Abhijit Sarmah

M Phil Scholar, Department of English, Dibrugarh University, Assam
([email protected])


As Giles Foden points out in his review, Don DeLillo’s thirteenth book The Body Artist is unlike any of the author’s previous as well as latter works (Foden). Even though much has been written about the author’s exceptional treatment of time, grief and language in the novella, considerable work is yet to be done on the author’s treatment of loss and trauma as well as its literary representation and narration. Drawing on some tenets of trauma theory and pivotal works of prominent theorists like Cathy Caruth, Susan J. Brison and Robert Jay Lifton, the primary objective of this paper is to conduct a close analysis of the representation of trauma in Don DeLillo’s novella The Body Artist as well as to understand the significance of narrativizing trauma. The paper would also argue that narrativizing trauma can indeed help in overcoming trauma and recreating a self. 

Keywords : trauma theory, representation, narration, loss

One of the major voices in American fiction for nearly five decades, Donald Robert DeLillo, popularly known as Don DeLillo, is the author of eighteen novels, including White Noise (1985), Underworld (1997) and The Silence (2020). His books incorporate and explore a vast array of human experiences and narrative themes, from contradictions and paradoxes of postmodern culture to dynamics of family and loss in darkly comic profundity. In his thirteenth book The Body Artist (2001), through the character of a bereaved performance artist, DeLillo delves into the realm of personal loss and trauma. Traumatic experiences are often looked at as overwhelming outbursts of reality that defies language and representation (Caruth 4) but, for novelists, the advancement of trauma theory in the recent decades has put forth unique ways of conceiving trauma and stirred the focus, at least academically, more towards how and why the past is remembered instead of solely dealing with what a traumatised subject remembers. And, as Cathy Caruth notes, literature is a fitting discipline to describe traumatic experiences because like psychoanalysis and its emphasis on the symbolic, literature too is concerned about the complex relationship between knowing and not knowing (Caruth 3). Even though much has been written by scholars about the author’s exceptional treatment of time, grief and language in the novella, considerable work is yet to be done on the author’s treatment of loss and trauma as well as its literary representation and narration. Drawing on some tenets of trauma theory and pivotal works of prominent theorists like Cathy Caruth, Susan J. Brison and Robert Jay Lifton, the primary objective of this paper is to conduct a close analysis of the representation of trauma in Don DeLillo’s novella The Body Artist as well as to understand the significance of narrativizing trauma. In addition to that, the paper would also argue that narrativizing trauma can indeed help in overcoming trauma and recreating a self.

In the beginning of the novella, the readers are introduced to Lauren Hartke, a young performance artist, and her significantly older husband Rey Robles, a failing film director, doing domestic chores on an ordinary morning. Narrated retroactively, the information of the traumatic event arrives subsequently through an obituary inserted in the narrative. The readers learn that this is the last time Lauren sees Rey before he goes to one of his ex-wives’ apartment and commits suicide. From the very onset of the novella, the readers are placed in the position of the traumatised subject. In the introductory paragraph of the novella, an unidentified speaker addresses the readers in the present tense and makes some statements on how time “seems to pass”, on howeveryoneonly receive“a sense of things” thatdestroys the surety of “who we are”, and on the irreversibility that go along with the world’s becoming (DeLillo 1). These statements pave the way for a crucialquestion: what would the readers change or would do differently if they were given a chance to face up to these very statements? Following that, the narrative offers them a chance to change what hovers in the horizon but, as evident, they cannot. Though the verb tense signals that “it” (the suicide committed by Rey) has already happened in the past, Lauren’s ignorance of what hovers demand that “it” be passed through again.

In Unclaimed Experiences: Trauma, Narrative and History, Cathy Caruth identifies that trauma’s distinctive effects shoot from a fractured temporality evident both in the original moment as well as in its conscious recurrence. The original moment, “experienced too soon, too unexpectedly” (Caruth 4), is not accessible to consciousness until it resurfaces time and again in the form of repetitive actions and bad dreams. Traumatic narratives, writes Caruth, are a kind of “double telling”, fluctuating between thecrises of life and of death, between the story of the agonizing nature of an event and the story of its survival (Caruth 7). Lauren’s narrative emerges from the time following the loss of her husband and the novella mimics the temporality of traumatic experience by taking the readers through the original momenttime and again. Moreover, as Robert Jay Lifton points out in The Broken Connection (1996),the traumatised subject often experiences “self-condemnation” and “this guilt seems to subsume the individual rather harshly” (Lifton 172). Likewise, Lauren also repeatedlyexperiences guilt for having not seen “it” (the suicide of Rey) coming and not being able to do anything to stop “it” from happening. She feels responsible for Rey’s death. In the first chapter, the readers find Lauren anxiously identifying many instances where the chance that Rey might commit suicide was apparent during theirlast breakfast together. For instance, when Lauren questions Rey why he needs to shave and not let his beard grow, Rey says “I want God to see my face” and laughs (DeLillo 16). Like the repetition of the traumatic experience itself, the guilt also keeps returning to Lauren.

