusing on the possibility that she will see a car driving down that road in the middle of the night, or that Mr. Tuttle can give her some sort of answer, but of course, there is no car and there is no answer from Mr. Tuttle. Just as there is no easy solution for Lauren. She builds belief around these things to avoid her grieving process and to replace any real meaningful contact with the world. She pours herself into her work, which only exasperates the mimicking of real relationships.

As for metafiction in the novel, it is not quite clear either. There is a narrator. The narrator does switch perspective and tone several times. He/she begins the novel with an acute attention to detail before moving into an average mundane scene of a couple’s morning routine. The narrator switches to the second person at a few moments of the story, ambiguously speaking directly to the reader. The description of a dropped paper clip further calls the reader’s attention to the story, describing a common experience of losing something simple. So simple and forgettable that, “It takes a second or two before you know it and even then you know it only as a formless distortion of the teeming space around your body” (Delillo 91). The passage continues to explain a “belated” understanding of what you had missed. Is this a direct aside to the reader, a way to explain that something has been missed in the story, something just on the tip of the tongue, waiting to be understood after the fact? Perhaps Lauren cannot understand her relationship with Rey, or her relationship with the world around her until afterwards, when she has been forced to reflect on the small moments of their life together.

These instances of second person narrative are the most likely source of metafiction in the novel, as there is an uncertain assumption that it is directed beyond the discourse of the novel itself. There are however many disruptions and commentaries within the discourse of the story. The obituary in the first chapter and the article written by Lauren’s friend in the 6th chapter pull the reader from the linear story of Lauren and provide an outside perspective. Mr. Tuttle himself is a disruption. From the first time his hair is discovered in chapter one, he begins disrupting Lauren’s stream of thought. His presence in the story is an empty hole. He is simply a repetition of past events. He is the sounding board for Lauren’s own thoughts and interior commentary. He is a disruption to her grieving process. However, all of these moments are arguably not metafiction, as they never break from the discourse of the story. However, Mr. Tuttle is quite an interesting fellow, because he does cause the reader to doubt Lauren’s reality. How much of what she or Rey said was real? How much of Mr. Tuttle, if any, did she fictionalize herself? In the end the answers are as ambiguous as the end of the book itself.

 

-Frank

 

Works Cited

Delillo, Dan. The Body Artist. New York: Scribner. 2001. Print.

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