10 FEBRUARY 2001, Page 33

An exercise in non-speak

Philip Hensher

THE BODY ARTIST by Don DeLillo Picador, £13.99, pp. 124 Don DeLillo has now reached the sunlit uplands of literary celebrity where publishers will allow you to put a single short story between hard covers and happily charge £13.99 for it. He calls it 'a novel', but, since it is shorter than many short stories by Chekhov, and eschews the practice of interlacing different narratives which for me is what distinguishes a novel from a story, I think we are justified in treating it as a short story. That is no criticism, of course, particularly when you consider the alternative prospect, the gargantuan, halfplanned sprawl, like a South American city, of DeLillo's recent novels. They display ceaseless ambition, and, as Dr Johnson would have said, the same resolution of purpose as a fighting cock. Whether that amounts to literary greatness, as has been widely asserted, remains to be seen.

Lauren Hartke is a `body artist'. One day, her husband, Rey, gets in his car and drives to the apartment of his first wife, where he shoots himself. Lauren returns to their rented house and finds a strange boy in his underpants living in one of the rooms. She nicknames him `Mr Tuttle', after an old science teacher of hers, and their attempts to communicate, to find out what each other is, make up the rest of the story.

In some ways DeLillo's imagination is strong and striking, though it will not go in all the directions he wants it to; when Lauren's stage act is described, late in the story, it turns out to be embarrassingly close to a theatrical Cindy Sherman, and no more than that, and I can't get rid of the suspicion that, in writing this tale of a mysterious inhabitant of an attic, he has taken a sublime moment in Lorrie Moore's great story 'Real Estate' from Binds of America and tried to make it his own. Still, the idea of grief allegorically embodied in the odd figure of 'Mr Tuttle', taking up residence and talking back to the bereaved, is a strong one, and DeLillo hangs onto and pumps away at his underlying theme, of the awareness of the self which the external world supplies, with considerable tenacity.

I just wonder whether Mr DeLillo actually speaks English. My doubt on this score began with the very first sentence of his gigantic last novel, Underworld — 'He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful' — and continued with every page of the book. It sounds rather idiomatic if you translate it back into, let us say, German — In seinem Augen dass halbwegs hoffnungsvoll ist' — but it certainly doesn't sound like any kind of spoken English. The Body Artist isn't quite so stilted, but there is certainly a per sistent sense that DeLillo doesn't actually like the English language. Straight away, `The wind makes a sound in the pines and the world comes into being, irreversibly, and the spider rides the wind-swayed web.' He was doing so well until that last clause, and there again was the terrible translation of terrible German poetry: `Lind ritt die Spinne das windbeschwingte Gewebe.' Of course, we in English would probably prefer to say the web swayed by the wind'.

Underworld was adored by every single reviewer in town, apart from me. My trouble with it — shared. I have to say, by quite a number of other readers — was that I just couldn't read it, so removed was it from any notion of the speaking voice. DeLillo has never been a novelist deeply rooted in the vernacular, but previously he has turned it to his advantage. In other novels, notably his splendid White Noise, that dazzling comedy about a professor of Hitler Studies in a terrible provincial university unable to admit that he can't read German, the formal, rather stilted tone seemed entirely appropriate to his disaffected world. In recent years it has started to seem as if that is all he can do.

His narrators in Americana or End Zone couldn't quite talk normally, just as they couldn't quite understand the world, and the results were often richly comic. They are deeply odd novels — the passage in End Zone describing a football match in one incomprehensible technical term after another is the most brilliant tour de force — but, for the most part rather, engaging. By Underworld, however, the mangling of the syntax had amounted to euphuism and over hundreds of pages it grew quite unbearable. Profundity of analysis won't make up for one hideous cadence after another, and DeLillo had somehow become one of the ugliest writers in the English language. He is as discordant as Dreiser, and, most alarmingly, young American writers seem to prefer him as a model to the rich, human, humorous strain in their contemporaries, and imitate him when they should be learning from Lorrie Moore and Jane Smiley.

That deliberate deadness is everywhere in The Body Artist, and most startlingly in the conversations. In every case they are undifferentiated, empty linguistic exchanges, as of people under hypnosis. When the woman talks to her strange lodger, it goes like this: 'How could you be living here without my knowing?' 'But you know. I am living.' But before. I hear a noise and you are in a room upstairs. For how long were you here?' All very well, but this is the way she used to talk to her husband: 'It's an effort. It's like what. It's like pushing a boulder.' You're sitting there talking.' Here."You said the house. Nothing about the house is boring. I like the house.' You like everything. You love everything. You're my happy home. Here.' And later, to the owner of the house: 'Has it been satisfactory, then?"Mostly, I think, yes.' Because if there's anything.' 'No, it's fine, I think. Rooms.' 'Yes.' and rooms."Yes. Been in the family. Let's see, forever. But the upkeep.'

No one in a Don DeLillo novel these days ever says 'Oh, God, do shut up,' or 'That's a pretty dress you've got on,' or anything resembling ordinary, relaxed speech — those unfinished sentences are a tic, a device, not in themselves enough to make his characters sound like people. And it is not just stylised, but undifferentiated between characters, so that the point he is trying to make here, that the lodger is quite different from normal people, has, one irrationally feels, entirely been lost in translation. Similarly, the numbness of the style might pass for the emotional effects of grief, were it not that the style is exactly the same before Rey's suicide. It is maddeningly unresponsive.

Why and how the witty, attentive author of White Noise and The Names turned himself into this humourless bore is a great puzzle. There are occasional fits of Updike-sensuous alertness here:

Then he split the fig open with his thumbnails and took the spoon out of her hand and licked it off and used it to scoop a measure of claret flesh out of the gaping fig skin. He dropped this stuff on his toast — the flesh, the mash, the pulp — and then spread it with the bottom of the spoon, blood-buttery swirls that popped with seedlife.

But the artifice, in every bad sense, in the end swamps the fantasy.