Millennial spectres: space, time and the haunting of modernity in Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist and Ali Smith’s Hotel World.
2001 was a year that gave birth to a surplus of ghosts. It was a year marked by its status as the opening of a new millennium, invested with all the spectral futures that word invokes, and then marked, too, by the trauma of 9/11, the images and consequences of which have haunted the twenty-first century. That it also gave birth to two strikingly contemporary ghost stories— Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist published in February and, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ali Smith’s Hotel World in March—is perhaps nothing more than an apt coincidence. But this is an essay about, among other things, arbitrary units of time, and how we weave them through the world like threads in order to hold narratives together. The ghost, of course, has always been a creature of temporal disruption, destabilising the boundaries between life and death, before and after. It resists “any neat compartmentalization of the past as a secure and fixed entity, or the future as uncharted territory” (Buse and Stott 14). In the trope of the haunted house, the ghost also disturbs the boundaries of space: by intruding in homes and walking through walls, it refuses to abide by the rules of ownership, segmentation and enclosure that modern spaces are governed by. Ghost stories, then, offer a particularly potent imaginative space in which to confront the problems of modernity. Since the birth of modernism with its imperative to “make it new,” through the postmodern notion of the end of history, literature has continually grappled with the questions of how we might place ourselves in relation to what has gone before and what might be still to come, how to define the present and how to represent it. Space and place, meanwhile, have become central to theorisations of modernity; from the urbanisation of the industrial revolution through to our own age of rapid globalisation and technological acceleration, relations between bodies and the spaces they inhabit have been in constant flux.
The Body Artist and Hotel World both mobilize the ghost as a figure deeply invested with the anxieties that have haunted modern literature. These texts are significantly different in form: DeLillo’s novel is a tightly focused, single-strand narrative, sparse in cast and setting; Smith’s is expansive and multiple, gliding between voices, temporalities and points of view. In this sense, the comparison offers an intriguing counterpoint, two different modes of exploring time and space and how they are perceived and represented through modern subjectivities. The opening sentence of The Body Artist – ‘Time seems to pass’ (7) – is deeply suggestive of the narrative to come. Focalized through the consciousness of Lauren, the body artist of the title, the text meditates on the moment-to-moment perception of the present, the role of language and narrative in organizing experience and producing the sense of time’s passing. Hotel World, meanwhile, is divided into sections named for grammatical tenses—“past,” “present historic,” “future conditional” and so on—and each centres around a different life, a different voice, a different kind of grammar. There is the ghost of a young, queer hotel worker, a homeless woman wracked with illness, a wealthy journalist, a receptionist and a worker in a watch shop. Smith’s narratives about people moving in different spatial and temporal worlds express a situated experience of modernity, with each story appearing to be simultaneously anonymous and specific, isolated and integrated. The notion that any narrative can be taken to represent an era or a culture (or even, indeed, an individual experience) has long been made suspect, and one of modernity’s most significant legacies has been the unravelling of universality. I will read these contemporary ghost stories, then, not as representative texts for describing a universal experience of modernity, nor as emblematic examples of the direction of present-day literature. What these texts have in common, rather, is a uniquely contemporary slant on what a ghost story can mean, invested with a sense of “spectrality” that unsettles the notion of a solid and universal experience of the present and problematizes the attempt to pin down any new literary movement as uniquely representative of modernity. Aware of their precarious place in a history that can never be put to rest, Smith and DeLillo both draw upon the tropes of the haunted house genre, but their ghosts and the spaces they inhabit are unambiguously of the twenty-first century. These ghosts are not psychological figments or devices for suspense, but autonomous creatures that disturb the conventional patterns of life in which modern subjects are produced.
