I mentioned in my recent reading review of The Body Artist that reading this novel was a bit awkward and felt like attending a performance piece. I want to talk more about where I think the reader’s self-consciousness comes from.
In the novel, Delillo positions the narrator within the main character Lauren’s head – third person limited. There is the smallest sliver of distance in the odd formulation of “she thought”, but most of the narration comes unhampered by any tags. In this way, the narrator is fused to her movements and thoughts. In essence, Lauren is the narrator, even if technically the point of view is third person. This free indirect technique creates a sort of tunnel vision that in less expert hands would lead to a lot of confusion. (This is something that beginning writers often do without realizing it (yep, been there, done that) and it can create a real problem for the reader). There isn’t any place for the reader to move back and look at the larger scene. The largest “visual” we ever get that isn’t filtered by Lauren’s eyes is something like, “They sat reading…” with anything that follows unfolding through Lauren’s perception and thoughts.
What this near-fusion of main character into narrator accomplishes in The Body Artist is to turn the reader into a voyeur. Delillo doesn’t let Lauren tell us her story in her own voice, something which would be a more traditional experience for the reader and wouldn’t feel so intrusive, instead he traps us inside her experience at the same time as he reminds us that we’re only watching:
She tried to work past the details to the bird itself, nest thief and skilled mimic, to the fixed interest in those eyes, a kind of inquisitive chill that felt a little like a challenge.
When birds look into houses, what impossible worlds they see. Think. What a shedding of every knowable surface and process. She wanted to believe the bird was seeing her, a woman with a teacup in her hand, and never mind the folding back of day and night, the apparition of a space set off from time. She looked and took a careful breath. She was alert to the clarity of the moment but knew it was ending already. She felt it in the blue jay. Or maybe not. She was making it happen herself because she could not look any longer. This must be what it means to see if you’ve been near blind all your life. She said something to Rey, who lifted his head slightly, chasing the jay but leaving the sparrows unstarted.
It’s a technique with very definite aesthetic repercussions. It creates a restriction for the reader, turning the character’s mood and psychic state into a filter for the story. Both these things can be quite meaningful when executed skillfully. I think the benefit of using this for The Body Artist is that the technique marries so nicely with the novel’s thematic preoccupation. Grief is a dictatorial emotion – it weighs on us, makes us hyper-aware and uncomfortable or unreasonable. Grief becomes a filter for everyday experience and so forcing the reader into that experience is a meaningful narrative experiment.