The body artist : a novel

by Don DeLillo

Hardcover, 2001




New York : Scribner, c2001.


"For thirty years, since the publication of his first novel Americana, Don DeLillo has lived in the skin of our times. He has found a voice for the forgotten souls who haunt the fringes of our culture and for its larger-than-life, real-life. figures. His language is defiantly, radiantly American." "Now, to a new century, he has brought The Body Artist. In this novel, he inhabits the muted world of Lauren Hartke, an artist whose work defies the limits of the body. Lauren is living on a lonely coast, in a rambling rented house, where she encounters a strange, ageless man, a man with uncanny knowledge of her own life. Together they begin a journey into the wilderness of time - time, love and human perception."--BOOK JACKET.

User reviews

LibraryThing member absurdeist
Suicide, or more to the point - the awful aftermath of suicide; the grief of the loved ones (in this case, the widow) left behind - would be a pretty tough sell for most works of fiction. Too depressing. Too damn real. But not in Don DeLillo's sage-like hands. He sells the devastation wrought by suicide beautifully and tenderly in The Body Artist: an existential study of time and our relationship to time as we travel through it, conveyed along for us in the imaginings (is the little miming man discovered in the third floor bedroom real or unreal?) of Lauren Hartke, and in her introspections; that is, in her deep loss and deeper longings, and ultimately in the transformative power of her art sculpted from the raw pain and suffering she endures as a recent, bewildered widow.

I don't know how DeLillo does it. I feel ill-equipped describing his precise way with words. I've revised this section of the review at least ten times, knowing I'm not getting it right. I almost give up. And it's the cadence of Delillo's language too, not just the words, imbuing the words with deeper meaning. David Foster Wallace once wrote that Delillo's writing "just clicks". Expanding on that premise then, Delillo's like a metronome, hypnotic almost (but definitely not predictable despite the constant "clicking" and rhythm), and in The Body Artist, he's tapped into, and kept exquisite time with, the metaphysical. The Body Artist becomes therefore, as much a major work of philosophy as it's become a major work of fiction.

What Delillo does with language evokes in me the same response I get when listening to a powerful piece of classical music: Goosebumps gallore, awe, wonder, inspiration and veneration. There's something sublime going on here in his writing that I can't quite name. Is it God? If it's not God, then it must be Art.

Yes, that's what I'm driving at, in The Body Artist, Delillo has managed to translate the secret languages of the Mysterious or Metaphysical or perhaps the Divine; using the internal monologues and musings of Lauren Hartke as his mouthpiece, and making his philosophical abstractions as palpable as the pages his heady language is printed on.

That Delillo's prose is unplugged in The Body Artist, acoustic, if you will, set on a simple Starbuck's stage - a one act play with few characters - proves that he can stir the soul even when his aims aren't as huge-venued or symphonic as they were in his previous, vast novel, Underworld.

I'd say I enjoyed The Body Artist even more than Underworld, and even more, too, than his award winning, postmodern masterpiece, White Noise.

What is a 'body artist'? To reveal that here might destroy the subtle surprise, and it's a tiny book - a novella really, full of surprises - to begin with. Before I read the book I lamely believed 'body artist' meant something regarding...tattoos. Whatever! In fact, I even tagged the book, when I first input it, with: 'tattoos,' since I've got me a tattoo or two and obviously like tattoos. I've since deleted that tag - 'tattoos' - from The Body Artist. I sure hope nobody noticed. Because body art and The Body Artist are definitely not synonymous.
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LibraryThing member Kendall41
In spite of sometimes masterful use of language, the novel did not hang together as a whole.
LibraryThing member ignorantleafy
Quiet, intoxicating beauty. Some lines will make you stop in your tracks, breathless. This is forgivable in a work this short.
LibraryThing member iftyzaidi
A strange, haunting book. A woman whose husband has committed suicide returns to her home to find a strange man in the house. The man may be mentally ill, he speaks in a strange, disconnected way. But the woman starts feeling that there is something strange about his words and mannerisms and occasionally he says phrases that were spoken in the house months ago, or will be spoken in the future.

