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Diet DeLillo, Reduced Roth

Slim volumes from two major American writers make for provocative summer reading

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The road to hell is surely paved with good intentions--and so it is with readers traveling a path strewn with too many books.

In 1997, I finally surrendered to an obvious (but no less disappointing) truth: I simply can't find time for all the books I'd like to read. Twice that year, I received review copies of doorstop-sized novels by major American writers: April brought Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon (773 pages); Don DeLillo's Underworld (827 pages) came in August. I managed to read only a portion of the former, never found the opportunity to even open the latter. Work deadlines sent me in other directions; personal obligations impinged on my reading time. Instead, I read and reviewed books such as Clyde Edgerton's Where Trouble Sleeps, Sheri Reynolds' A Gracious Plenty and other usually regional, almost always shorter novels. Though I did manage to complete Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral--the first installment of his highly praised "American Trilogy"--the Pynchon and DeLillo still stand unread on my bookshelves, at best reminding me of some small negligence, at worst casting a shadow of suspicion on my professed love of literature.

The good news for me and other time-wearied, attention-deficient readers? This season, two of those fierce and fearless novelists above--DeLillo and Roth--have coincidentally shifted out of their epic-minded modes to deliver surprisingly slim volumes: The Body Artist (124 pages) and The Dying Animal (156 pages) respectively. Coincidentally again, each novel deals to some degree with a cross-generational romance, with the persistence of a relationship after its end, with death and dying. Each even features a famous painting by an Italian artist on its cover--in the case of DeLillo's, a detail from Caravaggio's "Musicians"; for Roth, Modigliani's "Reclining Nude." And yet how unique each novel is in its tones and attitudes, its goals and its execution. What a different experience we get from spending a little time with each of them.

Don DeLillo's often elliptical, often meditative 12th novel, The Body Artist, is as tightly crafted a book as you're likely to read this year. The language is sparer, more minimalistic, more formal than we've come to expect from DeLillo. Stripped down almost to its essential components and persistently focused on its thematic concerns, it's a minor tour de force, with hardly a wasted word.

The title character, Lauren Hartke, is a 30-something performance artist who literally alters her body--through elaborate exercises, cosmetic changes such as cutting her hair or pumicing her body, and even depigmentation--to take on the personas of others. One friend describes her as "always in the process of becoming another or exploring some root identity," whether a Japanese woman or a Pentecostal preacher or a pregnant man. Lauren's husband, Rey Robles, is a noted film director, "cinema's poet of lonely places," who once won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

But, though we learn these facts later, in the first chapter the couple lacks such definition. Instead, sitting down to breakfast together, they seem to exist merely as useful elements in an almost caricatured study of married life's everyday estrangements. DeLillo is not presenting a scenario as much as pressing a point, and the couple's dialogue seems less like conversation than a coded message from author to reader: Here is alienation from the self; here is alienation from the other. Lauren nearly sleepwalks through ordinary morning routines; at one point DeLillo writes, "She took a bite of cereal and forgot to taste it." Rey turns the radio on and immediately forgets the action, then turns it off, on and off again throughout the scene with various degrees of consciousness about his actions. At one point, he asks his wife, "Tell me because I'm not sure. Do you drink juice?" And 11 times during the first 19 pages, either Lauren or Rey asks the one-word question, "What?"--having not comprehended what the other said or having simply not heard at all.

An obituary inserted between chapters announces Rey's suicide, and in the second chapter, Lauren returns to the old, sprawling coastal home that they had rented. Her plan is to spend some time alone. Her goal: "to organize time until she could live again." But when a noise leads her up to the third floor, she discovers that she's hardly alone: A man of indeterminate age has apparently been living in the house with her for an unknown period of time.

The stranger's identity quickly becomes the central conceit of the novel. Mr. Tuttle, as Lauren eventually names him, is, at first, largely inarticulate, speaking in seeming non sequiturs or repeating Lauren's own phrases and questions. Lauren, in turn, creates stories around him. Is he a mental patient? Is he a neighbor perhaps? Is he connected somehow to the house? But once Tuttle begins repeating phrases from conversations between Lauren and her late husband--replicating intonations or even exact voices, and mimicking Rey's gestures--Lauren's interest in him takes a distinct turn: "Lauren looked at him, a cartoon head and body, chinless, stick-figured, but he knew how to make her husband live in the air that rushed from his lungs into his vocal folds--air to sounds, sounds to words, words the man, shaped faithfully on his lips and tongue."