In 1987, Brian McHale argued that the shift from modernism to postmodernism could be characterised in terms of a shift from an “epistemological dominant,” concerned with questions of knowledge and perception, to an “ontological dominant,” concerned with modes of existence and the status of textual worlds (9-10). One could argue, however, that by the beginning of the twenty-first century, it no longer made sense to talk about contemporary fiction in terms of a straightforward modernist/postmodernist opposition. As Siân Adiseshiah and Rupert Hildyard write in their introduction to Twenty-First Century Fiction, the challenges of the last century have left us living in a temporality that is “multilinear, reversible and open,” an experience of history that “problematizes the hunt for a new cultural dominant, a new critical episteme, a post-postmodernism” (4). Smith and DeLillo are both writers whose works are often characterised in terms of postmodernism, and these two texts are inarguably compelled by what McHale suggests are paradigmatically postmodern ontological questions like “What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ? What happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?” (McHale 10). In The Body Artist, Mr Tuttle—the strange, spectral man that Lauren discovers in her house and who speaks in the voice of her dead husband—is posed as an ontological enigma: he is an inexpressible creature, made of flesh and blood, who somehow exists outside the normal parameters of perception and meaning, as “someone you technically see but don’t quite register in the usual interpretive way” (95). The question of where he has come from or what he really is remains irresolvable, and the book meditates instead on the questions of perception, time and language that are opened up by this ontological violation. Hotel World, too, features the intrusion of the living world by the world of the dead, but it is also about different worlds in a more material way: the hotel serves as a “world” in which people who live radically different socio-economic realities, their experiences never colliding, find themselves in unique spatial proximity. Smith places their worlds on collision paths that illuminate the conditions of different kinds of existence.
While these works appear to fit into McHale’s definition of what constitutes the postmodern, both authors have also been described in terms of a return to modernism. Arifa Akbar, interviewing Smith in the Independent, notes that her “fiction is often seen as a continuation of the Modernist project for its inventiveness and endeavour to capture the richness of a single moment” (although Smith herself rejects the label). Philip Nel, meanwhile, describes The Body Artist as DeLillo’s “homage to modernist poetics,” offering a “lyrical meditation on language, memory, and the modernist (and romantic) project of bridging the gap between word and world” (736). These characterizations of what counts as “modernism” are little more satisfactory than the ever-elusive definitions of “postmodernism” that have circulated around both writers. To return to McHale’s terminology, perhaps both texts can be better understood as engaging in something more akin to a kind of contemporary “limit-modernism,” the term he uses to describe “hesitant texts” that hover between epistemological and ontological questions (McHale 13). McHale elaborates his definitions through a consideration of genre fiction, suggesting that science fiction…is to postmodernism what detective fiction was to modernism: it is the ontological genre par excellence (as the detective story is the epistemological genre par excellence)” (16). Detective fiction is structured around the question of what is known, who knows it, and how it can be discovered; modernism, for McHale, is engaged in a similar project, formally and thematically compelled by “problems of accessibility, reliability and limitation of knowledge” (10). Science fiction, on the other hand, is about world-building. Like postmodernism, it is more interested in creating imaginative spaces in which to explore not what can be known about the world but all the ways a world might imaginably be.
To extend this analogy, the ghost story might be regarded as the paradigm of limit-modernism. Ghosts are creatures wrapped in webs of epistemological and ontological uncertainty. The presence of a spectre in a text opens up questions about knowledge and the reliability of perception, but it also creates a space for thinking about other possible worlds, other modes of being. McHale touches on this potential hesitation in his discussion of The Turn of the Screw, the story of a governess tormented by distant apparitions and perhaps one of the most critically debated ghost stories ever written. In reading James’ perplexing text, he argues,
“the reader is forced to hesitate between an explanation in terms of epistemological categories – the governess’ vision of events is distorted from within, she is hallucinating the apparitions – and one which posits an alternative ontology – there are other orders of being, the ghosts really exist, this is a case of ‘another world’s intrusion into this one.'” (McHale 24)
The ghost story, then, has always served as a particularly apt vehicle for the preoccupations of modern narrative fiction. But the function of the ghost fluctuates with time. At the turn of the nineteenth century, James played with unreliable narratives and ghostly figures glimpsed from afar. At the cusp of the twenty-first, Smith and DeLillo invite the spectre into the foreground of the textual world for an intimate encounter that gives rise to different kinds of questions. Rather than posing their texts as a dilemma between different orders of explanation, a stand-off between the rational and the supernatural, both writers are most interested in probing the boundaries of ghostliness. They interrogate how we conceptualise ghosts in relation to their living predecessors and what they suggest about our understanding of personhood and subjectivity and embodiment. They imagine ghostly modes of moving and speaking and experiencing, and meditate on what these could mean for our interactions with space and time and language. Perhaps, moving beyond McHale’s dominants, these texts are of an era best characterised by Derrida’s notion of hauntology, which deals in that which is “neither living nor dead, present nor absent” (Derrida 63), or as DeLillo puts it, “outside the easy sway of either/or” (69). For Derrida, the “virtual space of spectrality” breaks down “the opposition between what is present and what is not” (12). The concept of “presence” is, of course, both temporal and spatial: there is the present moment, defined against a past which no longer exists, and there is a body’s presence in a particular space, defined against other bodies that are absent. But the social and cultural upheavals of modernity have put into question the narratives of progress that separate the present from its history; contemporary technology, meanwhile, has thoroughly broken down the spatial parameters of presence, to the point where a person can be present in a room while their body is halfway across the world (in The Body Artist, for example, Lauren spends hours watching a live stream of a road in a distant Finnish town, marvelling at the sense of simultaneous distance and immediacy). The idea of the spectre, Derrida suggests, has always enacted this contradiction: the experience of haunting is often described as a “presence,” yet the very notion of a ghost relies on the absence of the living subject. Similarly, attempts to define a literary movement or a cultural moment always claim to be about the present and the future, yet remain inextricably invested with the histories against which they define themselves: “what seems to be out front, the future, comes back in advance: from the past, from the back” (Derrida 10). Hotel World and The Body Artist are rooted firmly and deliberately in the present day—the former by its anchoring in the uniquely contemporary space of a multinational hotel chain, the latter by its meditations on time and memory that are routed through webcams and recording devices—but they are woven through with echoes of other eras, tinged with an awareness that the “present” is never quite as present as we would like to think.
