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“Overlapping Realities” in The Body Artist

Réalités superposées dans The Body Artist de Don DeLillo
Stefania Iliescu


Écrit à l’orée du troisième millénaire, The Body Artist (2001) explore les discontinuités spatio-temporelles qui caractérisent l’existence contemporaine et propose une réflexion littéraire sur les manières dont la conscience interagit avec le monde extérieur. Le roman de DeLillo est une histoire de traumatisme qui raconte la lutte de Lauren Hartke pour se reconstruire et combler le vide laissé dans sa vie après le suicide de son mari. Cet article soutient que The Body Artist utilise un mode de composition à plusieurs niveaux pour évoquer la place de l’humain dans un espace-temps hybride et pour générer des réponses à la singularité de l'événement, en s'appuyant sur des changements de perspective qui conduisent à des réajustements des cadres perceptuels et conceptuels du lecteur. Par conséquent, le projet esthétique de Don DeLillo est à la fois une reconnaissance de la complexité insondable des forces qui façonnent l'existence et une aventure littéraire aux limites de la représentation du langage.

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“Overlapping realities” in The Body Artist

1Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist (2001) is a puzzling narrative written on the cusp of the third millennium which skillfully captures the quality of space-time discontinuities that characterize contemporary existence. It can be read as a literary account of the ways whereby consciousness perceives and constructs the world into which it finds itself embodied, an artistic endeavor to give substance to a multi-layered reality to make apparent the conjunction of phenomena inherent in sensible and virtual environments. Despite the “rigorous demands on its readers”, Anne Longmuir argues, “The Body Artist is not a deviation from but instead a timely and necessary addition to DeLillo’s body of work, […] an important reworking and development of some of the salient ideas in DeLillo’s fiction” (Longmuir 528-529). The critic insists on the novel’s rethinking of the concept of the body to show how contingency shapes the body and subjectivity, putting forward the idea that DeLillo deploys a “deliberate aesthetic strategy through which the writer resists incorporation […] into the age and its facile knowledge market, […] into the dominant cultural narrative” (Longmuir 531).

2The Body Artist narrates how Lauren Hartke, who is a body artist, struggles to reunite her shattered self and fill up the void left in her life following her husband’s suicide, film maker Rey Robles. The reader is made to feel and experience what Lauren feels and the loss she undergoes since the actions are mediated, but for two narrative inserts, solely through the character’s point of view, thus creating a sense of limitation and lack of progress which echo the workings of the traumatized mind. The novel’s unfolding without a unifying center does mimic the trauma-induced stasis that takes control of the character’s mind, but it also indicates the need for interpreting signs, for organizing the texture of the real into a narrative, so that one is able to tell “a story in which the known is deeply imbricated in the unknown” (Di Prete 484). Consequently, Don DeLillo’s aesthetic project seems to be both an acknowledgement and a venture. For it admits the incomprehensibility of the forces that shape existence, notably the force of time that defines individuals’ sentient being-in-the world: “You are made out of time. This is the force that tells you who you are. Close your eyes and feel it. It is time that defines your existence” (DeLillo 98), while it undertakes just as well to stage the limits of representational language, its inability to fittingly manifest what lived experience really means.

3Critics have argued that DeLillo’s post-millennial novels, among which The Body Artist is a trailblazer, mark a departure from postmodernism, embracing a new type of writing which accounts for the experience of time and embodiment, for “traumatic events like 9/11 without reducing them to mere discourse” as Katrina Harack posits in relation to Falling Man (2007). Harack further asserts that the writer’s stance “reflects his interest in going beneath the surface of American life and meditating more deeply on the nature of individual and cultural trauma […] invoking an embodied ethics that examines the individual’s relationship to place, to the body, and to others” (Harack 304-305). Likewise, Peter Boxall’s 2012 article explores the relation between the “cultural agedness” that characterizes late modernity and the quality of a present that is “so young, so rapidly growing and changing” (Boxall 682), prompting the scholar to argue that DeLillo’s style and narrative techniques seize the quality of the time underlying the present. Peter Boxall asserts that DeLillo’s “narrative lucidity” captures the sense of “belatedness” and “cultural exhaustion” inasmuch as his fiction dramatizes the tension that springs from the late historical condition and the experience individuals have of an age that is “a period of virtually unprecedented novelty”:

DeLillo’s novels of the twenty first century suggest a new technological-economic complex that produces a different kind of time, a thin, simultaneous time in which it is hard to gain a narrative purchase. […] If these late novels, in their sculpting of a vivid but brief and fragile duration, give expression to a wider cultural historical condition, they do so only to the extent that the culture has itself become historically disoriented, uncertain of its bearings or its sense of direction. (Boxall 690)

4Boxall’s cogent argument spells out the unreadiness, even the unfitness of the present time to be given a narrative form. If “plots reduce the world” (DeLillo 2001), then it may be asserted that in The Body Artist the writer resorts to a compositional mode that employs multiple and overlapping perspectives to engage with human situatedness in hybridized space-time informing the twenty-first century. The reader perceives the techno-temporal human condition in the narrative’s ability to simultaneously stage time flow and stasis through language, bespeaking personal and cultural modes of experiencing time and manifesting existence.