Is Tuttle a figment of Lauren's imagination? A construct that reflects her own past and allows her to confront not only her grief but her entire existence? Lauren herself recognizes "that she could not miss Rey, could not consider his absence, the loss of Rey, without thinking along the margins of Mr. Tuttle." She becomes near-obsessed with their exchanges, and she eventually draws on these encounters to create Body Time, a work of performance art through which she processes her experiences and lays the groundwork for the perhaps even more profound life-changes to take place offstage. (In Rey Robles' obituary, a critic says, "[Robles'] subject is people in landscapes of estrangement. 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." The words, as DeLillo must surely be aware, make a nice description as well of The Body Artist itself.)

But DeLillo is up to more than an exploration of grief and personal transformation. Through the metaphysical and metafictional qualities of Tuttle (who lives, as Lauren muses, "in a kind of time that had no narrative quality"), DeLillo prompts ruminations on the nature of time, the related creation of narrative and (more essentially) the role of language in ascribing meaning. "There has to be," Lauren considers, "an imaginary point, a nonplace where language intersects with our perceptions of time and space, and [Tuttle] is a stranger at this crossing, without words or bearing." Elsewhere, DeLillo himself seems to speak to the reader more directly with statements such as "Past, present and future are not amenities of language. Time unfolds into the seams of being." And he manages to insert some heady questions into the narrative--from as basely emotional a query as "Why shouldn't the death of a person you love bring you into lurid ruin?" to as intellectual a question as "How much myth do we build into our experience of time?"

At 124 pages, The Body Artist surely lacks the thematic heft of, say, The Magic Mountain, perhaps the crown jewel of philosophical literature. (But then again, since the theme of this Summer Reader concerns attention deficiency, perhaps The Magic Mountain's not an option here anyway.) In the end, despite its slender size and spare prose, readers may well find The Body Artist as ambitious as any number of longer, denser books. DeLillo's novel is ultimately not afraid to probe some heavy, provocative questions and, in doing so, proves that even small gems can boast great luster.

While Lauren Hartke searches for self-awareness, 70-year-old David Kepesh, the narrator of Philip Roth's The Dying Animal (and the protagonist of Roth's earlier novels The Breast and The Professor of Desire), already believes in his ability to deliberately create his own destiny. Like so many of Roth's protagonists, Kepesh is sternly individualistic, protecting his own freedoms even at the expense of others. His defining moment? Emboldened by the radicalism and revolutionary fervor of the '60s, he left his wife and child and became an emancipated man: sexually voracious, intellectually superior, morally--well, is there any word more appropriate than smug? "I took a hammer to domestic life and those who stand watch over it," Kepesh explains proudly. "That I'm still a hammerer should be no surprise."

In The Dying Animal, Kepesh, an aging professor and cultural critic of small fame, relates his short-lived romance with one of his students, 24-year-old Consuela Castillo, the daughter of Cuban émigrés and a woman whose chief attributes are, in Kepesh's words, "the most gorgeous breasts I have ever seen--and I was born, remember, in 1930: I have seen quite a few breasts by now. These were round, full, perfect. The type with the nipple like a saucer. Not the nipple like an udder but the big pale rosy-brown nipple that is so very stirring." Elsewhere he describes her body as "still new to her, she's still trying it out, thinking it through, a bit like a kid walking the streets with a loaded gun and deciding whether he's packing it to protect himself or to begin a life of crime." Setting the stage for the rest of the story, Kepesh admits early on, "I'm very vulnerable to female beauty, as you know."