The language does much to set the mood, at times stilted, cropped and even jarring and at other times incredibly poetic and evocative. I think this particular passage illuminates the language well:

"She knew it was foolish to examine so closely. She was making things up. But this was the effect he had, shadow-inching through a sentence, showing a word in its facets and aspects, words like moons in particular phases."

Words like moons in particular phases - wow! Or then there is this passage that also struck a chord, with the odd jarring note at the end:

"Over the days she worked her body hard. There were always states to reach that surpassed previous extremes.... I think you are making your own little totalitarian society, Rey told her once, where you are the dictator, absolutely, and also the oppressed people, he said, perhaps admiringly, one artist to another."

The structure of the plot is also slightly off-kilter, with sudden shifts and long passages of meditative, droning prose. Overall its a bizarre and oddly unresolved story. I liked it!
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LibraryThing member klarusu
This is a strange, evocative, challenging little book. DeLillo writes with flair and skill, making this a true literary voyage through a moment in the life of Lauren Hartke, the eponomous Body Artist. In essence, this book deals with a short, traumatic period in her life from her own perspective.

The prose is sparse, emphasizing the loneliness and isolation of Hartke's life and artistic vocation. The opening is a masterful description of a couple dancing around each other, the minutiae of daily interaction so accurately conveyed that one could not fail to recognise it as a situation so familiar to us all. The genius of DeLillo's writing in this book is epitomised in his ability to convey through this description the loneliness and separation of these two people as they move through their married life together. It is poetry in a prose form that permeates this novel. As DeLillo describes the remaking of Hartke's body (she is an artist whose medium is her own form and physique), we see evidence of this in descriptions such as:

"She had emery boards and files, many kinds of scissors, clippers and creams that activated the verbs of abridgement and incision".

In the remaking of her image, we see a woman who is trying to disappear, to become "classically unseen". The nameless man who enters her life during this period is the epitome of her aims - he has achieved the bland anonimity that she so craves. As she is an art project, so we find this man becomes hers too. As she studies him and develops him, she seeks within him answers to events in her own life. In the end, the reader is left unsure whether he existed at all or was just a facet of Hartke. It is never clear how much of the world was real and how much was her own internalised world. In seeking answers to the question of the nameless man's prescient ability, is she not merely questioning whether she herself could have seen the eventual actions of others around her, whether she could have altered her own future?

This is a book to be mulled over. I think I will return to it, having read it to the end, and re-read it with fresh eyes. Deserving of it's place on the '1001 Books List'.
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
When I first started reading this novella by Don DeLillo a few years ago, I quit soon because I could not get through the opening part of the book, some six or seven pages describing a breakfast scene in meticulous detail. In my recent reading I did not feel this obstacle.

This odd opening helps the reader slow down and focus. The transition in the next chapter is somewhat abrupt, and it takes a few moments to realize that the story has jumped a considerable period forward and the man of the opening passage is dead, and the woman has returned to the house. Contemplating his death, grieving, she is spooked out by a presence in the house, repeating some of his words, in actual near-identical intonation and modulation, as if she is hearing her dead husband speak.

A very poetic story, thoughtful.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
I don't usually sit around wondering which authors will stand the test of time, or whether this or that writer is "great" instead of merely good. These are questions for future critics and readers to decide, and I'd much rather talk about books than the people who write them. Having said that, Don DeLillo's always been on my short list of overpraised, overrated authors whose fame is unlikely to outlast his lifetime. Heck, I'd bet ten bucks on his disappearance from our cultural memory. There are, perhaps, readers out there who are impressed by the sheer scope of "Underworld" or the shiny surfaces of "White Noise," but I went through my own DeLillo phase a long time ago. These days, I find his stuff gratingly artificial, unbearably self-important and, as Leslie Fiedler once said, "all surface." His books seem to embody an aesthetic better expressed by Talking Heads albums and Brian Eno album covers. Who needs it? Still, when I found this one while sorting through my library, I thought I'd give Mr. DeLillo a chance to redeem himself. Had I been hasty in dismissing him? If Don was going to waste my time, he certainly wasn't going to waste much of it; "The Body Artist" is all of one hundred and twenty-five pages long.

