on September 19, 2003
Don Delillo follows up his largest and finest work - 'Underworld' - with perhaps his smallest and poorest work: 'The Body Artist'. While the dust-jacket calls this piece of fiction a novel, it is clearly a novella. At only 124 pages, and with only one focal character, there isn't enough intermingled complexity to make it a novel, and not enough 1-2-3 punch to make it a long short story. Delillo's tone is consistent with his other works: the characters all sound the same and seem to pine for some sort of normalcy. The quest at understanding the postmodern is dwindling away, along with the cold-war and garbage, as some of Delillo's obsessions. What we have here is a sort of super-existentialism.
Lauren Hartke is a body artist - she puts her body into strange shapes and under constant pressure - and she is haunted. Her obsession with her own body serves as a clue to her complete lack of comprehension of all those outside of her body. Her husband, her friends, her acquaintances - they are all strangers. 'The Body Artist' is about these ghosts: mostly regular people, but still intangible to Lauren. Delillo is still a master on his worst day, and moments of this book do shine. Only Delillo could conjure up so pure a ghost story without using a shred of the supernatural. Hartke's obsessions creep up just slowly enough to almost be unnoticeable to us. By the end, we readers are able to snap out of the scenario and realize its craziness. But for Lauren - trapped in her own world and body - this realization is not as plausible.
Dellilo's faults her are not with subject. His intent is as noble as ever. The words themselves just don't work as well. Perhaps after 'Underworld's' massiveness, he felt an urgency to 'crank something out' - and here it is: a little under-developed novella. Despite its flaws, it is still a necessary chapter in Don Dellilo's oeuvre.
on July 2, 2002
The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo, is an elusive meandering through the struggles of grief and acceptance. This being my first DeLillo novel, I wasn't sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised, and equally baffled. The story itself really only includes one charachter, and the inner workings of her mind as she descends into something that can only be described as overanylytical self destruction. She is Lauren Hartke, a performance artist who twists her body and voice in strange and painful contortions to expose truths about the world and herself. After the suicide of her husband, she secludes herself in their home and goes over tiny moments obsessively, searching for closure and meaning. She runs across a strange, transparent sort of charachter, who may or may not really exist outside herself. He speaks in her voice and the voice of her dead husband, seeming to transcend time and space and defy all set perimeters of logic and reason. This is an addictive collection of words, like a long muddled poem you can't stop reading. It leaves you with more questions than answers, and a sneaking sense of the truth that lies beyond our own perceptions.
on May 21, 2002
As I exited The Body Artist, I was left ambivalent rather than exalted.
First of all, I should mention that DeLillo uses a much more intimate style of writing than his readers may be used to; he manages to be laconic and rambling at the same time. The result can be dazzling: the author presents the protagonist, Laura, with such devout scrutiny that, at times, she almost becomes a palpable presence. His spectacularly precise observations on married life and mourning are also brilliant.
The plot, tenuous as it is, allows DeLillo to explore the themes of loss and the passage of time. He has managed to condense huge volumes of information into succinct sentences, such that the reader is sometimes made to read a sentence more than once. Some sentences appear to have been designed to change meaning with each rereading. This magnifies the power of DeLillo's insights on tragedy, it's effect on the victim and the slow sense of time that is engendered. So, although the novella is concise, it's effect on the reader is nonetheless equal to his longer novels.
Some readers have complained that The Body Artist is pointlessly flatulent. Occasionally, this is true. The Body Artist can be self-consciously poetic in execution. Unfortunately, also present is a sense of estrangement from Laura. In parts, The Body Artist verges on cold, unsympathetic semi-voyeurism. While one can never doubt the beauty of DeLillo's writing, the reader is rarely given the opportunity to truly empathise with Laura. It would also be accurate to say that, once in a while, DeLillo flaunts his articulacy in the same, slightly irritating way that he did in his earlier novels. These flaws hinder The Body Artist from matching his best works.
In spite of these shortcomings, the Body Artist can be profound, poignant and beautiful. It is a stirring sign of DeLillo reshaping his technique, his wholeness as a writer. Although it is not DeLillo's best work, it is a imperfect masterpiece that deserves your attention.
on May 1, 2001
Well, this is certainly a quiet story, a marked contrast to earlier DeLillo books in which his particular brand of detachment stood in contrast to the extraordinary events that make up his plots. Although the protagonist here is a woman who expresses herself with her body, The Body Artist is a book of the mind: it's all interiors as she copes with the suicide of her husband. She is either alone in their country house, or not alone - her foil is a sort of idiot man-child who can barely express himself, and as often as not talks in mimicry (of the body artist, of her dead husband). He seems like a being made up of reflections. But then, so does she, in a way. It's an interesting meditation, but it's all kind of fleeting, and somehow, to me, a bit soulless. The final impression is of a bad European art film (or piece of performance art) in which an attempt is made to make ideas seem large by lingering on them. But the ideas really aren't that large at all. They don't hold up well under the weight of the language. It's an interesting book, but not one that's likely to linger as one of DeLillo's more important offerings.
on April 3, 2001
My girlfriend went shopping and bought grapes which she left in the fridge for me for when I got home from work, knowing that I like grapes that have been left in the fridge for an hour or two. It pleased me, her doing that and knowing that.
