The Body Artist
is a 2001 novella by American author Don DeLillo. The artist of the title is Lauren Hartke, who is visited by a mysterious and helpless figure Mr. Tuttle in the weeks after her husband’s suicide. Told through a combination of third-person narrative and newspaper articles, the novella explores the nature of grief and the genesis of art. DeLillo is one of America’s foremost writers, best known for his National Book Award-winning novel, White Noise
(1989) and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Underworld
The novel opens with a couple—later revealed to be Lauren and her husband, Rey Robles—eating breakfast in an isolated home on the coast outside New York City. Nothing remarkable happens, and the couple exchanges only a few words. We learn that the couple has been together long enough that they have established some aspects of their routine—she has cereal, he has toast—but not long enough that they both know everything about one another. The man does not remember whether the woman has juice for breakfast or not. The house is old, with working fireplaces and taxidermy on the walls.
Lauren is very observant: she notices that the tap water runs clear first, and then opaque. She also experiences synesthesia, feeling the blue of her jeans as she wipes her hands. She is so absorbed in her surroundings that she is absent-minded. She forgets a spoon to eat her cereal, forgets to listen to the weather on the radio. When she reads the newspaper, she becomes absorbed in the articles, imagining new stories based on the details she finds there.
Lauren mentions two strange occurrences: she recently heard an unfamiliar sound from somewhere in the house, and during breakfast, she finds a hair in her mouth, which does not appear to belong either to her or to her husband.
Rey leaves the house to go for a drive.
The next section of the book is Rey’s obituary. It is here that we learn his name and Lauren’s for the first time. We also learn that Rey is not his real name: born Alejandro Alquezar, he adopted the name Rey Robles when he became a filmmaker. The obituary describes Rey’s films as “landscapes of estrangement,” and notes that their commercial failure led to Rey’s alcoholism and bouts of depression. He committed suicide at his first wife’s apartment in Manhattan. We also learn that Lauren was Rey’s third wife, and much younger than him. She is described simply as a “body artist.”
Her friend Mariella encourages Lauren to leave the house, but she refuses, instead, remaining alone with her grief. She begins to feel unmoored from time and space, even from her own body, and she explores this feeling through her art. Her days become regimented, almost ritualized. She practices what she calls “bodywork,” a series of exercises, stretches, and expressive postures she has devised to maintain fitness for her performances. She chops firewood. She stares for hours at footage from a webcam overlooking a road in Finland.
One day she hears a noise coming from upstairs. She investigates but cannot identify the cause of the noise. The next day she investigates again, and this time she finds a man in one of the bedrooms. He is wearing only white underwear and he looks like “a kid, sandy-haired and roused from deep sleep.”
The man cannot produce full sentences or respond coherently to Lauren’s questions. His fragmented remarks echo past conversations between Lauren and her late husband; the man can even reproduce the couple’s body language and intonations. Lauren names the man “Mr. Tuttle.” She bathes him and brings him with her as she goes about her routine, probing him to try to discover how it is that he remembers bygone conversations between Lauren and Rey.
Mr. Tuttle’s appearance changes continually, but because he is able to capture Rey’s expressions and gestures, Lauren begins to equate him with Rey and even begins to feel longing sexual feelings towards him. One day Mr. Tuttle repeats Lauren and Rey’s last conversation (from the novella’s opening chapter), and soon afterward, he disappears.
Another newspaper article—written by Mariella—informs us what happens next. Lauren has created a new performance piece, in which she transforms into a masculine figure recognizable as a version of Mr. Tuttle.
In the last section of the novella, the owner of the old house visits to ask if he can remove a chest of drawers. Afterward, Lauren continues to wander the house in a dissociative state. In the story’s final moments, Lauren opens a window in order to “feel the sea tang on her face and the flow of time in her body, to tell her who she was.”The Body Artist
received respectfully mixed reviews: “This little masterpiece of the storyteller's craft may not be everyone's masterpiece of the storytelling art. But like all DeLillo's strange and unforgettable works, this is one every reader will have to decide on individually” (Publisher’s Weekly