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.