Ghost stories are structured firstly around the possibility of permeable ontological boundaries, the intrusion of the order of death onto the order of life, but they are compelled, too, by material boundaries and physical intrusions. The most obvious iteration of this is in the ghost’s disregard for architectural convention, its ability to terrorize even in the most private of spaces, undermining the solidity of buildings and the security of property ownership. But this sense of a fortress invaded can be identified, too, in a fear of bodily intrusion that unsettles the boundaries between self and other. In the opening chapter of The Body Artist, as Lauren and Rey eat breakfast together, there is a moment of such intrusion when Lauren finds in her mouth a hair “that wasn’t hers and wasn’t his” (10). She is repelled by:
“the experience of sharing some food handler’s unknown life or from a reality far stranger and more meandering, the intimate passage of the hair from person to person and somehow mouth to mouth across years and cities and diseases and unclean foods and many baneful body fluids.” (12)
As Michael Naas points out, as well as foregrounding the motif of intrusion, this passage is “the first hint that The Body Artist would be a novel not exactly about a haunted house but about a haunted mouth, a possession or ventriloquism of the voice” (99), as Mr Tuttle brings Rey to life not in his visible shape but in ‘the air that rushed from his lungs into his vocal folds’ (62).
In an unsettling instance of intertextual haunting, a remarkably similar passage appears in Hotel World. Penny, the wealthy journalist, sits outside with homeless Else, who haunts suburban streets gazing into the domestic lives of others:
“the wind blew a hair into her open mouth. It wasn’t her own hair, or the woman in the coat’s. It was long. It was someone else’s entirely. Penny picked it out, disgusted…In a way it was the same, she thought, exactly the same, as watching through the windows of all those houses had been, seeing people who had no idea that anyone was watching them…It was foul and it was queasily exciting, this humdrum digestive-system exotica of others’ lives. Penny was repelled and energized by it, the knowledge that she could be brought together with someone else by the simple flick of a switch from light to dark, or by a literal thread, by something with the thinness, the genetic randomness, the intimacy of a single hair from a single other head (162-3)”
Both of these passages articulate anxieties of embodiment and selfhood that fixate on the boundaries of bodily integrity, and the visceral shock of experiencing their permeability. In the startlingly literal thread that snakes across textual and geographical borders to link these two novels in a bond of “genetic randomness,” there is an elegant logic of spectrality: a strand of hair exists in a precarious state between living and dead. A body part that continually renews itself, which is always liable to break away, it is a constant threat to the fiction of a stable, singular, controlled and contained body. Representations of modernity have long been haunted by a sense of disintegration, whether in apocalyptic visions of a world losing its coherence and flying apart at the seams or in more abstract theoretical form—in poststructuralist challenges to the rational humanist subject, or in the deconstructive impulse to unravel and disperse and multiply. Hauntology, if nothing else, is the inheritance of a modernity that has never truly regarded itself as fully present, a world in which things fall apart and all that is solid melts into air. And that goes, too, for the sense of selfhood as a whole and present thing. There are echoes here of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject, which threatens the distinction between subject and object: the strand of hair, once part of a living subject, has been expelled from their body, and in entering the mouth of the other uninvited it becomes “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (4). At the most basic level, ghosts have always been about mortality, and a stray hair is a reminder that we are always, all of us, disintegrating: it contains the abject sense of being “at the border of my condition as a living being” (Kristeva 3).
