Don Delillo – The Body Artist

The more I read Don Delillo, the more I enjoy the dark aesthetic of his fiction. I sat down last night with the short and brutal The Body Artist and read it in one sitting. I re-read it this afternoon and decided that might be the best way to enjoy this particular novel – in repeated samplings.  

The Body Artist is an uncomfortable and uneasy read. Both for its narrative peculiarities and for the alarming substance of its story. On the surface, the story couldn’t be simpler -man and woman together, man kills himself, woman grieves. But that triptych has a much more intriguing focus in its investigation of emotional expression through our physical being.  

Lauren is a body artist. Someone who creates an exploration of an idea with her movements, corporal presence and acting. We meet her first in a moment of comfort – a morning with her husband. Delillo presents even the smallest detail of their interplays of exchange. Lauren exists in a hyper-deliberate state, moving from gesture to gesture and thought to thought. We have to savor their interactions slowly to catch the hints of discord. They are extremely subtle, but they are there.  

The next chapter relates the details of her husband’s death. Within two pages we are back with Lauren, and by this point we’re so tightly merged with her it is difficult to come up for air. She discovers a young man stashed away in the house. He cannot speak properly on his own but begins to repeat verbatim entire conversations that occurred between Lauren and her now dead husband. In her grief, Lauren begins to believe he’s some manifestation of her husband and instead of calling the police or a hospital, tries to take care of him. She just wants him to keep speaking to her. 

The experience of reading The Body Artist is similar to attending an intense play or observing a performance piece. It’s disturbing to see our main character humiliate and endanger herself. This kind of reader-character fusion doesn’t occur often. Usually, there is more distance. But the narrative perspective of The Body Artist doesn’t allow for any detachment. We follow Lauren like a voyeur, listen to her thoughts and watch even her most mundane movements. Time runs too slowly. It’s suffocating and frustrating. But each time she snaps out of her trance, we’re brought up short and offered a glimpse of the heartache and disbelief that inform her most routine actions.  

Of the three Delillo novels I’ve now read, this was the most experimental but also, I felt, the most powerful. In the past, I’ve criticized him for holding me at an arm’s length from his characters. The Body Artist did the exact opposite. It was a visceral experience, both severe and wearisome (I mean those to be taken as positives, or at least for their intensity). I think a longer book would have been far too exhausting so I approve of his restraint. Definitely a novel I will go back to again.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

13 thoughts on “Don Delillo – The Body Artist”

  1. I haven’t read any Don Delillo, although I’m fairly certain there’s a copy of ‘Underworld’ somewhere on my shelves, bought as a top up on a 3 for 2 deal. Are his longer novels as intense and would it be better to start with something shorter; as I recall the one I have is definitely a doorstopper!

  2. Ann – The other two Delillo novels I read were also both fairly short and intense, Falling Man and Running Dog (kind of funny to list those two together). They were less intense than The Body Artist but also easier to just sit down and read. The Body Artist was kind of hard work for how short it was. But there’s no doubt he’s got some amazing prose-writing skills.

    Gloria – Thank you for stopping by. I look forward to seeing your site too, sounds like one I would enjoy!

  3. What a fascinating review! I have always held back from reading Don Delillo, though I don’t rightly know why. I may well try him out now, on a day when I am feeling strong!

  4. Hah! This got me wondering about cosmic connections. I also was writing about body art on the same day. My friend’s picture is in a new book about tattoos. When I got to the middle of your write-up, I realized the difference.

  5. Litlove – I’m still undecided how much I “enjoy” his books, but there’s no doubt he’s a very skilled writer and interested in exploring some interesting themes in his fiction. As always, I’d love to know how you read him..especially after reading your thoughts on Henry Miller from earlier this week.

    Bikkuri – I didn’t know what he meant by a body artist until I got some ways into the book, then it was fascinating. I don’t think I enjoy watching that type of art, I find it a little disturbing…but it can depend.

  6. Interesting review. Like Ann’s comment, I have Underworld languishing on a shelf and I’ve even tried to start it (twice) and no joy. Sounds like I should try some of his shorter books and get to grips with his style.

  7. I was assigned Underworld a few years ago for a post-modern literature grad class. I couldn’t get through it in the allowed time (1 week for 800 pages!) with all of the other reading I had to do that week, but I would like to revisit it. I also have White Noise sitting on my shelf. Your review really makes me want to revisit DeLillo’s work sooner rather than later.

  8. I’ve felt that distance from the characters that you describe, and so I’m curious about this one that seems to head in a different direction. Even with the distance, though, I loved White Noise and couldn’t help but admire Underworld.

  9. Logophile – I have Underworld as well and have been hesitant to start it (the size IS a little daunting)…one of these days I’ll settle in with it and see what I make of one of his longer fictions. But I do really like his style.

    Trish – He’s an author I got to know a bit by default. I always had him in the back of my mind and then I bookmooched Running Dog, which was short. I tried it and although I didn’t love it, I was really attracted to his overall project. Since then I’ve kept going back!

    Dorothy – Its wonderful to hear that you liked White Noise and Underworld. I look forward to reading both of them with that in mind!

  10. I read quite a bit of Delillo’s work. Underworld was his best, in my opinion. It is sweeping and I found parts of it very touching. It was as though everything this he played around with in other books came to fruition in this one. I’d love to hear your reaction to it.

  11. Ted – I am hoping to start Underworld soon. Like I wrote, Delillo has kind of snuck up on me but I think his writing is just tremendous. Despite quibbles with some narrative distance, his novels are affecting and effective – if that makes sense. Your recommendation of Underworld makes me get started right away.

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