Defining Moments 

The latest novel from Don DeLillo.

The Body Artist, By Don DeLillo, Scribner, 128 pp., $22

Don DeLillo is a writer's writer. Ask many contemporary fiction writers whom they read and an inordinate number of them might answer, "DeLillo." That's because he has all the gifts, because he has come to represent an artistic integrity and a willingness to take risks missing from much fiction today, and because, for all his erudition, he is as entertaining as the human race. He may be the most beloved of the postmodernists. He's not impenetrable, but neither is he Robert Ludlum.

DeLillo's last novel was the gargantuan Underworld, a bursting-at-the-seams, complex zodiac of a novel, a book seemingly as large as its subject: the 20th century. It should have won all the major fiction awards, and, as time passes, its importance will only be magnified. Now DeLillo has followed the massive with a missive, a 128-page novella about intimacy and loss.

The Body Artist is the story of Lauren, the titular "body artist" who uses her torso in experimental performance art, and Lauren's husband, film director Rey Robles, who dies after the first chapter. Lauren's return to the home they shared coincides with the appearance of a strange young man, an ageless creature really, almost a blank, a human template, who is "impaired in matters of articulation and comprehension." Suddenly he is just there in the house, seated on a bed in his underwear, as if he had been transported from another dimension.

Lauren names her guest Mr. Tuttle and begins to carry on an almost one-sided conversation with him. His replies, when he replies at all, are enigmatic non sequiturs. As the author describes it, "There's a code in the simplest conversation that tells the speakers what's going on outside the bare acoustics. This was missing when they talked."

Mr. Tuttle also comes and goes like a revenant, like the birds to the feeders at Lauren's window, visitations she is enchanted by. Soon Lauren begins to suspect that Mr. Tuttle is aping conversations she and Rey had. How long has this stranger been in the house? she asks herself. Is he really there now? Or is he just a catalyst to propel Lauren into the next phase of her life? If this is a haunting, it's a haunting by what? She tries to capture Tuttle's oblique statements on tape, as if preserving them is saving something: a part of Rey, a part of herself.

"His subject is people in landscapes of estrangement" reads one of Rey's obituaries. "He found a spiritual knife-edge in the poetry of alien places, where extreme situations become inevitable and characters are forced toward life-defining moments." Clearly, this is a precise summing-up of DeLillo's entire, brilliant oeuvre and this new addition to his body of work. The Body Artist, ultimately, is a discomforting examination of Lauren's search for that "life-defining" moment.

Fans of DeLillo will be delighted with this short, numinous story, a neoteric Grimm tale, an ultramodern spectralogy. The story is made up of particulars, precisely observed and described; each line meticulously crafted and essential to the whole. "[Lauren] was alert to the clarity of the moment but knew it was ending already," DeLillo writes early on, and the action of The Body Artist seems to take place between such twinklings of observation. It is a work of such refined and well-tuned writing it seems to be a high-wire act, a poem written with a switchblade.

"Time seems to pass," DeLillo writes at the opening of the novel. "The world happens, unrolling into moments, and you stop to glance at a spider pressed to its web. There is a quickness of light and a sense of things outlined precisely .... You know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness."

The Body Artist is DeLillo's most delicate work, a finely etched cryptogram, where mystery is made concrete and the concrete is made mysterious. Its magic is like Beckett's: serious comedy built slowly and carefully, like that spider's web. Put another way, this is a novel made of spun glass, brittle, elegant, and sharp at the edges -- further proof that Don DeLillo is one of our finest and most important writers.

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