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Don DeLillo's The Body Artist : Performing the Body, Narrating Trauma

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 46, Number 3, Fall 2005
pp. 483-510 | 10.1353/cli.2005.0033

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Contemporary Literature 46.3 (2005) 483-510

Performing the Body, Narrating Trauma

Laura Di Prete

Rome, Italy

As Don DeLillo's short novel The Body Artist (2001) opens, Lauren Hartke and her husband Rey Robles are at the breakfast table of their rented seaside house in an unnamed coastal town, in what seems an ordinary scene on an ordinary day. While stirring coffee, reading the newspaper, pouring orange juice or milk from the carton, waiting for the toast, and exchanging brief, distracted remarks, the couple performs an apparently familiar ritual. But this is not to be an ordinary day. Rey, a sixty-four-year-old film director, is about to leave for New York and die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his first wife's apartment. Lauren, the body artist of the title, will return to the isolated cottage by the sea to mourn her traumatic loss. She will find in an empty room on the third floor a strange, unstable, possibly retarded man who may have been there throughout her entire stay with her husband.

The Body Artist, as a narrative that stages a scenario of traumatic loss and return through the phantasmatic figure of a "madman in the attic," explores dynamics of psychic intrusion (of an unassimilable presence) and interconnectedness as the consequence of traumatic experience. Not unlike Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), DeLillo's narrative imagines trauma as necessarily bound to the emergence of a "foreign body," a phantomlike figure in full flesh that makes the workings of traumatic memory accessible. In consistence with the author's interests and areas of investigation, though, the project primarily engages with the potential—in spite of acknowledged representational limits—of a language of bereavement. Thus narrating a traumatic crisis, such as the incomprehensible loss of a loved one, means for DeLillo necessarily searching within language for new echoes, nuances, and rhythms that might capture the truth of an experience lived primarily within the skin. As DeLillo's writing plunges into a dimension of distorted temporality and spatiality that shatters conventional language, his project engages in the difficult task of articulating relations among the key terms that structure the experience of trauma: the self, the voice, and the body. How, The Body Artist asks, can one tell a story of trauma, a story in which the known is deeply imbricated in the unknown? DeLillo's answer concerns a notion of "voice" that departs from conventional parameters of language and attends to nonverbal, physical perceptions and a notion of "body" that, tongued and in touch with what the mind cannot know, will voice its unspoken truth. Thus conceptualized, voice and body function synergistically to force trauma into representation, to make it accessible in the recognition of its expressive limits, and to explore viable forms of working through.

The Phantom as "Embodied Voice"

Lauren nicknames the strange little man Mr. Tuttle. "Smallish and fine bodied," he seems to her at first encounter "a kid, sandy-haired and roused from deep sleep, or medicated maybe" (41). Of indefinite age, mentally and psychically impaired, unable to express himself in a conventional language, Mr. Tuttle is indeed an enigmatic figure. Confronted with his sheer strangeness and ambiguity, the reader is doomed to fail in an effort to decode or fully explain such a figure. Yet in what will be by necessity a partial and insufficient reading, I would like to propose that, as simultaneously an embodied voice and a talking body, Mr. Tuttle is at the heart of DeLillo's larger project of staging traumatic reenactment. Like an alien hair in one's mouth (a recurrent figure in the text), Mr. Tuttle's "foreign body" or "phantom-body" suddenly materializes on the scene similarly to how traumatic memories that occupy the psyche without being absorbed or assimilated compulsively return. Mr. Tuttle's presence is marked not only by the mysterious materialization of his body, however, but also by his continuously returning voice. Simulated, repeated, recorded, doubled, Mr. Tuttle's voice insistently addresses Lauren in her struggle for survival.

Nicolas Abraham has theorized the relationship between the voice (as sound, words, language) and traumatic experience in a way that seems useful to this discussion. With...



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