The hair in the mouth also initiates a fear of contamination that is predicated on a politics of space. Lauren’s repulsion is driven partly by the notion that “this isn’t supposed to happen here. I think anywhere but here” (11); in her isolated, paid-for slice of space, the house by the coast away from “big cities with mixed populations” (11), the contamination of the unknown, unknowable other body is experienced as a more profound violation. Geographically speaking, representations of modernity have tended to fixate on the city; whether in anxieties about the psychology of urban life (long articulated in texts like George Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life in 1903), or in romantic images of the flaneur who finds poetry in the streets, the city—both as abstract concept and as specific locale—has remained the dominant imaginative setting of modern life. In both Hotel World and The Body Artist, the city is felt largely as an absent presence. Rey dies in a Manhattan apartment, a space outside the narrative scope of their life together, and as such outside the narrative scope of the novel. We access this information only by way of an embedded obituary, an impersonal clipping set apart from Lauren’s experience of him. Later, when we witness Lauren herself in a city setting, it is again in the form of the clipping, this time a magazine article, in which her existence refracted through an interviewer’s eyes. The main part of the narrative, the one that is focalised through Lauren’s perspective, remains rooted in the remote house. She fields phone calls from city-dwelling friends who try to dissuade her from remaining “alone in a large house on an empty coast,” (36) but she clings to the space like a refuge not only from the physical intensity of the modern city, but also from the very patterns of existence it imposes: “How does it happen that Thursday seems like Friday? We’re out of the city. We’re off the calendar. Friday shouldn’t have an identity here” (21). The perception of time passing, DeLillo suggests, is not a natural rhythm but a set of structured conventions that cannot be easily escaped: the urban working week follows Lauren, its patterns embedded deep in her consciousness even when severed from the timetables and appointments that give it significance. Hotel World, meanwhile, is rooted in more urban surroundings, but “the town where the heft and scant of this book have been so tenuously anchored” (229) is an anonymous place, its landmarks left deliberately generic. The central space of the novel, the hotel in which stories intersect, is posited as a refuge not away from but within the city, an enclosed pocket protected from the discomforts and specificities of urban life: “New York, Brussels, Leeds, wherever, we practically guarantee you that if you’re in a Global the temptation will be to spend your whole holiday (like we did) in your room, revelling in the lush, plush settings they do so well” (180).
In both cases, the hair in the mouth becomes associated with that unsettling paradox of modern urban life, the simultaneous sense of alienated isolation and uncomfortable closeness to other bodies, other lives. Lauren has attempted to remove herself from urban interaction yet still she is haunted by spectre of “some food handler’s unknown life,” an anonymous interaction with a service worker turned jarringly intimate. Penny, meanwhile, links the hair in the mouth to the experience of gazing into other people’s windows, lives separated by stone and glass but invaded by the gaze. The literature of haunting has always been concerned with enclosed spaces, with the questions of who owns them and inhabits them and what spectral intruders might be hiding within them. As Emily Horton suggests, the genre’s “central interest in the uncanny (unheimlich) necessarily prioritises the individual’s uneasy and sometimes paradoxical relationship with the home” (134-5). Like most things, the concept of home (and its necessary complement, the concept of homelessness) is culturally and historically contingent, and its representation could be one of many ways to take measure of modernity’s spaces. It is significant that both Hotel World and The Body Artist centre around spaces, ubiquitous to contemporary life, that are defined simultaneously by their homely and temporary character: the hotel and the rented house. Marc Augé describes the spatial structure of ‘supermodernity’ in terms of this sense of perpetual transition:
“A world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shanty-towns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity).” (63)
The hotel in particular, with its amalgamation of public and private, commercial and domestic, can be read as what Augé calls a “non-place,” which he regards as “the real measure of our time” (64). The name of the chain itself, the “Global,” situates it in opposition to geographical or cultural specificity, identifying it with the globalizing drive to erase difference and suppress deviation. For Augé, “as anthropological places create the organically social, so non-places create solitary contractuality” (76) by producing “the shared identity of passengers, customers or Sunday drivers” (81). In Hotel World, such a relation is crystallized in the encounter between Penny and Else. The former is a perpetually mobile journalist who writes marketing copy for the non-place: “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world if you’re anywhere near a Global Hotel. You could be, literally, anywhere. You could even be home” (180). The latter is a woman with no home and, as such, is an illegitimate intruder: only those who possess homes are authorized to enjoy the faux-home of the hotel, and Else has been allowed to slip in without providing the fixed address that would, as Augé puts it, “prove [her] innocence” (82). The fleeting connection between the two women is predicated precisely on the silent, contractual similitude that anonymity creates: “Penny wouldn’t want to offend the woman in case the woman was somebody. The woman could be anybody. Who knew?” (151). On the street Else would be, to Penny, nobody, but in the non-place of the hotel she is invested with the potential of being “anybody,” opening up a possibility of identification based on nothing more than the fact of shared spatial experience: nobodies, after all, do not tend to be found in luxury hotels.
