In a letter to Jonathan Franzen, Don Delillo claims that
If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we're talking about when we use the word 'identity' has come to an end.
I believe that The Body Artist, Delillo's most slight and yet possibly most challenging novel yet, is an interrogation of this concept: the breakdown of identity in late capitalist society.
Let's begin by putting the remark into context. Franzen was writing to Delillo in distress about the state of "serious literature," worried that, in this age of instant gratification, no-one seemed to want to bother with challenging works of fiction any more. As well as the above, Delillo replied that writing:
...is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.
The Body Artist engages with the private world, but is not, as some have claimed, indication of a previously socially engaged writer trying now to extract himself from the wider culture in order to analyse an ahistorical "human condition." Though it does not explicitly engage with the social world in the same way as did Underworld, or White Noise, The Body Artist is still a socially engaged novel (though perhaps not quite a "social novel"). Granted, it is a novel about personal loss, about how one responds to the death of the other. But it is also about how one responds to the defining traits of postmodern society: the loss of identity, the loss of faith in language as an accurate way of representing the world.
Delillo believes that late capitalism, whilst adept at forming the aforementioned "mass identity", is nonetheless hostile towards the individual. Identity is now formed by consumption and production practices, and those who do not fully engage in such practices thus are not priveleged with the status of having an identity. For Delillo, the postmodern individual is left with two choices: identify with the crowd or become alienated from both the crowd and oneself. Hence the main character in Great Jones Street, who extracts himself from rock n roll super-stardom but ends up alone in a delapidated hotel room, so unsure of his own selfhood that at one stage he resorts to phoning telephone directory assistance and repeating his own surname. Hence Delillo's portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra, who deals with this postmodern either/or in the opposite way, feeling that he cannot become a real person until he inserts himself fully into the public world: "Happiness is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one's own personal world, and the world in general."
And hence also the character of Lauren Hartke in The Body Artist. Throughout the novel, both the reader and Lauren herself are painfully aware of limitations. She constantly muses upon the limitations of language, it's slippages and disconnections, its daily inadequecies, the way that, in a postmodern environment, it does not seem solidly fixed to the world in the same way that it may have been once:
There were five birds on the feeder and they all faced outward, away from the food and identically still. She watched them. They weren't looking or listening so much as feeling something, intent and sensing.
All these words are wrong, she thought.
Similarly, Lauren is aware of the fact that identity has beomce equally fluid:
She looked at her face in the bathroom mirror and tried to understand why it looked different from the same face downstairs, in the full-length mirror in the front hall, although it shouldn't be hard to understand at all, she thought, because faces look different all the time and everywhere, based on a hundred daily variables, but then again, she thought, why do I look different?
The intimate relationship between these two concepts is brilliantly articulated in the strange and possibly autistic man who appears one day without explanation in Lauren's home. The man, whom Lauren nicknames Mr. Tuttle after an old science teacher, seems to have problems relating to the world and to Lauren. As Lauren says, "He moved uneasily in space, indoors or out, as if the air had bends and warps." Take for instance the following "conversation" between the two:
"What do you see?" she said, gesturing toward the boat and the advancing cloudline.
"The trees are some of them," he said.
"Bending. Swaying in the wind. Those are birches. The white ones. Those are called paper birches."
"The white ones."
"The white ones. But beyond the trees."
"Beyond the trees."
"Out there," she said.
He looked a while.
"It rained very much."
There is something uncanny about Mr. Tuttle. He does not make sense to the reader, nor to Lauren:
"She had to concentrate to note his features. She looked at him and had to look again. There was something elusive in his aspect, moment to moment, a thinness of physical address."
As Lauren continues her "conversations" with him, she begins to notice that, on occaison, he will imitate her or her husband Rey, copying things they have said in the past and repeating them in their voices, seemingly at random. What's more, when he does this he does not even seem aware that he is doing so, or even of the fact that what he is saying may seem strange to Lauren. In the end it is safe to say that Mr. Tuttle's uncanniness stems from the fact that he does not seem to even exist in the normal sense of the word. He does not speak in nonsense, but his sentences are confused and disconnected, giving us the impression that deep down, Mr. Tuttle's self is equally fragmented. There is "something elusive" about him. Delillo sums it up with the following:
She amused herself by thinking he'd come from cyberspace, a man who'd emerged from her computer screen in the dead of the night.
Exactly. We may even inflate this statement, saying that Mr. Tuttle is cyberspace, that he is the embodiment of the postmodern. Consider Gibson's comment that "there is no there" in cyberspace. This seems to me to be a perfect way of describing Mr. Tuttle, whom neither Lauren or the reader can ever quite pin down. The reason that Mr. Tuttle is so disturbing is quite simple: he is us. He is the fragmentation of identity, he is the problematisation of language. Mr. Tuttle is the frankenstein of the postmodern, and the horror he produces is not the horror of the utterly Other but the horror of recognition.
The Body Artist was first published in 2001 by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, U.S., New York.