Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The White Noise of Grief

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The White Noise of Grief

Article excerpt

In 1996, a physicist at New York University named Alan Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal devoted to something called "poststructuralism." His essay, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," argued that Western science - with notions like, say, "gravity" - is merely a social construction, a fabric of political and philosophical Enlightenment dogma.

As soon as the editors at Social Text published this riff of poststructural erudition, Dr. Sokal revealed that his article was a hoax, a parody of the kind of gobbledygook that regularly passes for intellectual analysis of language and culture.

It's tempting to hope Don DeLillo delivers a similar revelation soon after the publication of his latest "novel."

His previous works, most recently "White Noise" and "Underworld," were enormous critical and popular successes. He's won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Jerusalem Prize, and the American Book Award.

But where those novels are sprawling with wit and insight, "The Body Artist" is claustrophobic and affected. Very smart professors of French literature and diehard fans of "Twin Peaks" will find "The Body Artist" fascinating. (I half expected a midget to dance through the wall and whisper, "My log had a dream about you last night.") But these fit readers may not be enough to recoup the $1 million Simon & Schuster reportedly paid for this little book.

The story opens in a large rented house on a remote beach along the East Coast. Lauren Hartke has been married to Rey Robles for only a few months, but already things are strained.

In the late 70s, Rey was director of avant-garde films that briefly developed a cult following in art houses in the US and abroad. He's spent the last 20 years in a haze of alcoholism and depression.

Lauren, his third wife, calls herself a "body artist." She bleaches, sands, cuts, and contorts her body into odd shapes while the robotic voice of a telephone answering machine repeats the standard greeting for 75 minutes. Sophisticated theatergoers, we're told, eat this stuff up.

DeLillo presents their last quiet breakfast in a stark, super- sensory narrative: "She crossed to the cabinet with the blueberries wet in her hand and reached up for the cereal and took the box to the counter, the mostly brown and white box, and then the toaster thing popped and she flipped it down again because it took two flips to get the bread to go brown and he absently nodded his acknowledgement because it was his toast and his butter and then he turned on the radio and got the weather. …

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