"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.
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.
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!
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'.
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.
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.
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
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.
This is the plot, simple and streamlined, but there is something profound and mysterious in it that makes this novella a quite interesting read.
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.