5Consequently, I argue that the narrative deploys a textual space which manages to perform a seemingly insoluble contradiction, rather than capturing reality on a representational mode. More precisely, instead of resorting to a potentially inadequate representation of the traumatic event which clearly exceeds the character’s understanding, the novel’s aesthetic stance does away with established frames of experience. DeLillo engineers an almost plotless narrative that amounts to an elaborate verbal metaphor approximating the dislocated quality of the present on a personal, social and cultural scale. His reliance on a multi-layered compositional mode helps shift perspectives and generate responses to the singularity of the event. The compositional density entails the presence of overlapping realities configured by physical, technological and cultural forces that shape and affect Lauren’s senses and perception. This aesthetics does justice to the character’s mode of experiencing space-time both as a trauma victim and a body artist. As a result, the novel frames the perception of time in such a manner as to make room for the deployment of a sensorial and perceptive textual body likely to account for identity and restore a sense of the self. In the artist’s case, identity emerges and emanates via her engagement with the world, it originates in the body as a locus filled with creative potential from where novelty can proceed. Her perception reconfigures the world so that the reader is presented “with the experience of images as reality” (Pitozzi 2020). The present article sets out to examine DeLillo’s use of perceptual, conceptual and narrative frames in The Body Artist and the writer’s reliance on an aesthetic mode that is equally able to sustain gaps within the narrative fabric and embody the potential to shape time and experience into a discursive form to “force trauma into representation” (Di Prete 484). The writer’s ability to aptly turn the textual body into a multi-layered surface invested with semiotic value gives time an ontological quality, reconfigures the readers’ frames of reference and manifests new forms of vulnerability, acknowledging thereby the multidimensionality of reality, namely its physical, mental and virtual components.

Readjusting frames: “I try to analyze and redesign” (DeLillo 111)

6The writer’s discursive strategies rely on shifts in perspective, ellipses, incomplete syntactical constructions and indirection to approximate the character’s experience of the traumatic event, tentatively conjuring up images that substitute for words and thus bespeak the shattering of frames of reference: “Somehow. The weakest word in the language. And more or less. And maybe. Always maybe. She was always maybeing” (DeLillo 98). The narrative voice stylistically gives expression to the character’s state of mind intimating Lauren’s difficulty to place trauma into a meaning making system; hence her dependence on the body to make sense of the world which has emerged in the aftermath of the traumatic event. By adopting the character’s perspective, the readers take on Lauren’s heightened sensations and perception, experiencing her relation to time and otherness; subsequently they are lead to readjust their perceptual and conceptual frames with which they figure out reality. If frames are “basic orientational aids that help us to navigate through our experiential universe” (Wolf and Bernhart 5), The Body Artist can be read as literary artifact that enables the perception and comprehension of aspects of reality that are silenced by cognition, dynamically readjusting the readers’ interpretative frames, since the latter are “cultural constructs and hence have a certain historical and cultural flexibility” (Wolf and Bernhart 4).

7The Body Artist deploys a fictional space which engages the reader in an intermedial dialogue with multiple forms of representation – ranging from literature to body art, from film references to computer technologies and digitalized environments – in a bid to acknowledge the presence of heterogeneous representational practices and multiple modes of communication prevalent in the technologically-mediated twenty-first century. However, it is necessary to consider the fact that Don DeLillo brings together narrative techniques and body art approaches in this novel to reassess the qualitative experience of time in relation to perception and embodiment. As a result, the creation of the novel’s representational space builds on perceptual, conceptual and narrative frames which give access to a multi-layered reality and a multi-perspectival form of understanding. The defamiliarizing frames employed by the writer take on epistemological significance, inasmuch as they work as analytical and hermeneutical tools meant to give a measure of intelligibility to the real, both within the fictional space which stages the character’s disjointed world and on the meta-textual level of the readers as an expression of changing cultural practices. Accordingly, the narrative structure stages an inch-perfect choreography of time, while the shifts in perspective underline the artist’s ability to embrace otherness, to observe counterintuitive phenomena purportedly belonging to quantum physics and acknowledge the presence of technological environments leading to the hybridization of space-time.