Non-places are defined in part by a specific kind of temporality: “Since non-places are there to be passed through, they are measured in units of time…They are lived through in the present…Everything proceeds as if space had been trapped by time” (83). At the heart of Smith’s hotel is a unit of empty space that has been literally trapped, boarded up and hidden away, a “long shaft of nothing at all that runs through “the length of this hotel like a spine” (145). This is the dumbwaiter shaft where chambermaid Sara Wilby fell to her death, and it is a space whose meaning is defined by a unit of time. Throughout the text, both the ghost and Sara’s sister become obsessed with the precise timing of the fatal fall, the question of “how long it took us exactly” (25) between the moment when death became inevitable and the moment when life ended. Against the commercial units of hotel time, measured in check-in and check-out hours and nightly rates, this tiny slice of real, unpredictable, unquantifiable time, measured by the speed of a body in motion, haunts the space like a threat, an ugly secret that has to be boarded up. It is not incidental that the ghost whose presence anchors the text is not a resident of the hotel, but instead one of its employees. As well as the “shared identity” of customers produced by the commercial non-place, it also creates other sets of relations between customer and worker, who access the space in different ways. If the hotel room is an enclosed segment of generic “homes” within an unfamiliar city, those who maintain it are often inhabitants of the parts of the city holidaymakers don’t see, and their time there is demarcated by the obligation of economic necessity: not check-in and check-out times but shifts, clocking in and out, each hour precisely valued. Service work itself contains a certain suggestion of spectrality; a chambermaid exists to be discreet and unseen, her presence only visible by the rearrangement of a room’s objects.
In The Body Artist, too, we get a sense of a space “trapped by time.” The house feels to Lauren “like home,” (32) but the comfort and privacy that the word “home” evokes is caught within the temporal parameters of renting. Lauren’s repeated insistence on the temporariness of the lease—“Yes, I want to be here. But it’s only a rental. I am renting. I will be out of here in six or seven weeks. Less maybe. It’s a house we rented” (48)—emphatically constructs this space as something that is not owned, but rather only occupied. As Naas points out, “[l]ike all renters, Rey and Lauren move into a house that is not exactly theirs. They are not the first to live in this house and they will probably not be the last…the question posed by every haunted house is always precisely ‘Whose house is this anyway?’” (93-4). The point is brought into still sharper relief by the arrival of the landlord, who himself can be seen as a kind of apparition, a former inhabitant of the house whose belongings still haunt it, an absent presence in the life of the tenant. Like the chambermaid, the landlord’s function is predicated on his invisibility, although the power relations between the absent and the present here are reversed. His return is prophesized in Lauren’s gothic, cinematic vision of “a man showing up unexpectedly…a man at the door, lighted in such and such a way, menacingly, for effect…It is the shock of the outside world, the blow, the stun of intrusion” (78). In both novels, then, the attempt to maintain a safe purity of space or an ownership of time is constantly under threat. Traditional images of the haunted house tend to be spaces saturated with ancient wealth and family inheritance, the kind of mansions one would expect to be populated by servants and masters governed by an upstairs-downstairs logic. The spatial economics of these twenty-first century hauntings are decidedly more contemporary, but nonetheless still predicated on structures of ownership and exclusion, in a world where not all bodies have access to the same kinds of time and the same kinds of space.