Well, I still don't think too much of DeLillo as a writer, but that doesn't mean that "The Body Artist" is completely without its good qualities. Its premise, which involves a performance artist's encounter with a mysterious man who seems to lack any definable qualities and to exist simultaneously in a number of temporal frames, is intriguing, and DeLillo, to his credit, doesn't exactly waste it. He balances dry, granular descriptions of his main character's everyday activities and surroundings with the emotional confusion she feels after her husband's suicide and her mysterious visitor's arrival. As the book progresses, DeLillo does a good job of demonstrating how the overarching ambiguity that this nameless figure represents threatens many of the continuities, like the regular flow of time or the integrity of the self, that most of us take for granted. Indeed, I rather admired DeLillo's attempt to embody uncertainty in a character without bringing in the supernatural, a challenge that many other writers might have shied away from. I suspect that the fact that I've read Beckett's "Trilogy" relatively recently might have made "The Body Artist" a bit more palatable to me. While DeLillo doesn't share Beckett's interest in the phenomenon of consciousness, he certainly seems eager to catalog the most far-reaching effects of uncertainty on the human psyche.

And yet, I don't know if I'd recommend "The Body Artist" to anyone but readers particularly interested in the very narrow philosophically-oriented topics that DeLillo addresses here. DeLillo's word sentences are often longer and more circuitous than they need to be, his word choices often seem jarring and awkward, and most of his dialogue is stilted and cardboard-stiff. It's sometimes difficult to determine whether he's reaching for some point about the nature of language or merely a subpar writer, and I'm still not convinced that DeLillo isn't some sort of literary con man masquerading as a postmodernist. This isn't, I assume, the sort of uncertainty that DeLillo was hoping to provoke in his readers. In any event, "The Body Artist" certainly isn't a beach read. While reading generally relaxes me, I felt markedly uncomfortable in this book's fictional universe, which is a spare and unwelcoming place. I'm not entirely sorry I revisited it, since it's good to challenge your preconceptions once in a while. Still, I'm still a long way from calling myself one of DeLillo's admirers.
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LibraryThing member technodiabla
It is a short book (124 pages). I love his writing. I
didn't care for this story much though. There was too much unexplained
weirdness, stuff that defied the laws of physics. Some people love this stuff,
but perhaps as a scientist I at least want a plausible explanation. (Note: I did
enjoy the Time Traveller's Wife). Also, Lauren was not a believable female
character, which is so common among male writers. The sexual stuff would just
not ever happen that way and reeked of male perspective and terminology (I found
The Time Traveller's Wife to be similar in this regard-- even though written by a woman). Her whole phychology
was just not real to me. There are some beautifully written passages but to
make the story work there would just have to be more of it. Too many open ends
for me.
Rating: 3.0
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LibraryThing member TheTwoDs
A very spare, but tender and moving, story of loss, grief and the implications they have an a young widow. I was completely enraptured by the beauty, brilliance and precision of the descriptions DeLillo wrought, of things as simple as preparing breakfast, or looking out a window. This is one of those stories which inhabits the small spaces, the in-between moments, where the briefest micro-second of thought pauses us in our actions. We all do this every day, but no other writer can describe it so perfectly.… (more)
LibraryThing member wendyrey
Interesting book, very well written.
A story of how one woman deals will the suicide of her husband and her grieving process. She discovers (imagines) a person hiding in her rambling house with whom she shares or develops her grief.
LibraryThing member GypsyJon
Interesting little book. I believe it deals with the imagination and the power of the mind.
LibraryThing member teewillis1981
A bit too cryptic for my taste. But the prose is beautiful, so if you aren't thrown off too much by the stream of consciousness and anti-climactic plot line. It's worth the short read.
LibraryThing member Wubsy
This book had some interesting ideas but I did not find it disturbing enough for the main conceit to really work on me. My favorite part of the book was the final pages when the performance was described, those images had real power.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
DeLillo is an acquired taste. Fortunately, this wasn't my first taste; otherwise it would have been my last. "The Body Artist" is a kind of throw-away book, the kind that Hemingway started writing at the end of his career before "Old Man and the Sea", where everything became artful instead of functional, creative rather than created. I'm just glad that I'd already read "White Noise" - would I have done so after this?… (more)
LibraryThing member debnance
Let me see if I can explain the plot of this book! DeLillo describes every detail of the breakfast of a husband and wife. Then the husband kills himself. The wife later finds a (psychic?) man living in her house and develops a relationship with him. It felt to me like this was written as an exercise for a creative writing class; very forced.… (more)
LibraryThing member deebee1
A strange, psychological story about grief, and coping with the trauma of sudden loss. A fine morning nothing out of the ordinary, and a husband who drove out to his first wife's place and put a bullet through his mouth. The wife, the body artist, returns to the rented house where they spent their last days together and discovers she is not alone in the house. Has her husband "returned" in the voice of the young mentally-challenged man who has, seemingly, been occupying some hidden part of the house? Or is it merely her loneliness and imagination, and another expression of her grief the reality of which she renders effectively in artistic body performance?