8Thus, the reader comes to the realization that the validity of mental objects and any cognitive content are rooted in personal and communal experience and therefore they are local and situated. So, the epistemological frames that underpin the fictional texture “help to select or construct phenomena [to form] a meaningful whole and therefore create coherent areas on our mental maps” (Wolf and Bernhart 2006, 5). Lauren suitably ponders on the contingency of cognitive frames, which help individuals gather information and process knowledge. Hence, her conclusion substantiates the idea that mental representations of time and reality are the very result of the mind’s own making, pondering on the amount of myth “we build into our experience of time” (DeLillo 105).

Narrative choreography

9The narrative structure of the novel provides a special choreography of time, in that it manages to stage its very ontology within the diegesis: “Time unfolds into the seams of being. It passes through you, making and shaping. […] It is the thing no one understands. But it makes and shapes you” (DeLillo 107). Time possesses the capacity to cause physical changes, it acts as a force the body can experience, while the mind finds it difficult to grasp. The narrative construction skillfully succeeds in dramatizing time, so that the reader can feel its flow and stasis. This can be noticed both within the diegesis and at the narrative level, as time is experienced through stasis and suspension equally by the character and the reader inasmuch as the narrative structure brings out the effects of the character’s trauma. By definition, trauma distorts the perception of time and memory encoding, denying language the ability to inscribe the horror of the experience into a meaning-making system. As Cathy Caruth argues, it challenges “our usual expectations of what it means to tell, to listen, and to gain access to the past, […] truth may be transmitted in some cases through the refusal of a certain framework of understanding, a refusal that is also a creative act of listening” (Caruth 154).

10The novel enacts the character’s impossible retrieval of the past Caruth refers to as well as Lauren’s stance as an artist who refuses to take on established frames of understanding. Therefore, the focalization of events through Lauren’s traumatized psyche is a challenge to the reader’s understanding. Consequently, the seven chapters allow for little progress in the unfolding of events. It is in the novel’s ending that the reader manages to scrape together the storyline, to get the picture so to say, by adding up the textual information gleaned throughout the novel and the contents of the two explanatory sections that semantically support the novel’s narrative scaffolding. DeLillo thus contrives a narrative frame which upholds the fragmented textual body that the discontinuous story unfolds, structurally and thematically mirroring the contents of this trauma story. Conversely, the two sections that are inserted within the narrative do away with Lauren’s focalization of the events so as to provide crucial information to the reader’s understanding and organize the story into a meaningful whole.

11The story factually tells the reader that Lauren Hartke and Rey Robles are a newly-married couple who spend their first months of married life in a rented house away from the hustle and bustle of the city: “We’re out of the city. We’re off the calendar. Friday shouldn’t have an identity here” (DeLillo 19). From the outset, social time is substituted for a personal time in tune with inner life. The reader equally learns that the two characters are artists, Lauren is a body artist, aged 36, whilst Rey Robles is a waning film director; he is 64 and twice divorced. One Sunday morning, after having breakfast together, Rey drives to Manhattan and commits suicide in his first wife’s apartment. Following her husband’s suicide, Lauren decides to stay in the house till the lease ends. Meanwhile, she comes across an enigmatic being she chooses to name Mr. Tuttle, as he reminds Lauren of her science teacher in high school. Though Mr. Tuttle is able to perfectly imitate Rey’s voice and her own, he seems to be physically and mentally impaired. Lauren looks after him and simultaneously embarks on the creation of a performance piece, called Body Time, which is performed in town for three nights, “unadvertised except by word of mouth” (DeLillo 110). Mr. Tuttle suddenly goes missing, and his disappearance is no more intelligible than his existence is. After her performance, Lauren returns to the rented house where she finally acknowledges Rey’s death. In this way, she extends her lease to lend credence to Mr. Tuttle’s words and a measure of credibility to her mourning stint: “she knows she has taken this action to fulfill the truth of his remark, which probably invalidates whatever truth there may have been. It is not circumstance that has kept her here, or startled chance, but only the remark itself, which she barely recalls him making” (DeLillo 118). Thus the truth value of his words is only validated by the character’s action.

12DeLillo’s intricate framing of the narrative gets rid of a linear plot and a readily-available storyline. The novel is built on fragmentation, while the fictional setting and the key events are structured by means of preterition. The brilliantly achieved state of stasis at the stylistic level brings to the fore the disjointed quality that characterizes contemporary life, recalling the asynchrony the individuals sense in relation to themselves and others. Thus, in the first chapter Lauren and Rey live in isolation, in a rented house on the coast, indicating their artistic withdrawal from the uproar of the contemporary world. However, their lives occur in what seems to be separate and unrelated times, despite the physical space the married couple shares: “They were here at the same time, in the kitchen” (DeLillo 3). Their disjointed co-presence is revealed by their out of sync conversation. Language further deepens the hiatus between their modes of being in the world, underlining Rey’s dissatisfaction with irreversibility characteristic of life: “the terror of another ordinary day” (DeLillo 12) and Lauren’s inhabiting the present with heightened sentience.