In both novels, the figures of the ghosts themselves can be regarded as staking out new territories in the genealogy of the spectre and the relations it establishes between bodies, selves and others. The voice that opens Hotel World seems, in many ways, like a rather traditional kind of ghost in an untraditional kind of space. She is disembodied, capable of flying and passing through walls and scaring grieving family members as an apparition: a classical haunting, a trace of a consciousness left behind in the location of trauma, a spirit not yet at peace. But Smith’s narrating spectre is a consciousness lacking the memories of life, a voice whose only apparent relation to Sara Wilby is not one of continuity but of detached curiosity; the family she haunts with images of their dead daughter are strangers to her: “I chose the saddest people and I followed them to see where we’d lived” (10). As the narrative progresses this voice is joined by a second, as the physical buried body of the dead girl surfaces into the text. This is no straightforward mind/body split: the dead body speaks her mind, while the voice, made of “nothing but air,” (6) nonetheless seems to possess some kind of bodily shape:
“One last time I slipped into our old shape, hoisting her shoulders round me and pushing down into her legs and arms and through her splintery ribs, but the fitting was ill, she was broken and rotting, so I lay half-in, half-out of her under the ruched frills of the room’s innards, cold I reckon, and useless pink in the dark.” (15)
The body remains in the world as a thing still shaped by the passage of time, marked by its decay, while the ghost’s spectral shape is imitated from old photographs, slices of suspended time that will never age (12-13). It is the ghost, however, that can still move through space, unconfined by the walls of the coffin and the weight of the earth. It is the body, not the ghost, which is still in possession of the memories of life. The ghost dives into the grave and begs for the story of a life she cannot recall (15). But it is the ghost that can still observe the lives that continue to be lived above ground: “Your sister planted crocuses above your head last week, did you know?” (15). The tone of the two voices contrast starkly. Against the wild, energetic language of the ghostly narrator, the body that she tries to interact with is weary and irritable, and it wants nothing to do with the voice that insists on persisting after perishing: “What? Fuck off. Leave me alone. I’m dead, for God’s sake” (15). The ghost makes the body narrate the days leading up to her demise, and when the story reaches the point of the fall, the moment at the cusp of the deadly plummet, it remarks: “You know the rest, she said. You were there” (25). The ghost, then, only comes into being, into consciousness, becomes ‘there’, at the precise moment when death becomes inevitable. The question of identity arises in this exchange between two beings inhabiting different shapes, different voices, and different temporalities: who is this “I” that speaks, who is this “you”? All ghosts permeate the boundaries between life and death, but these contemporary ghosts also unsettle the continuity that constitutes our sense of ourselves as subjects.
The figure that haunts The Body Artist is a creature that is equally, although differently, strange. Mr Tuttle is a radically contemporary spectre inhabiting an ageless space that reeks of the gothic, “an old frame house that had many rooms and working fireplaces and animals in the walls and mildew everywhere…way too big, and there were creaking floorboards and a number of bent utensils dating to god knows when” (13). Full of empty rooms and long hallways, drenched in storms and plagued by unidentifiable noises, this is an eminently hauntable space, as far as might be imagined from the sleek, expensively modern world of Global Hotels. DeLillo’s spectre, however, is not the stuff of gothic nightmare, appearing at windows and shrieking in hallways; nor is he the swooping incorporeal being of Hotel World. In contrast to the traditional image of the ghost as a disembodied thing, a spirit without material substance, he is a flesh-and-blood body with bodily functions, a breathing thing that can be touched, talked to, or found “sitting in piss and shit” (64). But he is also something that resists both the certainty of direct perception—“She had to concentrate to note [his] features. She looked at him and had to look again. There was something elusive in his aspect, moment to moment, a thinness of physical address” (46) – and the efforts of imagination: “It was hard for her to think him into being, even momentarily, in the shallowest sort of conjecture, a figure by a window in the dusty light” (60). Although he sometimes seems more person than spectre, Mr. Tuttle remains a liminal figure that “violates the limits of the human” (100). His precise ontological status remains ambiguous throughout the text. He bears no physical resemblance to Rey, but he is an entity capable of channelling the dead man’s presence, a corporeal vessel for other temporalities:
“It did not seem an act of memory. It was Rey’s voice all right, it was her husband’s tonal soul, but she didn’t think the man was remembering. It is happening now. This is what she thought. She watched him struggle in his utterance and thought it was happening, somehow, now, in his frame, in his fracted time, and he is only reporting, helplessly, what they say […] Rey is alive now in this man’s mind, in his mouth and body and cock.” (87)
The notion of a ghost tends to evoke the sense of a remnant or memory, something from the past that has lingered beyond its given time, a presence in the present. Mr Tuttle seems, instead, to have access to a “past” that is still living, disrupting the linear sense of time as a before and an after, a life and a death. He does not occupy a threshold between times, but rather seems to contain and channel disparate times simultaneously. In this sense, perhaps, his temporality represents something particular to the contemporary experience of writing modernity. Without the anchoring befores and afters of modernism, beyond the postmodernist determination to create a break with the past, contemporary fiction finds itself in a position of having to contend with all the modernities that have gone before: present, but speaking in the voices of other eras.