This is the plot, simple and streamlined, but there is something profound and mysterious in it that makes this novella a quite interesting read.
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LibraryThing member LovingLit
This little book caught my eye because I love the style of some of what the author has written in the past (White Noise and Libra), also because I saw it in a 1001 Books you Must Read Before you Die book. Plus, it is a novella, so is easy to bookhorn in.

Immediately I was struck by the beauty of the writing. The words are put together so wonderfully and innovatively. I noticed it from the first few sentences, and it made what was actually fairly odd subject matter easier to take in. A woman has returned to the house she shared with her husband, who is now absent. She goes about her days in the type of shock that one does when they are getting used to loss. She encounters an odd person within the 4 walls of her house, and is perplexed about his existence primarily, but also the persons ability to sound exactly like both herself and her late husband. All this traipses along nicely, if somewhat oddly, and is all wrapped up near the end in a performance piece the Body Artist of the tile performs.

Not being used to the ethereal....supernaturally type content of this book, I couldn't really relate or gel with the plot, but the writing in itself is enough to be able to recommend it.
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LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
A simple, and intriguing, novella that touches on the nature of loss and redemption through it. The novella is more complex than it appears and the prose is quick, fluid, and terse. Overall, a worthwhile read.
LibraryThing member perlle
A haunting mediation on grief and time. I liked the ephemeral way the story is told. The only thing that didn't ring true to me was the female character. She seemed more masculine than feminine, but perhaps that was intentional.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Wonderful artistry with the prose style, and I've always admired DeLillo for that. I'm even willing to ignore the overwrought themes for it, this time.
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
Poetic and fascinating, this may be the most detail-focused of DeLillo's works as it consistently returns to and explores single motions, simple images made intricate, and the way forward for a solitary artist lost in her own world of action and image. DeLillo's prose is more focused and poetic than ever in this short piece of fiction, perhaps most similar to his recent Point Omega. This is a short narrative, but packed with concentration and language play. For a reader desiring a simple and intriguing read that takes each word as seriously as the shortest poem would, this is well worth the exploration. Absolutely recommended--I loved it, and look forward already to rereading.… (more)
LibraryThing member ragwaine
Stream of conscious stuff, I don't get it.
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Sparse story of an obsessed wife who cannot seem to let go of a husband who has committed suicide. The remote house she lives in is also haunted by a man who seems to speak with the echoes of her dead husband. A quick read more resembling a short story.
LibraryThing member lenoreva
Wonderful attention to detail in the first chapter. After that, I couldn't really get into it - strange and bland at the same time.



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