13The section that immediately follows this first chapter does not count as a chapter in itself, being therefore located outside the story. It is written as an obituary notice which announces Rey’s death, while hinting at the enigma encapsulated by the filmmaker’s personality and his own artistic credo. Both the title: “REY ROBLES, 64, CINEMA’S POET OF LONELY PLACES” (DeLillo 25) and the text provide significant information, shedding light on the situation so that the reader can get the whole picture by the end of the novel. The former explanatory text insertion is to be read in connection with the latter, which precedes the novel’s last chapter. It serves as a review that relates Lauren’s body art performance. Similarly, the title provides a comment on the artist’s way of expressing her art, bringing thus into view an external perspective: “BODY ART IN EXTREMIS: SLOW, SPARE AND PAINFUL” (DeLillo 109). The performance review is interspersed with the talk Lauren and Mariella have in a restaurant, and it is signed by Mariella Chapman, who is an art critic but also Lauren’s friend. Mariella Chapman’s insight brings out the metamorphosis undergone by the body artist and explains Lauren’s artistic praxis. The two text inserts adopt a journalistic style and can be read as a “prolepsis-analepsis” framing pair. This pair helps clarify backward and forward the two major events in the novel, namely Rey’s death, and Lauren’s creative process entitled “Body Time”. They form the framing device which holds the text together and gives a measure of understanding of the trauma the character experiences. They tell what Lauren’s body knows and cannot utter. Thus, the prolepsis announces the suicide of the filmmaker and advances the story, whereas the analepsis provides explanations on the discontinuities that inform Lauren’s trauma. In other words, the chapters of the novel that are framed and explained away by the second text insertion (namely from chapter two to chapter six) disjointedly depict Lauren as carrying out routines which help her cope with her loss, notably through Lauren’s extreme bodily discipline and training sessions which help the artist explore the limits of her sentient body: “there was bodywork to resume, her regimen of cat stretch and methodical contortion. […] But the world was lost inside her” (DeLillo 109). The body works as the site that registers the gap caused by trauma, providing proof of the loss she has experienced.

14The narrative framing pair interpolates an external viewpoint in response to Lauren’s trauma-shaped standpoint in order to counter the mental position from which events are viewed, that is to say Lauren’s disconnected subjectivity and give the reader the vista of the textual body as a meaningful whole. The complex narrative framing to which DeLillo has recourse makes it possible for the novel to give no explicit account of the crucial events taking place, proceeding thus stylistically and discursively by preterition and ellipses so that fragmentation can manifest not only the mechanisms of trauma but also human situatedness within a given context and embody it in the textual space.

Shifting perspectives

15Besides the narrative shifts that move from Lauren’s focalization of events to the external standpoints the two inserts provide, the novel also stages the presence of multiple layers of space-time. The narrative depth is achieved through Lauren’s sharp observations of the environment, her use of senses (“she listened to reports […] tasting the breeze for latent implications” [DeLillo 4]) and perspectival shifts. As a consequence, the narrative smoothly slips out of Lauren’s mental reveries and into the “here and now” the diegesis deploys: “there are people being tortured halfway around the world […] you have conversations with them more or less uncontrollably until you become aware you are doing it and you stop, seeing whatever is in front of you” (DeLillo 17). The attention Lauren pays to the world and the mental impressions the external conditions produce on the artist shape her being-in-the-world and help her dynamically construct reality and identity as a result of her interacting with alterity. Her contemplation of the outer world stretches space-time, since time is perceived qualitatively as duration. Lauren does not only keenly observe and slowly record her surrounding environment, but she also endorses the fictions originating in her mind. The shifts in perspective allow the artist to acknowledge otherness, to encounter it as an event that possesses its own singularity. This is particularly obvious in the way she notices the presence of the blue jay, by looking out of the window:

When she started back she saw a blue jay perched atop the feeder. She stopped dead and held her breath. It stood large and polished and looked royally remote from the other birds busy feeding and she could nearly believe she’d never seen a jay before. It stood enormous, looking in at her, seeing whatever it saw […] She’d never seen a thing so clearly and it was not simply because the jay was posted where it was, close enough for her to note the details of cresting and color. There was also the clean shock of its appearance among the smaller brownish birds, its mineral blue and muted blue and broad dark neckband […] She tried to work past the details to the bird itself, nest thief and skilled mimic, to the fixed interest in those eyes, a kind of inquisitive chill that felt a little like a challenge. When birds look into houses, what impossible worlds they see. Think. What a shedding of every knowable surface and process. She wanted to believe the bird was seeing her, a woman with a teacup in her hand, and never mind the folding back of day and night, the apparition of a space set off from time. (DeLillo 19-20)