Due to the repeated appearance of a death that Lauren has not quite grasped, she struggles to recognise the difference between life and death and thus, she floats between them like the French actress in Caruth’s study of Hiroshima mon amour(1959).It gives birth to Lauren’s desire to absolve her guilt and bedead like Rey (DeLillo 36). Caruth considers this sort of lethal sympathy as another approach to traumatic survival andin due course, it leads to fragmentation of the self, so that the body of the traumatised subject can become a monument for a death (Caruth 30-31). Similarly, Lauren ruptures her subjectivity to such an extent that,in one instance, while walking through her house she can hear herself from other parts of the house (DeLillo 37). As David Spiege points out, traumatic experiences often “take the form of loss of control over parts of one’s mind—identity, memory, and consciousness” (Spiege) and it is apparent in Lauren’s case. Furthermore, Lauren also yearns to bring time to a standstill, for each passing moment reminds her of the invariable nature of the number next to Rey’s name in the obituary. She understands, as she states during her performance piece, that “When time stops, so do we … In dreams or high fevers or doped up or depressed. Doesn’t time slow down or seem to stop?” (DeLillo 109) This yearning can be understood as Lauren’s attempt to hide from her knowledge of Rey’s death, to move into a state where time doesn’t exist. Added to that, she could no longer see and understand things the way the older part of her used to but there was also no way she could return to her “older part”, to the state prior to the knowledge of her husband’s death (DeLillo 39). But unfortunately, the knowledge available to Lauren isincomplete too. Several parts from the story is missing, something that can only be picked up in the voice of loss. Towards the end of the second chapter, Lauren hears the noisethat she recognizes from her last breakfast with Rey (DeLillo 42). Shortly afterwards, Lauren sees a stranger in her empty house, whom she names Mr Tuttle and immediatelyfeels as if the one whom she felt before but didn’t see, one who flouts the limits of the humanwas sitting right across the bed (DeLillo 102). However, the abstruseness of the narrative makes the readers ponder if everything is as it seems or Mr. Tuttle is merely a creation of her imagination. As it becomes apparent from a close study, Mr Tuttle is in fact a simulation and creationof the real. He speaks a weird dialect of English and his speech divulges a fractured subject displaced in time. Instead of addressing himself as a speaking ‘I’, he turns himself into an object. Mr Tuttle’s first response to Lauren is “It is not able” (DeLillo 45). And, he doesn’t seem concerned about the difference between future and past tense either. For instance, when Lauren asks him what he sees outside, Mr Tuttle answers “the trees are some of them” and “it rained very much” (DeLillo 47).

Mr Tuttle is the representation of Lauren’s traumatic experience and what Mr Tuttle speaks is projection of Lauren’s loss.Mr Tuttle is Lauren’s wound made palpable. What the readershear are not his words but the language of Lauren’s misery. His speaking in the past tense about things yet to happen is a sign of Lauren’s own disturbed mind failing to cope with the loss.As a defence mechanism, Mr Tuttle is createdby Lauren to shield and dissociate from the reality she is made to witness but denies to realise. As Trauma Studies enlighten us, the structure of traumatic experience makes the survivor be alone with the wound. And, subsequently, it is the wound that starts voicing loss. The voice that surfaces, Caruth maintains, is no one else’s but the survivor’s own voice released through the wound (Caruth 2).It’s also of note how Lauren struggles for outside references to make sense of Mr Tuttle’s actions and to get him placed because he is Lauren’s loss and has no past of his own. The fact that he is a creation is also apparent in his demeanour and physical characteristics. Mr Tuttle only gives an impression of life but does not display understanding and is rigid like a dummy. For most of the part, his speech is either scrambled or nonsensical though suspiciously suggestive. Having a conversation with him is similar to putting lines into the mouth of a parrot or a songbird and Lauren realises that, for instance, when she asks Mr Tuttle if he ever talked to Rey.

‘“Did you ever talk to Rey? The way we are talking now.” “We are talking now.” “Yes. Are you saying yes? Say yes. When did you know him?” “I know him where he was.”’ (DeLillo 64)

