A man and a woman share break-fast in a house apparently near a seacoast. Their elliptical, groggy conversation rises and falls amid the accoutrements of a morning meal: toast, blueberries, coffee. A radio is playing; birds gather at a feeder outside the kitchen window. The man smokes a cigarette and then asks where the car keys are, since he plans to drive into town later that day.
This quiet, quotidian scene occupies roughly the first one-fifth of Don DeLillo's The Body Artist (Picador; 124 pages) and is followed abruptly by an obituary: Rey Robles, 64, a Spanish-born film director prominent for a time in the late 1970s, has shot and killed himself in the Manhattan apartment of his first wife. After a brief account of Robles' life and career and a reference to his later problems with alcoholism and depression, the article concludes, "He is survived by his third wife, Lauren Hartke, the body artist."
So the time that DeLillo devotes to that opening breakfast can be retrospectively explained: these were the last moments that a wife, Lauren, shared with her husband. But little of what follows seems amenable to rational analysis. DeLillo is renowned for the haunting difficulties and complexities of his fiction, but the enigmas of The Body Artist suggest a new order of imponderables.
The widow goes on living in the house she rented with her late husband. She tries to keep her mind empty and exercise her body for future stage performances. She knows she is waiting for something, and then she finds it: a childlike man sitting in an upstairs bedroom. Lauren immediately understands this person as real, not a figment of her grief. Her guest's stunted appearance reminds her of her onetime high school science teacher, and so she names him Mr. Tuttle. And her initial curiosity about his random utterances surges when she realizes that Mr. Tuttle sometimes uses, in a close approximation of her voice, words she had spoken to Rey and then, in his inflections, Rey's words back to her, including exchanges from their last breakfast together.
An easy way to account for this phenomenon is quickly rejected: "She told herself she was not an unstrung woman who encounters a person responsive to psychic forces, able to put her in touch with her late husband. This was something else." But what? That is the question most contemporary authors would next address. Not DeLillo. His refusal to explain away Mr. Tuttle's presence in what otherwise looks like a realistic narrative makes The Body Artist an unsettling but thoroughly fascinating read. If Lauren really is, despite her belief to the contrary, unstrung, or if her experiences with Mr. Tuttle actually stem from some perfectly comprehens-ible workings of the grief mechanism, DeLillo isn't saying. There is no moral to The Body Artist, no wrap-up of lessons learned, only an unforgettable vision of the shattering effects unexpected death wreaks on the living.