16The encounter with the bird dilates the narrative; it opens up the textual space to acknowledge the presence of the bird and the way it affects the observer. This reliance on the artist’s heightened sensations and perception creates what Noël Batt refers to as “moment-sensations” (Batt 2012) the role of which is to allow for the deployment of a sensation so that the reader can fell and understand the flow of time. In this episode, Lauren singles out the bird’s presence on a dramatic mode, since her body acts out what the eyes can see: “stopped dead” “held her breath”. The appearance of the bird comes a “shock” and amounts qualitatively to the encounter with the event that “brings along with it its own horizon of intelligibility” (Romano 2010). The bird’s singularity prompts Lauren to consider the invalidity of her own frames of reference (“she could nearly believe she’d never seen a jay before”) supporting the idea that the artist shuns categorization and the incorporation of this form of alterity into her mental space. Instead, her observation of the blue jay’s size (“stood enormous looking in at her, seeing whatever it saw”) endows the bird with an awareness that is construed by Lauren’s own subjectivity, as she attempts to figure out the bird’s perspective: “She wanted to believe the bird was seeing her, a woman with a teacup in her hand”. The shifts in perspective allow her to relate to otherness on an inclusive mode, which may lead to intersubjectivity.

17By the same token, Lauren incorporates Rey’s groan into her movement to echo his mental states and identify with them, though she remains closely observant of the underlying discrepancies between the two: “she let out a groan, but not really every time, that resembled a life lament. She was too trim and limber to feel the strain and was only echoing Rey, identifyingly, groaning his groan, but in a manner so seamless and deep it was her discomfort too” (DeLillo 6). If Lauren mimics his gestures, she does so to identify with his sensations, to tune her “trim” and “limber” body to his pain and share Rey’s feelings and emotions. Lauren’s affectivity is also shaped by the imaginary conversations she has with the people whose stories are told in the newspaper. Her identification with the “reality of paper and ink” (DeLillo 17) gives the artist the chance to “become someone else, one of the people in the story, doing dialogue of your own devising. You become a man at times, living between the lines, doing another version of the story” (DeLillo 18).

  • 1 Isabel, Rey’s first wife, calls Lauren after the funeral and tells her that Rey’s suicide has been  (...)

18So, Lauren chooses to inhabit the multi-layered texture of reality and this helps her construct an all-encompassing view of existence and mark her departure from Rey’s existential boredom. Rey’s unresponsiveness to the world echoes the themes his films portray: “His subject is people in landscapes of estrangement” (DeLillo 27). Rey reflects the artistic medium he once excelled in, while his alienated subjectivity translates on a cultural level the incorporation of cinema into the mainstream mass media. Rey’s inability to shift perspectives prompts Anne Longmuir to see the character as “the classic self-eradicating artistic voice of DeLillo’s fiction, [since] his work belongs entirely to the culture of reproduction of late capitalism” (Longmuir 532). Rey’s suicide reenacts the “extreme situations” faced by the characters featuring in his films, who “are forced toward life-defining moments” (DeLillo 27). Rey’s suicide encapsulates a theatrical edge, it can be read as a finale that has been planned long in advance and rehearsed many times, according to his first wife’s statements.1 His suicide rehearsals run counter to Lauren’s bodily aesthetic through which she manifests resistance to the culture of reproduction: “The piece, called Body Time, sneaked into town for three nights, unadvertised except by word of mouth, and drew eager audiences whose intensity did not always maintain itself for the duration of the show.” (DeLillo, 110). Lauren’s piece shifts framed expectations and makes rigorous demands on her spectators, just as the novel does. The body artist’s resistance to mainstream aesthetics resides in her ability to perceive the world and become one with it, to embody a multiplicity of forms of being and always be “in the process of becoming another or exploring some root identity” (DeLillo 111). Lauren becomes “the recipient and the shaper of perceptions” as Sylvie Bauer states, “and as such she contains the world, metamorphoses herself, becomes everything and everyone” (Bauer 2015).