Lauren and Mr Tuttle do not really have conversations, for in it only one person speaks and in addition to that, the structure of traumatic experience prevents Lauren from identifying herself as the source of the imagined conversations. Mr Tuttle is an excusefor Lauren todeny enteringnormal time again because that would require her to accept the knowledge of Rey’s death. To fend off death and ensnared by the yearning to see Rey alive, she fills the void left by Rey with an imaginary being. Refusing to recognise Mr Tuttle for what it is makes Lauren accept Mr Tuttle’s enactment of Rey as genuine. Thus, when Mr Tuttle begins to tell Rey’s personal stories, Lauren starts to hear them in Rey’s voice and thinks, “This was not some communication with the dead. It was Rey alive in the course of a talk he’s had with her… not long after they’d come here” (DeLillo 63). Mr Tuttle formulates 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. As the narrative moves forward, Mr Tuttle begins to speak similar to Lauren and Rey and in comprehensible grammatically-correct sentences that are more like fragments from the past, anecho of the couple’s final conversation. Even though initially she doesn’t address it, Laurenalso observes that Mr Tuttle is more ofan artifice and less of a human being: small, chinless with an unusualkind of body. But, he is also the one who keeps Rey alive for her. However, the real problem surfaces when while pushing Mr Tuttle to speak like Rey, Lauren realises that she can’t remember Rey correctly. This realisation too makes Lauren want to expunge her own past. When Mr Tuttle endeavours to rebuild the original site of Lauren’s trauma, that is, the conversation Lauren had with Rey before he committed suicide, she watches her “separated self” crawl and dissolve into him. She fails to differentiate between the enactment and the original moment and consequently, submits herself to an eternally still present. A review of her performance act titled Body Art in Extremis: Slow, Spare and Painful rightly sums up Lauren’s psychological state: “She is acting, always in the process of becoming another or exploring some root identity” (DeLillo 107) because she has parted from her self in an effort to escape her reality.

But, the original moment was not there. Trauma is constructed only through the representations of the traumatic moment. Because Lauren saw the original moment in retrospect, she fails to find the cause of her trauma. In the first instance, she didn’t know what she was seeing and therefore, there is no way for her to know definitely what happened unless the original moment is reinvented.Towards the latter part of the novella, after re-experiencing the trauma of the original moment through her performance act, Lauren arrives at the conclusion that time is the only narrative that matters and “it stretches events and makes it possible for us to suffer and come out of it” (DeLillo 94). Soon after Lauren starts seeing Mr Tuttle for what it is, a dweller of an unbroken time, he gradually fades away. To enter normal time, she had to stop finding solace in the fantasy of timelessness Mr Tuttle provides and give away her yearning to see Rey’sreturn.She had to stop including the event of Rey’s death in the history of her own life. By narrativizing her suffering in Body Time, Lauren attempts to recognize her wound and act through the trauma by repossessing her own voice and identity. Furthermore, the readers also uncover the fact that it is repetition that lies behind the formation of one’s identity. It’s true that narrativizing her sufferingdidn’t bring Lauren’s trauma to a closure but her act of repossessing her own voicehas helped her in re-entering normal time and reinstating her association to the living world. The act of narrativizing traumatic experiences, writes Susan J. Brison in Trauma Narratives and the Remarking of the Self, “gives shape and a temporal order to the events recalled, establishing more control over their recalling, and helping the survivor to remake a self” (Brison 40). Creating a self-narrative is aneffective procedure for recovery through trying to redeem control and restoreregular life. If a traumatised subject gets access to language and an audience, they may use it as a tool to recovery although it is not always “sufficient for recovery from trauma” (Brison 40) as we can discern in Lauren’s case.At the end of the novella, Lauren comes to peace with herloss, accepts the knowledge of Rey’s death and reaffirms herself that Rey’s death is in no way her fault and one needs to grieve to move beyond any trauma (DeLillo 126). Lauren acts through her traumatic loss by stopindulging in the fantasy of what she would have done differently if she had the chanceof stopping Rey as well asby accepting that the voice of the wound is no one else’s but her own. Although she could no longer go back to the time prior to her loss, she returns to a world that reaffirms her survival (DeLillo 126).

To conclude, Don DeLillo in his novella The Body Artist adeptly represents personal trauma and its workings through the character of Lauren Hartke by employing multiple literary techniques and tropes. In addition to that, he has also highlighted the roles thatguilt and denial plays in traumatic experiences. But most importantly, he render show narrativizing traumatic experiences along with accepting reality can help in overcoming trauma. From our study, it can be inferred that narrativizing trauma can certainly reinstate orderin the life of a traumatised subject and help in re-creating a self.

References :

Brison, Susan. “Trauma Narratives and the Remarking of the Self”. Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, edited by MiekeBal, University Press of New England, 1999, pp. 39-54.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experiences: Trauma, Narrative and History. John Hopkins University Press, 2016.

DeLillo, Don. The Body Artist.Picador, 2011.

Foden, Giles. “Review: The Body Artist by Don DeLillo.” The Guardian, n.p., 22 Feb. 2018,

www.theguardian.com/books/2001/feb/17/fiction.dondelillo. Accessed 3 Nov. 2020.

Lifton, Robert Jay. The Broken Connection: On Death and Continuity of Life. American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 1996.

Spiege, David. “Coming Apart: Trauma and the Fragmentation of the Self.”Dana Foundation, Dana Foundation, 9 Sept. 2019, www.dana.org/article/coming-apart-trauma-and-the-fragmentation-of-the-self/.Accessed 6 July 2020.

About Drishti: the Sight

Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.