The Small Noise Upstairs

Frank Kermode

  • The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
    Picador, 124 pp, £13.99, February 2001, ISBN 0 330 48495 8

The publishers describe this book as ‘lean’, which may be taken to refer to its style, though it also serves as a euphemism for ‘very short, especially considering the price’. Its immediate predecessor was Underworld, about seven times as long (or as fat). That book, as nearly everybody must know, begins with a chapter about a famous baseball game and a boy who retrieves the ball with which the decisive home run was scored. The Body Artist is about as long as the Underworld ball-game.

DeLillo is a serious and various writer, and we have to take these extremes as deliberately chosen to reflect different aspects of his talent. Underworld belongs to the category of the Great American Novel, to which all the really big writers aspire. Structurally it has some resemblance to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and that thought prompts the reflection that Pynchon also wrote an exceptionally fine novella, The Crying of Lot 49. If there are two traditions of great American writing it is proper to show up in both of them. One of them may be said to originate with Hawthorne, the other with Melville, one lean and self-absorbed, the other heavy, expansive, determined to contain a world. On the whole the heavyweights have prevailed in recent years; one no longer hears much talk of, say, Glenway Westcott, a lean writer of whom Gertrude Stein remarked that ‘he has a certain syrup but it does not pour.’ This memory came to me as I read The Body Artist. But here the syrup does, slowly, pour.

Underworld aims to put together a complicated image of the desperate condition of the United States in the second half of the 20th century, with some allusion to the rest of the world, since it is still impossible to say everything relevant about life, civilisation and the decaying future by talking about America alone. It has a very basic narrative idea; tracing the history of a baseball is a grander version of the exercise one occasionally had to perform at school: the adventures of a sixpence, or the like. However, DeLillo’s idea can encompass a vast array of narrative themes and characters, and I have to admit I don’t have a firm grasp on every one of them. Garbage is a principal and much reiterated theme. It is taking over the world: ‘What we excrete comes back to consume us.’ Baseball has here, as so often, a pastoral simplicity in contrast with pretty well everything else that affects our lives. The seed of the book was probably the fact that the day of the great pennant-deciding ball-game was the day America first heard that the Soviet Union had tested an atom bomb. What is fallout but more cosmic garbage? It signals the end of any hope that even baseball can remain pure and simple. But in fact the game is already contaminated by the presence of some of the more eminent spectators, such as J. Edgar Hoover and his cronies.

After that critical moment it seems that modern history is all downhill. The 1960s are a decade that has ‘paranoid breath’. Evil has formed itself into a system; so thoroughly is the world ‘systemed under’ that we don’t even perceive the connection between orange juice and Agent Orange, which the system ‘connects at levels beyond’ our comprehension. Even the quite recent pre-system past is food for nostalgia. A tune can take you ‘back to your bedside radio and the smells of your kitchen, and the way the linoleum used to ripple near the icebox’. We can even feel nostalgic for the Cold War. ‘Many things that were anchored to the balance of power and the balance of terror seem to be undone, unstuck. Things have no limits now. Money has no limits. I don’t understand money any more. Money is undone. Violence is undone, violence is easier now, it’s uprooted, out of control, it has no measure any more, it has no level of values.’

Underworld is a heroic work, colossal in its assurance, in its temporal and spatial range. Its narrative is propelled by extraordinary imaginative energy, by spectacular feats of dialogue and prose of incessant animation. DeLillo, not for the first time, is writing a great book. Gentler readers may well prefer some of the earlier novels, especially White Noise, produced in 1984, back in the good old Cold War epoch; set in a small New England college town, it is dominated by an episode of industrial pollution, a lethal toxic cloud, but it preserves a memory of neighbourly happiness, and is nearly always amusing, sometimes even funny, as well as somehow benign. (In the new book ‘somehow’ is described as the weakest word in the language, a dishonour Joyce reserved for ‘yes’.)

It must have seemed a challenge worthy of a virtuoso to abandon the complex and the extensive, and produce instead an intensive, crystalline novella. The animation of the language, the fervour of the scrutiny applied to a world now grown small, need not be less. All the power of the big-book writer must now be applied to a brief scenario and a setting hardly more ambitious than Jane Austen’s.