Mr. Tuttle’s presence-absence

19The changes in perspectives help the narrative create knowledge gaps both at the readers’ and character’s levels. As a result, absence is felt as a form of presence, the materiality of which is similar to “a body shedding space, but there was no one there” (DeLillo 106). The narrative’s dwelling on the difficulty of taking hold of lived experience and time questions the concepts of irreversibility and becoming. Irreversibility is perceived through phenomena that take place in the world. In Lauren’s case, it is epitomized through Rey’s suicide, the irrevocability of which points to the characteristics of time. Her attempts at conceptualizing time prove futile: “But what did she know? Nothing. This is the rule of time. It is the thing you know nothing about” (DeLillo 106). The possibility of time being a construct of the conscious mind is conceptually explored in the novel and stylistically incorporated into the narrative. Subsequently, coextensive realities occur originating both in mental states and the outer world, in its physicality and virtuality. The overlapping dimensions that configure reality enable Lauren’s consciousness to be cognizant of the thickness of the real and discern its overlapping dimensions. Lived experience is not incompatible with the presence of multiple states, as the character contemplates herself this possibility, though she finally brushes it aside: “If there is no sequential order except for what we engender to make us safe in the world, then maybe it is possible, what, to cross from one nameless state to another, except that it clearly isn’t” (DeLillo 88). The fictional space puts forth arguments supporting the superposition of states, but it quickly disavows its own hypotheses. However, in the aftermath of the traumatic event, Lauren perceives time as a temporal suspension the presence of which is registered by the senses, plunging her into a qualitatively different temporality.

20Her distorted relationship to time is materialized by Mr. Tuttle’s enigmatic presence. Mr. Tuttle gives substance to the existence of “overlapping realities” (DeLillo 87), because he appears immediately after Rey’s death and unaccountably vanishes the days preceding Lauren’s art performance. One can say that Mr. Tuttle happens; he is similar to a phenomenon the occurrence of which is a matter of vested necessity within the fictional universe the novel deploys. The character’s presence does not only link the irrevocable past to the present, but it also connects what is deemed to be unknowable and incomprehensible to the boundaries of the possible. Lauren thinks of him in terms of a necessary condition: “In the first seconds she thought he was inevitable. She felt her way back in time to the earlier indications that there was someone in the house and she arrived at this instant, unerringly, with her perceptions all sorted and endorsed” (DeLillo 41). Being beyond comparison, Mr. Tuttle is always referred to by analogy: “He came into the room then, edgily, in his self-winding way, as if, as if” (DeLillo 82). What the narrative voice attempts to describe here is the character’s presence into the fabric of the real, underlining at the same time the difficulty to find the right words to define him and the need for resorting to approximation. Language itself stutters when it comes to shaping discursively Mr. Tuttle: “as if, as if”.

  • 2 In quantum mechanics, the wave function is a variable quantity that describes the wave characterist (...)

21Metaphorically, Mr. Tuttle embodies a probability of presence and is reminiscent of the wave function in quantum physics.2 He does not fit any frame of reference, and for that reason his presence helps Lauren depart from certainty and turn to probability. The possibility of him being in the house can be correlated to the value of necessity Lauren attributes to his presence. The character may be physically present or may not be in the house, the two options are simultaneously possible. His physical presence stands for Rey’s absence, forming an equally valid presence-absence pair, following the superposition principle in quantum mechanics in which the possibilities of presence and absence are states that can be added together, that can be superposed and the result is another valid quantum state.

22Following the principle of locality, objects can be influenced only by their immediate surroundings; this is a view that easily jibes with the layperson’s intuitive understanding, as Lauren ponders on the subtle effects of quantum physics that become visible to her observant mind’s eye: “The laws of nature permit things that in fact, in practice, she thought never happen” (DeLillo 82). Conversely, the concept of entanglement in quantum mechanics puts forward that two correlated particles, though separated by a large distance, can present quantum states dependent on each other, regardless of the distance. Thus, if one adopts a quantum metaphorical reading, the actual physical presence of Mr. Tuttle alongside Lauren is insignificant, for Mr. Tuttle’s spectral presence, irrespective of his physical location, helps indicate a correlation with Rey’s absence. Likewise, Lauren’s husband, though physically absent, is still present via the traces the present is fraught with.

23Mr. Tuttle’s undecidable “presence – absence” appears therefore as a modality for Lauren to experience the traumatic event and the temporal quality it entails. Likewise, in keeping with the quantum phenomenon of entanglement, Mr. Tuttle’s “presence – absence” is the condition that affects her regardless of the physical surroundings, since the space-time gap which separates her from Rey are entangled, despite Rey’s actual absence. Her own thoughts reflect the simultaneity of presence and absence triggered by trauma: “Maybe there are times when we slide into another reality but can’t remember it, can’t concede the truth of it because this would be too devastating to absorb” (DeLillo 120). What Lauren calls “another reality” is precisely the possibility of the mind to acknowledge absence and loss and still possess a measure of control by not conceding to its truth. Consequently, Mr. Tuttle’s “presence – absence” may illustrate both indeterminacy and the impossibility of attributing a definite state to lived experience, embodying “the very figure of metamorphosis” (Chassay, 107).

