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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Some of Don DeLillo’s fans — the ones who worship the elegant, elusive sweep of his novels, their all-encompassing but somehow serene paranoia — will be puzzled by his new book. “The Body Artist” is short, even modest. It focuses almost relentlessly on one person’s consciousness, with little interest in the forces of history and culture. Instead, DeLillo asks the smaller, more itchy philosophical questions: whether someone is the same person from moment to moment, for example. He seems to want to make his readers burrow inside themselves; he’d like them to look at their own versions of reality from a new, unprotected emotional perspective, deprived of all the padding with which we tend to face the hard truths of human existence. “There’s something about the wind,” DeLillo writes at one point, and he could as well be talking about his own methods. “It strips you of assurances, working into you, continuous, making you feel the hidden thinness of everything around you, all the solid stuff of a hundred undertakings.” If you’re up for that kind of expert mind-fuck, the rewards of “The Body Artist” are great.
The body artist of the title is Lauren Hartke, who does conceptual performance art pieces in which she systematically transforms her body on stage in various ways. She’s suddenly lost her husband, a self-invented Spanish film director named Rey Robles. In a short, lovely opening set piece, DeLillo presents us with a moment-by-moment account of their final morning together: She can’t stop sniffing the box of soy granules, trying to figure out what they smell like, as he half-answers her questions and they share the newspaper and turn the radio on and off.
We soon learn of Rey’s death by reading his obituary, and the rest of the novel scrutinizes Lauren’s inner world during the first few months of her grief. She discovers that a mysterious, childlike, half-insane homeless man has been living in the ramshackle seaside house the couple has been renting, and he freaks her out by repeating snatches of her conversations with Rey over the past months. As she holes up in the house, avoiding answering the phone and trying to figure out how to relate to the strange little man, it’s almost, but of course not really, as if Rey is still there with her.
That’s about it, as far as plot goes. What keeps the book going are the big philosophical questions that Rey’s death raises for Lauren, questions she explores in a body art piece she’s working on. They’re self-consciously profound, and as likely to alienate nuts-and-bolts readers as to exhilarate more theoretically minded ones: How do we experience time? How do we know what “reality” is? The chapters drift elliptically from idea to idea, just as Lauren spends these months wandering in her own mind, kept company only by the enigmatic intruder she calls “Mr. Tuttle,” a person she never quite figures out: “Time is supposed to pass, she thought. But maybe he is living in another state. It is a kind of time that is simply and overwhelmingly there.”
DeLillo includes in the novel a journalist’s description of a show Lauren performs called “Body Time”: “Hartke clearly wanted her audience to feel time go by, viscerally, even painfully,” it reads. “This is what happened, causing walkouts among the less committed.” Like his heroine, DeLillo knows that the kind of abstraction he’s purveying is difficult and even boring, but that’s his point. If anyone has earned the right to bore us for our own good, it’s DeLillo. Be brave enough to be inside your own head, he suggests; there’s a level on which your memories, your dreams, your regrets are real — they take up space in your head and in your days.
“Is the thing that’s happening so far outside experience that you’re forced to make excuses for it, or give it the petty credentials of some misperception?” DeLillo addresses this challenge directly to his readers at the end of the book, as Lauren finds herself in a scarily lifelike reverie about Rey. “Is reality too powerful for you?” Is it?
Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review. More Maria Russo.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)