Lauren Hartke is renting a beach house on an isolated stretch of coast on what I can only assume is New England with her husband, the famous director, Rey Robles. She's still there when he drives back to their Manhattan apartment to shoot himself, leaving her alone in the little rented cottage.
But she isn't alone--she soon discovers that a squatter has been living in the attic, a strange, damaged man whom she calls Mr. Tuttle. His speech is inscrutable, made of clipped, imitated phrases:
He knew what a chair is called and a window and wall but not the tape recorder, although he knew how to turn it off, and not, it seemed, who is mother was or where she might be found.
"If there is another language you speak," she told him, "Say some words."
"Say some words."
"Say some words. Doesn't matter if I can't understand."
"Say some words to say some words."
"All right. Be a Zen master, you little creep."
Lauren extends her stay in the house, partly to live in the suspension from ordinary life it provides, and partly because of her fascination, and sense of responsibility for, Mr. Tuttle. She forms a theory that he lives outside of time, experiencing it, as the Trafalmadorians do, all at once; a theory supported when he predicts days ahead of time the words she will use when she breaks a glass on the floor. When he begins to speak in imitation of her dead husband, DeLillo suggests that he isn't merely recalling something that he overheard, but accessing a present that is absent for Lauren--linking her to an existence in which Rey is alive and, in a sense, cannot die.
Strangely, The Body Artist echoed something I've been writing about for my master's thesis on Paradise Lost: the idea that God lives in that eternal present, like Mr. Tuttle and the Trafalmadorians, and that intimacy with God can help assuage the inevitably painful experience of linear time. Mr. Tuttle does that, I think, for Lauren, but aloofly and imperfectly. Partly, I think my familiarity with that idea is what made the book fail to resonate with me. But also, DeLillo's prose has a way of being chilly and distant that mutes the power of Lauren's grief, and the novel whiffs on the opportunity to communicate the stakes involved in a liberation from the human experience of time.
Lauren is the "body artist" of the title--something of a performance artist, an interpretive dancer, or even a human sculpture. Mr. Tuttle, ultimately, fails to provide her any meaningful connection to her husband beyond a few scraps of his speech, uncannily imitated. But he provides inspiration for her final piece, described by DeLillo in the form of a newspaper review, in which she finds her own power of imitation:
Then she does something that makes me freeze in my seat. She switches to another voice. It is his voice, the naked man's, spooky as a woodwind in your closet. Not taped but live. Not lip-sync'd but real. It is speaking to me and I search my friend's face but I don't quite see her. I'm not sure what she's doing. I can almost believe she is equipped with male genitals, as in the piece, prosthetic of course, and maybe an Ace bandage in flesh-tone to bleep out her breasts, with a sprinkle of chest hair posted on. Or she has trained her upper body to deflate and her lower body to sprout. Don't put it past her.
The imitation--or perhaps embodiment--is of Mr. Tuttle. Lauren may not live beyond time, as he does, but she can use the power of her art to access another time, another place, another body. The prose is not quite successful--I find that convincing descriptions of genius in other arts rarely are. But it seems a fitting conclusion, that having been left alone, abandoned, left behind, Lauren is able to find solace in the multiplicity ("I contain multitudes!") of herself.