24Lacking memory and any projection in the future, Mr. Tuttle is trapped in the materiality of an eternal present: “Being here has come to me. I am with the moment, I will leave the moment. Chair, table, wall, hall, all for the moment, in the moment. It has come to me. Here and near. From the moment I am gone, am left, am leaving. I will leave the moment from the moment” (DeLillo 78). The quote insists on the passivity that characterizes Mr. Tuttle; he is not only imprisoned within the present, but also within the materiality of the world and language. The repetition of the word “moment” underlines the suspended quality of his time, which is devoid of any form of becoming, it is a fragmented space-time where things juxtapose: “Chair, table, wall, hall”. The verbal forms the character utters reinforce his lack of agency and are equally reminiscent of the passivity of the victims undergoing trauma. The world unfolds before his eyes disconnectedly, amounting to a state of stasis, a world where things merge and overlap, where language has no purchase in the realm of reality. Lauren choses to call his utterances “singing” so that she can endow them with an imagined communicative value: “Was he telling her what it is like to be him, to live in his body and mind?” (DeLillo 79). Once again, it is her subjectivity that construes a fellow subjectivity so that she can relate to him.

25Her encounter with Mr. Tuttle suggests the possibility of the entangled planes which underpin reality as the condition of the artist’s true becoming. The grief and loss she experiences do shatter her epistemological certainties, but they are the basis for her ability to shape the future: “She wanted to create her future, not enter a state already shaped to her outline. Something is happening. It has happened. It will happen. This is what she believed. There is a story, a flow of consciousness and possibility. The future comes into being” (DeLillo 106). Unlike Mr. Tuttle, Lauren manages to extricate herself form stasis and leave behind “the state already shaped to her outline”, the invalidating condition trauma has assigned her to. Thus, she actualizes the creative potential of her body and mind through a renewed relationship to time, where the passage of existence is registered as a continuous flow, in which events pass from the past into the present, presenting a state of potentiality in the future, through the present: “Something is happening. It has happened. It will happen”. Her ability to eventually order existence into “a story, a flow of consciousness and possibility” substantiates the presence of a form of becoming that does away with Mr. Tuttle’s presence-absence.

“A place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch frame” (DeLillo 37)

26Apart from the narrative and perspectival frames which configure the perception of time as an ontological reality in relation to perception and embodiment, the novel makes use of technology as a conceptual frame which instantiates the acknowledgement of space-time hybridization and the reconfiguration of the readers’ “structure of expectation” (Wolf and Bernhart 2). If The Body Artist encapsulates an oblique critique of the dominant culture, it does so to invite the reader to reassess the role of the artist, to reconsider Rey’s artistic fatigue, inasmuch as he stands for a Sisyphus-like figure, doomed to repetition and reproduction: “It’s an effort. It’s like what. It’s like pushing a boulder” (DeLillo 14). Unlike Rey’s artistic medium, Lauren’s body art is a dynamic process that cannot be captured by mainstream cultural practices, as the living body is “always in the process of becoming another” (DeLillo 111). Her performance proves to be the enactment of multiple bodies, as Lauren is reported to be “a body artist who tries to shake off the body – hers anyway” (DeLillo 110). Unbeknownst to the reader, throughout the novel Lauren reconfigures her trauma-informed world that Rey’s suicide has imposed on her, readjusting the frames that anchor her into the present and the world of the senses.

27Thus, the days following her husband’s suicide, Lauren busies herself carrying out repetitive activities – such as thoroughly cleaning the house, excessively training and stretching her body, obsessively listening to her friend’s answering machine and compulsively watching the video feeds streaming live from a camera installed in a street in Kotka, in Finland. The camera stands as a framing device which paradoxically opens up new perceptive possibilities, since space-time is enhanced by a virtual counterpart:

It was the middle of the night in Kotka, in Finland, and she watched the screen. It was interesting to her because it was happening now […]. It was the sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch, with a reading of local time in the digital display in a corner of the screen. Kotka was another world but she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds. (DeLillo 37)

28This “another world” that the camera gives her access to possesses a revealing quality in that it is part of the real. The way in which the camera registers time brings to the fore the idea of succession, as discrete moments flow into a continuous whole. The screen outputs a digitalized model of space-time that is both available and visible, begging for a reconsideration of the categories of distance, familiarity and alterity. For the screen gives Lauren access to a remote place, bringing together the actuality of “here and now” and the virtual space. The thematic function technology assumes is accompanied by an ontological and philosophical edge in the novel. It becomes a conceptual frame that alters qualitatively the notions of presence and perspective: “as it is and as you watch”, reorganizing experience. If Kotka is “another world” that Lauren can see “in its realness”, it means that the camera not only captures the real but it also vectorizes virtual and mental spaces.