I took the grapes into the living room, thinking I'd eat them while I read the DeLillo (because it's pleasant combining joys, when you can). It occurred to me that there were more grapes than pages, but still. The opening pages were as fresh as the grape circumference splitting against the roof of my mouth, cold juice. The wife and the husband in the kitchen eating breakfast. The clumsy muddle of details. Food and radios and movement and things said and unsaid. (Also, already, the peculiarity of the dialogue read alongside the incisive, surreal prose - the way the dialogue alienates you in its unreality, the way the prose seduces you.)
The story - what story there is - goes like this. A woman, Lauren Hartke, loses her husband. Or rather is deprived of her husband, who takes his life in his first wife's apartment in New York. He was a film director. She is a body artist. Those words, the words of the title, are unusual. You ask yourself precisely what that is - a body artist. There is a coolness in that phrase, a detachment from the physicality of life. Lauren is an observer, not a participant. Or so it feels to me. (Which reminds me again of the effect of the - bad? no, it couldn't be - dialogue and the wonderful writing. That breakfast scene again. The husband, Rey Robles, eats a fig, spreads it on toast, "spread it with the bottom of the spoon, blood-buttery swirls that popped with seedlife.")
Left alone, Lauren becomes abstract. The whole novel, what there is of it, becomes abstract. We're in a Klara Sax painting. Or a clumsy sculpture. That clumsy word again.
She discovers a man. What could be a man. She calls him Mr Tuttles. He has been living in her home. We don't know where or how. She cannot tell. He is not always around. He is strange and otherworldly. He is the monster that appears at the edge of the bed in that Stephen King book, "Gerald's Game." Only he isn't a monster. He is a cartoon. He can imitate her husband. She is drawn to this, drawn to the cartoon man as a way through grief. You don't know if the man is real or in her head. You sort of feel this is grief, a manifestation of dealing with something larger than yourself. Lauren is Catherine Deneuve in "Belle de Jour". Lauren is Catherine Deneuve in that Roman Polanski film. Whatever it was called. "Repulsion."
Lauren produces a piece of work. She is a body artist, after all. Her aim, she says is to "Make a still life that's living, not painted." Which is what we have here. In a way. An abstract still life that doesn't admit a single meaning (because it does not admit itself). The woman interviewing Hartke says "Her art in this piece is obscure, slow, difficult and sometimes agonizing . . . It is about who we are when we are not rehearsing who we are."
Why I mentioned the grapes here, why I felt they were important to this - for you: the grapes were a simple, pure, unadulterated joy. The DeLillo was not. (Nor, perhaps, should it be.) But it should offer itself up. It shouldn't hide. There should be a clarity, a hygiene, of perception that the book lacks. It's another example (like - blasphemy, I know, but - "Underworld") of DeLillo seeking to find a way of expressing something difficult and almost but not quite making it. There is never any doubting the writing. The doubt is only ever with what the writing is trying to say. Obscure, slow and difficult.
There are elements of a horror story here. It would be creepy if it wasn't so - ineffectual. There is a little bad weather, one morning towards the end of the book. "The fog was somber and bronzed low-rolling toward the coast but then lost form on landfall, taking everything with it in amoebic murk." The amoebic murk is the thing. The details that require precision, the desire to know more, is lost in the amoebic murk.
The grapes were sharp, sweet, easy and beautiful. The DeLillo was muddy and disappointing. There were more grapes in the bag than pages in the book. There was more (what? more of that thing that makes life exciting, more of that thing that can't be reduced to a word or a phrase or a sentence, more of that stuff that great novels do so well) in the grapes.
on March 3, 2001
Following his thunderous "Underworld"--in my opinion, one of the greatest novels ever written--DeLillo has chosen a much more quiet work. "Underworld" tackled 50 years in American culture, weaving together scores of plots and themes into a rich, nuanced, intricate, organic novel. Somehow, he made everything fit togther as though it were made to.
"The Body Artist" is an entirely different animal. It's small and narrow, simple and lean. It's dreamlike, where his other works are largly discursive, fragile where they are hulking, minimal where they are grand, meek where they roar. Clearly, he didn't want any comparisons between the two novels...
