The white noise of grief

In 1996, a physicist at New York University named Alan Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal devoted to something called "poststructuralism." His essay, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," argued that Western science - with notions like, say, "gravity" - is merely a social construction, a fabric of political and philosophical Enlightenment dogma.

As soon as the editors at Social Text published this riff of poststructural erudition, Dr. Sokal revealed that his article was a hoax, a parody of the kind of gobbledygook that regularly passes for intellectual analysis of language and culture.

It's tempting to hope Don DeLillo delivers a similar revelation soon after the publication of his latest "novel."

His previous works, most recently "White Noise" and "Underworld," were enormous critical and popular successes. He's won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Jerusalem Prize, and the American Book Award.

But where those novels are sprawling with wit and insight, "The Body Artist" is claustrophobic and affected. Very smart professors of French literature and diehard fans of "Twin Peaks" will find "The Body Artist" fascinating. (I half expected a midget to dance through the wall and whisper, "My log had a dream about you last night.") But these fit readers may not be enough to recoup the $1 million Simon & Schuster reportedly paid for this little book.

The story opens in a large rented house on a remote beach along the East Coast. Lauren Hartke has been married to Rey Robles for only a few months, but already things are strained.

In the late 70s, Rey was director of avant-garde films that briefly developed a cult following in art houses in the US and abroad. He's spent the last 20 years in a haze of alcoholism and depression.

Lauren, his third wife, calls herself a "body artist." She bleaches, sands, cuts, and contorts her body into odd shapes while the robotic voice of a telephone answering machine repeats the standard greeting for 75 minutes. Sophisticated theatergoers, we're told, eat this stuff up.

DeLillo presents their last quiet breakfast in a stark, super-sensory narrative: "She crossed to the cabinet with the blueberries wet in her hand and reached up for the cereal and took the box to the counter, the mostly brown and white box, and then the toaster thing popped and she flipped it down again because it took two flips to get the bread to go brown and he absently nodded his acknowledgement because it was his toast and his butter and then he turned on the radio and got the weather."

The muffled dissatisfaction in this marriage reeks like burnt toast. Lauren tries and fails to engage her melancholy husband in conversation, and then withdraws to fantasize about herself in newspaper stories. "She took a bite of cereal and forgot to taste it. She lost the taste somewhere between the time she put the food in her mouth and the regretful second she swallowed it." This is breakfast with J. Alfred Prufrock.

Finally, Rey makes a rueful comment about having to endure "the terror of another ordinary day," drives off to his exwife's house, and shoots himself in the head.

A few days after his funeral, Lauren returns to the house in shell-shocked grief. She feeds the birds and watches a Webcam of a quiet road in Finland. "The plan was to organize time until she could live again."

One day, she discovers a thin old man sitting in his underwear in one of the bedrooms of the house. "She thought he was inevitable." I did not. He speaks only in disjointed phrases from her conversation with her late husband: "I know how much. I know how much this house. Alone by the sea."

She suspects he's mentally retarded, or a space alien, or a being from another time continuum, or her old science teacher, or her husband's ghost. She makes recordings of their odd sessions together until he leaves just as mysteriously as he arrived.

This has all the potential of Isaac Singer's magical realism, but DeLillo never puts enough meat on these bones to support any of the weighty themes he hints at.

His narrator - noirrator? - casts this bizarre event with such pretentiousness that it's hard to take these implications about the nature of grief, time, and language seriously.

Publicity material sent with the novel claims that DeLillo "lets out the rope and allows readers to create whatever world he/she might want." That's something like sending us a dictionary and telling us, "The words are all here - arrange them into the great book he/she wants to read." The gig's up.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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