29Consequently, Lauren makes room for the coexistence of physical and virtual realities, without necessarily trying to expound on the meaning which can be imparted on the visibility of the unfamiliar: “It emptied her mind and made her feel the deep silence of other places, the mystery of seeing over the world to a place stripped of everything but a road that approaches and recedes, both realities occurring at once” (DeLillo 38). While the co-occurrence of realities paves the way for Mr. Tuttle’s appearance, the distant images inform Lauren’s reality and invest it with presence and mystery which are compatible with the ordinary mundanity of the world: “a road that approaches and recedes”. Since the images disclose the technological dead times to Lauren: “It was best in the dead times” (DeLillo 38), the screen helps her reconstruct a relation to time, which reinstates the immediacy of the present.

30Technology plays therefore an unveiling role; thanks to it, the character acknowledges the flow of time and the absence of becoming that the repetitive time of trauma has imposed on her. As a result, she chooses to give technology a personal interpretation and embody it in her “Body Time” performance. Thanks to Mariella’s performance review, at the end of the novel the reader learns that Lauren’s own body on stage becomes the very frame which incorporates the time that passes, as a personal acknowledgement of the multiple forms through which otherness can express itself. Lauren’s body art performance anchors her into otherness, which represents the only source where the self can occur: “Her art in this piece is obscure, slow, difficult and sometimes agonizing. […] It is about you and me. What begins in solitary otherness becomes familiar and even personal. It is about who we are when we are not rehearsing who we are” (DeLillo 116). Once again, Lauren’s art relies on authenticity and departs from repetition and established frames of experience; her body becomes the locus where she can deploy creative strategies in an endeavor to extricate herself from psychic vulnerability and manifest her mental space in the light of the loss she has suffered. What the artist tries to bring out is an awareness of the multiple layers that reality is made of, as well as the individual’s ontological vulnerability and the necessary points of contact one can build with the outside world. The intersubjective acknowledgement of their presence implies the artist’s self-effacement, as she herself admits that “I am Lauren. But less and less” (DeLillo 123).

31Ultimately, in The Body Artist, the central position the artist assigns to the materiality of the body becomes a means whereby Lauren can simultaneously experience an altered relationship to time, “that ha[s] no narrative quality” (DeLillo 68) characteristic of Mr. Tuttle’s disjointed world and an increased presence to the outer world. Through her performance piece, the artist skillfully reenacts the multidimensionality of reality and attempts at rendering an embodied reconceptualization of time, so as to make people “think of time differently […] stop time, or stretch it out or open it up” (DeLillo 113). Consequently, DeLillo’s aesthetics has the same effect on the readers as the character’s performance piece has on her viewers: it skillfully deploys a textual space that recreates time, that operates the readjustment of the readers’ frames by shattering epistemological certainties. The narrative embodies the very contents it deploys, as it allows for “the apparition of space set off from time” (DeLillo, 20). The presence of frames helps the reader reframe the reading of the novel as a story about “what we can know and what we can’t” (DeLillo 113), as well as a comment on human vulnerability, on meaning and truth in a technologically-mediated world. The Body Artist focuses on perceptual and cognitive frames which inform the unfathomable contemporary complexity in the midst of which individuals are part of, dwell, and help expand in their turn, adjusting continuously to overlapping environments which both undergird identity and alterity.

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1 Isabel, Rey’s first wife, calls Lauren after the funeral and tells her that Rey’s suicide has been part of his own life scenario, that he has even rehearsed it before actually carrying it out: “I could see it coming for years. This is a thing that was going to happen. We all knew this about him. For years he was going to do this thing. It was a thing he carried with him. It was his way out. He wasn't a man in despair. This thing was a plan in his mind. It was his trick that he knew he could do when he needed it. He even made me see him in the chair” (DeLillo 61).

2 In quantum mechanics, the wave function is a variable quantity that describes the wave characteristics of a particle. The value of the wave function of a particle at a given point of space and time is related to the likelihood of the particle’s being there at the time. At this scale, any attempt at measurement directly influences the particle so that it is impossible to simultaneously know its position and speed. Therefore, the measurements do not express certainties but only probabilities. Sources:

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Stefania Iliescu, « “Overlapping Realities” in The Body Artist »Polysèmes [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 09 décembre 2022, consulté le 18 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Stefania Iliescu

Stefania Iliescu is a Ph.D. student in 20th- and 21st-century American Literature at Université Rennes 2, Doctoral School of Arts, Letters, Languages, ACE research unit. Her research focuses on how the figure of the posthuman has emerged in a world dominated by communication systems, scientific advances and technical innovations. Her research also explores the ways in which (bio)technological devices and digital environments reconfigure reality and how the notion of information shapes humans’ relationship to time and to narratives while altering the ways in which humans perceive themselves and the world they live in.

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