"The Body Artist" is a slim novel (novella?) featuring a woman--an obscure artist of some stripe, with allusions to Kafka's Hunger Artist--who's left with a rented house and the death of a man she was seeing. Another man--a waistrel, a seemingly simple-headed drifter--floats into the house and commands her fascination.
Plot, characterization, dramatic structure, dialogue. These elements take a back seat to mood, texture, tone, atmosphere. It recalls the work of Arthur Schnitzler and Mario Vargas Llosa. This isn't a masterwork, but it's worth reading.
on February 27, 2001
The Body Artist is the story of a woman, a body artist who finds herself "alone by the sea", grieving the suicide of her husband in the company only of a ghost-like figure who inhabits the farmhouse they shared for the summer.
This quiet novella, a departure for DeLillo, is concerned not with the sweeping history or matrices of reference of Underworld or White Noise, but with something altogether more personal. And what else but an understated, intimate fiction could follow Underworld?
If, as DeLillo says, he writes "to see how much he knows", perhaps this time he is seeing how much he knows about another way of writing. It is great to see a writer of DeLillo's stature patronize the novella form, in the main neglected by publishers, but the effect is not wholly convincing. As is bound to happen if DeLillo sits at a type-writer for any given period, there is brilliance, but DeLillo's brilliance is not the well-spring of this novella so much as flourishes in an otherwise masterfully domesticated work.
DeLillo's writing is graceful and exhibits his characteristic insouciance with syntax "There were voices on the radio in like Hindi it sounded" as well as his gob-smacking lyrical gift "still a little puddled in dream-melt". The erotic passages are beautiful and the novella is spare and ethereal in the tradition of writers like Yasunari Kawabata; an internet image of a deserted road in Finland, grief, a ghost, what the narrator calls "floating poetry."
DeLillo abandons reference for lyricism with rich effect, but even if you get past the flaws in the book; sometimes overwrought rhetorical questions, the fact that body-based performance art has to be the most tedious form in the universe, this is no more than a gently satisfying story and, in the context of DeLillo's eleven preceding novels, a tantalizing place holder for brilliance to come.
on February 18, 2001
The book jacket to this novel has one thing right, it is spare. I'm just not sure if it is seductive, like the jacket also suggests. The Body Artist is very DeLillo. How the sentences are constructed, how paragraphs flow, DeLillo gives off a sense of himself as a writer. Yet, for all DeLillo's greatness as a writer, something is missing in this novel. Some say plot is missing, but that is not fair. DeLillo does not use plot in the conventional sense. If one looks for a conventional plot in Underworld, it isn't there. On page 65, DeLillo both describes part of a truth about postmodern literature, and also what seems to be ailing this novel:
"There is a code in the simplist conversation that tells the speakers what's going on outside the bare acoustics. This was missing when they talked. There was a missing beat. It was hard for her to find the tempo. All they had were unadjusted words. She lost touch with him, lost interest sometimes, couldn't locate rhythmic intervals or time cues or even the mutters and hums, the audible pauses that pace a remark....all this was missing here" (65-66).
Despite this absence, I look forward to anything DeLillo writes in the future. When the man is on top of his game, his novels work and draw the reader in to a whole new world. Sadly, in the Body Artist, the reader is left wondering where the world is, and what happened.
on April 1, 2002
This is the second book I've read by DeLillo. The first, Underworld, is a hefty tome; this one is so brief it is actually questionable that it can be called a novel. Certainly, the idea of paying a hardcover price for this book is ludicrous unless you're a diehard DeLillo fan.
This is kind of a ghost story, but there is more of a psychological than supernatural element to this ghost. As with Underworld, I found this book to be fascinating without really being very clear. DeLillo is brilliant at focusing on the minor details of life, but he makes it hard to see the bigger picture.
It is also hard to get very interested in the main character in this story who is so self-absorbed that she has practically shut out the outside world. A protagonist does not necessarily have to be sympathetic, but she should at least be interesting, and this one is not.
If you like descriptive language and are not too big on story or character, you might enjoy this book.
on March 21, 2001
Imagine this: you buy a ticket to a movie made by one of your favorite directors, costs you 22 bucks, you fork out money for popcorn, a coke, some granola bars - or whatever - and you came super early to get the best seat in the theater. Very quickly the place fills up, the lights go down and the movie begins. A plot starts to unfold. It's looking like a really great piece of work. Maybe one of his best. But the movie ends. The lights go up and everyone leaves. And you're still sitting there chewing on that first handful of popcorn. Haven't even touched your coke. Your seat hasn't even warmed up yet. What flashed before your eyes was maybe some the greatest 16 seconds of film you've ever seen in your life. Maybe not. It all happened so fast, it was hard to tell. But one thing's for sure: you're out of money. You're out of money and here they come already, Hoovering up the aisle...