And again, here, flesh takes centre stage: Mr Tuttle is not Rey’s spirit or mind in some immaterial sense but rather a physical enactment of him. If classical notions of the self or the soul posited it as something independent of the body, modernity’s conceptualisations of selfhood have tended to root it much more firmly in embodied experience, rejecting Cartesian dualism and locating the subject in the pathways of sensory experience and neural reaction. Smith’s disembodied ghost aches for the “itching detail” (4) of a stone in a shoe, becoming obsessed with the specificities of physical sensation that she can no longer experience. “A mouthful of dust would be something,” (5) she says in mourning for the loss of taste (and that hair in the mouth echoes again; dust, we know, is composed among other things of disintegrated hair, and the things that repulse us are the sharpest reminders of the sense of being a body). Without the anchoring of embodiment, the ghost’s voice loses grip on any sense of selfhood, and language itself begins to disintegrate without a mouth to inhabit: “What’s the word? Lost, I’ve, the word. The word for.” (30). Mr Tuttle, on the other hand, is not a fading presence, but a figure that looms ever larger, seeming to occupy more and more space. His embodied presence does not simply express the memory of Rey or the fact of his death, but instead begins to eclipse it in Lauren’s mind: “she could not miss Rey, could not consider his absence, the loss of Rey, without thinking along the margins of Mr. Tuttle” (82). If a ghost is traditionally understood as a leftover fragment of the living person, a lingering image or a disembodied essence, the spectres of Hotel World and The Body Artist seem, instead, to take on an autonomous identity that exceeds the limits of the living subject. They might be described as spectral offspring, overlapping and identifying with their living progenitors but neither continuous with nor reducible to them. Indeed, both ghosts have a certain childlike quality about them. Mr. Tuttle, when Lauren first encounters him, is “smallish and fine-bodied and at first she thought he was a kid,” (41) and she takes care of him like a lost child; the ghost of Hotel World nags her body with childish games: “I irritated her as a matter of course. I played with her stitches. I slipped in and out of her. I sang songs from West End musicals…I stuck my fingers up her plugged nose” (15-16). The ghost, here, instead of representing aging, can be read either as a figure of regression into childhood or as a kind of spawning, where death becomes a form of birth and the ghost is a creature of the future, not the past. In this doubleness, the resonances of both regression and progression, we find again echoes of modernity’s fraught relationship with history and temporality. Both children and ghosts are testament to the fact that the past can never be cut clean away, but also that every reproduction is a renewal, a being in its own right with its own contexts and meanings and its own irreducible flesh.
In both cases, then, these are “ghosts” that exist less as a trace than as a surplus—something left over, yes, but also something more than the living subject, something that cannot be incorporated. Wolfgang Funk writes that ‘the haunted subject…is threatened by the unspeakable, whose origin lies in the realm of the non-discursive, the suppressed,” which is “a space beyond representation…constituted by and through everything that consciousness (both individual and collective) excludes in the process of its self-realisation” (150). The figure of the ghost is situated, here, in Kristeva’s abject or Lacan’s Real, the place inaccessible to signification, and as such the spectral can be mobilized as a mode through which to interrogate problems of subjectivity, representation and that which evades representation. Mr. Tuttle can be read as a creature of the Real; exposed to the terror that is to be found “here in the howl of the world…the howling face, the stark, the not-as-if of things,” (90) he inhabits an unknowable, unthinkable spatial and temporal universe:
“Maybe this man experiences another kind of reality where he is here and there, before and after, and he moves from one to the other shatteringly, in a state of collapse, minus an identity, a language, a way to enjoy the honey-coated toast she watches him eat. She thought maybe he lived in a kind of time that had no narrative quality.” (65)
Language, here, is invoked as a prerequisite to sensory experience—one cannot enjoy a taste, it is suggested, without a way to describe what tasting is, what enjoyment is. But the “narrative quality” of Lauren’s temporal experience is continually haunted by the remnants that evade narrativization. In a Guardian review, Giles Foden described the book as a work of “radical hyper-realism” that “tries to show us exactly how we talk and think, rather than just using the accepted methods for the representation of those experiences.” Arguably, however, DeLillo’s project is not an attempt to show how we talk and think, but rather an exploration of how we continually represent reality to ourselves, the extent to which our contact with the world is always subject to the intervention of a “seem,” haunted by delayed comprehension and inadequate simile. The impossibility of direct translation between perception and reality, between experience and the language with which to make sense of experience, plagues the narrative in a series of retracted descriptions. In an early passage, the irreducibility of sensory experience evades the grasp of taxonomy:
“The smell of the soya was somewhere between body odor, yes, in the lower extremities and some authentic podlife of the earth, deep and seeded. But that didn’t describe it…Nothing described it. It was pure smell. It was the thing that smell is, apart from all sources. It was as though…some, maybe, medieval scholastic had attempted to classify all known odors and had found something that did not fit into his system and had called it soya.” (16)
This is just one of many articulations of the sense that there are always things that cannot be adequately described with words or held within the system of language. A preoccupation with the unrepresentable has been paradoxically central to much of modernity’s representation. Throughout the twentieth century, the claims of realism and romanticism to have access to authentic truth or capture the plenitude of existence have been subject to ever more virulent challenges, and the once-simple relation between word and world has become increasingly strained. It is significant, here, that Lauren’s sense of pure and unnameable sensory experience is associated with bodily odours and with “the earth, deep and seeded.” If modernity has been haunted by the thing that evades its representation, that thing has most frequently been understood as something ancient and natural, something rooted in the earth or the flesh, as in Freud’s primal unconscious or Kristeva’s embodied semiotic. When Lauren listens to Mr Tuttle’s voice, she hears “something at the edge, unconnected to income levels or verb tenses or what his parents watch on TV” (50). Without a nameable origin, he inhabits a liminal space at the precarious edge of the structures—social, linguistic, psychological—through which modern subjects make sense of themselves.
Lauren’s awareness of the inadequacy of language, her struggle to formulate the things that enter her consciousness, recurs again and again, and the narrative becomes at times almost self-negating, continually retracting its own descriptive choices. Even the onomatopoeia of single letters, the smallest of linguistic units, fails to capture the movement of birds “in a wing-whir that was all b’s and r’s, the letter b followed by a series of vibrato r’s. But that wasn’t it at all. That wasn’t anything like it” (17). Later still, a dropped paperclip enters the text as “a sound for which there is no imitative word, the sound of a paperclip falling” (89). But the novel is also about the necessity of imitative words to organise experience and facilitate perception. Mr. Tuttle lives at the edges of comprehension. He is impossible to perceive on his own terms, and must always necessarily be translated into simile: “it was always as if. He did this or that as if. She needed a reference elsewhere to get him placed” (45). Lauren has to name him after someone else, a fixed reference in memory, because “[s]he thought it would make him easier to see” (48). The Body Artist is spectral in quality not only as a story about a physical haunting, but also as a meditation on the way that all experience is haunted. That which “we call the Now” (67) is never fully present, because as soon as it enters consciousness it is already retrospective, an apparition like the bird that Lauren glimpses from the corner of her eye: “she didn’t know what she was seeing at first and had to re-create the ghostly moment, write it like a line in a piece of fiction, and maybe it wasn’t a sparrow at all” (91). It has long been understood that the past is always fictionalized, that memories and histories can never be entirely true; but even the experience of the present, DeLillo suggests, is made up of many little fictions, many gaps and falsehoods.
This question of perception and the caesurae in perception, the ever-elusive project of representing or rendering the lived experience of time and space, brings us back to the questions that haunted the beginning of this essay: how might contemporary literature contend with the legacies of modernism and postmodernism, the cultural and artistic uncertainties left in their wake. Both of these novels, I argue, offer much to a nuanced understanding of the “present” both in macro and micro form, insofar as they elucidate the cultural-historical concept of the present day, closely identified with the concept of modernity, and the temporal-grammatical concept of the present moment, the immediate subjective experience of existing in space and perceiving time. Both concepts, Smith and DeLillo suggest, are more elusive than they might first seem. Taken together, they are suggestive texts for considering where post-millenial literature is and where it is taking us, but they are not to be read as paradigms for a new movement or era. They suggest, instead, that such attempts to pin down that which is present are always spectral endeavours: as Fredric Jameson puts it, spectrality reminds us “that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us” (39).
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