The ‘white noise’ of the earlier title is death, and DeLillo always has some of the big subjects in mind. In The Body Artist they are, as the jacket copy lets us know at once, space, love and death. A man and a woman are in the kitchen of a large rented house in New England, having breakfast and reading the Sunday papers. He has run out of cigarettes and is looking for his car keys. Instead of coming back with the cigarettes he drives to New York and shoots himself in the apartment of a former wife.

The woman stays in the rented house. A ‘body artist’, she keeps in trim by day, but at night watches on the Internet the videoed traffic on the outskirts of an obscure Finnish town. Eventually she discovers that the house has a squatter. This strange man speaks a weird dialect of English, having, for instance, no control over tenses, and he is evidently below par in many other ways, but she forms an adhesive relationship with him. He had overheard the husband, a film director, talking into a tape-recorder, and discovered that he could mimic the speech of the dead man. The woman accepts the stranger as a member of the household, and tries to capture on the tape-recorder her attempts to converse with him. But the conversation fails; it lacks the unspoken contribution of presence, on which personal communication depends. These participants cannot share a sense of inhabiting a particular time between past and future. The man develops a kind of chant in which he seems to identify himself with a moment that is neither the present nor the past nor the future. ‘He is another structure, another culture where time is something like itself, sheer and bare, empty of shelter.’ Sometimes he repeats sentences spoken by the dead husband, or by the woman herself, either in the past or, less explicably, in the future; for ‘this is a man who remembers the future.’

When her guest disappears she mimics his voice on the telephone. She, the body artist, gives a performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which expresses all that she has discovered about time. As well as miming the interloper she builds into her act many other allusions, and even runs a video of that two-lane highway in Finland. As far as possible her act eliminates the sense of passing time, and a feeling that it may never end causes the more easily bored members of the audience to walk out. Returning to the rented house, she seems to achieve a separation of fact and fantasy, feeling once more ‘the flow of time in her body’.

In saying that much about the story I’m not breaking any rules about plot revelation, for the interest of this book is primarily in its texture. Its repetitive, fragmentary motifs remind one of the old nouveau roman: the unavoidable touch of a hand on a newel post, the arm that hits an overhead light when the woman removes her always grubby sweater, the gait of a Japanese neighbour (later incorporated in the Cambridge performance), the behaviour and the noises of birds at garden feeders.

The opening chapter is where you have to learn to read the book. The kitchen detail, how water from the tap looks first clear, then opaque, the toaster where you have to press the lever twice to get the right shade of brown, the cereal box and the handful of blueberries and the soya granules – it’s all calculated to make you think the good old days of chosisme have come back. The man is trying to remember something he needs to say, remembers it and doesn’t say it. The radio plays, he turns it off, turns it on again, remembers he has just turned it off and turns it off again. The husband and wife are in subtle ways separate (have not been long together) though in others they are more at one. She struggles to get rid of a hair in her mouth, he has cut his chin shaving. Although she knows what he was going to tell her, she insists that he do so, but he doesn’t. These are seemingly ordinary failures of communication. ‘When he walked out of the room, she realised there was something she wanted to tell him. Sometimes she doesn’t think of what she wants to say to him until he walks out of whatever room they’re in. Then she thinks of it. Then she either calls after him or doesn’t and he responds or doesn’t.’ What he had meant to do, though without doing it, was to mention a certain noise in the house, caused, as we are to discover when he has left, by the movements of the intruder upstairs.

And so on. Eventually he asks about his car keys and departs. The interest of this scene lies partly in its skilful use of the old 1950s techniques to establish an aura of hallucinated detail, a brightly lit moment, though we don’t of course know that the moment is that of a final parting between the pair. But it also cannily inserts a rather more conventional piece of plotting, the delayed significance of the small noise upstairs.

On a second reading this brief novel strikes one as a demonstration, hardly less impressive than the monstrous Underworld, of the writer’s virtuosity. All the same I dare say many admirers of Underworld will find this new novel something of a stumbling block, at least until they see it as what the jacket tells us it is: yet another meditation on time and death, and yet another testimony to the power and scope of this ambitious novelist.