So what (other than big breasts) is The Dying Animal about? On one level, Kepesh's romance with his student offers the opportunity to ponder age differences and jealousy, aging in general, sex as a defense against mortality. A related story about Kepesh's son Kenny allows reflections on father-son relationships, and invites a contrasting of the morals of men. And as with Roth's recent triumphs, the author here uses a character's personal history, his predilections and predicaments, as the starting point for examining the much-larger history of the nation: not just the sexual revolution but even further back--referencing Hawthorne, calling on the Declaration of Independence and offering a brief history of the Plymouth Puritans' condemnation of an English trading outpost known as Merry Mount.

Perhaps predictably, given the size of the book, not all of this works. After Roth's panoramic exploration of post-World War II U.S. society in the American Trilogy, The Dying Animal may seem slim in this regard. But two significant differences between this latest novel and the trilogy preceding it suggest that such a comparison is invalid. First, while social context serves to illuminate individual choices in the American Trilogy, in The Dying Animal Kepesh seems to use social context simply to defend his choices and (though he doesn't recognize it) to excuse his own worst qualities. Second, where Roth has previously used his alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, to filter other men's tales of triumph, outrage or frailty, Kepesh--faults and all--narrates his own story directly.

Throughout his career, Roth has been playfully disingenuous about identifications between himself and his creations (particularly in the books where "Philip Roth" is himself a character), and it's intriguing to gauge Roth's authorial distance here: how he feels about Kepesh, when considering our own reaction to Kepesh's attitudes--particularly his comments about gender relations and sexual politics.

Consider Kepesh's memory of an early conversation with Consuela: "She thinks, I'm telling him who I am. He's interested in who I am. That is true, but I am curious about who she is because I want to fuck her. I don't need all of this great interest in Kafka and Velzquez. Having this conversation with her, I am thinking, How much more am I going to have to go through? ... Twenty minutes into the veiling and already I'm wondering, What does any of this have to do with her tits and her skin and how she carries herself?"

Are men indeed like that? Some are, certainly (and various clichéd interpretations of men may predominate strongly enough in American culture to bolster arguments that the majority are). But how do we react to Kepesh's more general (and then genderless) questions, "Do men find women so enchanting once the sex is taken away? Does anyone find anyone of any sex that enchanting unless they have sexual business with them?" How do we respond when Kepesh derides the "masochistic rigor" of married life? When he celebrates the young women of the '60s as "a generation drawing their conclusions from their cunts"? When he praises today's women as "a generation of astonishing fellators"? How are we supposed to feel when Consuela tells Kepesh she has cancer--of the breast, of course--and his various reactions are alternately selfish and sympathetic? Her disease has ultimately tarnished his feelings for her, he admits bluntly: "I would have been in great trouble if she had asked me to sleep with her that night. I'll be in great trouble when she asks me once she is recovered from surgery."

Roth inhabits Kepesh the narrator so completely that one might easily assume he's entirely sympathetic with his creation, but evidence persists that Roth may be inviting us to question Kepesh and his presumptions--just as the "listener" within this narrative questions him. To a great degree, we respond just as we're provoked to respond. But though some readers may easily condemn Kepesh as wrong-headed (if not even abominable), it's ultimately difficult to simply dismiss the narrator and his attitudes, or to ignore the uncomfortable questions raised in his monologue. What are the hedonistic tendencies that lurk deep within us? Are we all ultimately so selfish? And to what ends could such calculated independence take us?

It's not quite fair to compare books as if literature were a competition or as if there were some quantifiable scale at all (there's not). And cursory summations à la People or Us magazine seem a little blithe for the serious reader. But with deference to the attention-deficient who prompted this Summer Reading section--and who've perhaps skimmed this review as well--here's a quick wrap-up:

Sparsely elegant, Don DeLillo's The Body Artist guides us gently to some level of profundity, of philosophical consideration. Defiant but diffuse, Philip Roth's The Dying Animal avoids easy answers, challenges complacency, roughs us up a little. Where The Body Artist is sympathetic to its female protagonist and generous toward all humanity, The Dying Animal extends perhaps undeserved sympathy to its male narrator and ultimately proves biting and even vicious in its appraisal of the human animal. Either book can be quickly consumed but, to its credit, not too easily digested. And in either case, these quick reads may well prove not only memorable but perhaps even unforgettable. EndBlock

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