Don DeLillo, in an interview with Gerald Howard, 1997: "The novel is a very open form. It will accommodate large themes and whole landscapes of experience. . . The novel expands, contracts, becomes essaylike, floats in pure consciousness¨it gives the writer what he needs to produce a book that duplicates, a book that models the rich, dense, and complex weave of actual experience."
DeLillo (quoting a reader of his last novel, Underworld): "This is not a book you can read, this is a book you have to re-read."
It is not until the second reading of The Body Artist, the latest novel by Don DeLillo, that the reader begins to pierce through the dense surface of DeLillo's prose to reach the elusive reality he is creating. On first reading, the thickness of the main character's thoughts and the intensity of her perceptions seemed to stand in the way of her search for understanding of how time in all its dimensions affects her life. It takes another reading of the Body Artist to see beyond the character's own struggle, to see what she herself does not see.
The book starts at breakfast, the last breakfast that the body (performance) artist Lauren Hartke will have with her husband, filmmaker Rey Roubles, in their huge, isolated house on the coast of Maine. It is a morning of essences¨fresh fig and berry, bluejay and sparrow, and prolonged sensations¨of feelings that someone will say something, of knowing the words before they are out of mouths. The effect of this scene is both beautiful and disorienting, like closing your eyes but still sensing everything clearly. Through a cyclical pattern of images (and not the linearity of plot), the point of this scene becomes evident: that time is a pliable entity, that it can transform into memory, perception, dTja vu, and that it is what gives us a sense of ourselves. "Now that he'd remembered what he meant to tell her, he seemed to lose interest. She didn't have to see his face to know this. It was in the air. It was in the pause that trailed from his remark of eight, ten, twelve seconds ago. Something insignificant. He would take it as a kind of self-diminishment, bringing up a matter so trivial."
With a turn of the page, we are thrust into the reality of Rey's death. His obituary tells of his suicide in his first wife's apartment at age 64. In this brief obit, DeLillo seems to be gently mocking the media's take on art when he quotes a critic of Rey's films, "His [Rey's] subject is people in landscapes of estrangement. He found a spiritual knife-edge in the poetry of alien places, where extreme situations become inevitable and characters are forced toward life-defining moments."
After this glimpse of crisp reality, the time in which Lauren lives once Rey dies becomes, "slow and hazy and drained and it all happens around the word seem." DeLillo plunges us back into Lauren's head, recording her bewildered thoughts in petty and profound details, and how her body rebels¨"not the major breakdown of every significant function but a small helpless sinking toward the ground, a kind of forgetting how to stand." Her anguish frustrates her, and finally sends her out of the house, where she sees, in town, a white-haired Japanese woman who inspires her to start her body work again.
It is ironic that DeLillo, who eschews computer technology and writes on a manual typewriter (or "sculpts words," as he puts it), has Lauren become obsessed with a live filming of a street in Finland, a constant webcam stream she sees on her computer. She becomes aware of sounds, the phone ringing, and another sound, of a human being somewhere in the house. When she investigates, she finds a stranger living in a third floor bedroom of her own house, sitting on the edge of the bed in his underwear.
The way Lauren deals with this stranger who may be mentally ill, or retarded, or an alien, is the largest jump in our willing suspension of disbelief that the author asks us to make. Instead of being afraid of the stranger, Lauren becomes fascinated by his emaciated body and his creepy ability to mimic all the words she and her husband said to each other, in their own voices, but who can barely speak or make coherent sentences on his own. He seems to have no history, no identity, no tangible personhood. She begins to record, touch, feed and study this stranger.
As if he is a found art object upon which she can focus her performance, she begins a harsh, ascetic dive into her own body, preparing, scraping and scrubbing her skin, cutting and dying her hair, stretching and contorting her muscles, practicing some elusive show, trying all the while to understand the stranger, and his sudden appearance in her life. We can guess at the meaning of this bizarre stranger, and attribute to him symbolic significance¨he represents time itself, or the ghost of Rey, or a mirror image of their relationship¨but DeLillo never lets on exactly what he intends by his presence.
In another of DeLillo's hilarious mock-media articles (this time written by Mariella, a friend of Lauren's), we find out that Lauren's preparations (as well as the phone sounds and the Finland footage) culminate in a performance called "Body Time" in a Boston Center for the Arts "dungeon space" (the connection to S&M seems obvious). Mariella seems disturbed by Lauren's physical change, and yet taken with her show, which "begins with an ancient Japanese woman on a bare stage . . . and it ends . . . with a naked man, emaciated and aphasic, trying desperately to tell us something." Mariella's article echoes DeLillo's building-up of Lauren's life, writing that the performance is very slow and deals with time, the stretching of time, and the impact of its meaning on us. All parts played by Lauren. Lots of viewers walked out.
At the end of The Body Artist, reality hits Lauren with a terrifying force. All her questions and observations about time and perception have gathered strength, and are forcing her to choose¨either to return to our reality, or stay in the house with the ghost of Rey.
Don DeLillo has lived through the writing of 12 novels, all of them very different from one another (for example, his last novel, Underworld, was over 800 pages, as compared to the 124 of The Body Artist). Half of his books have garnered prestigious awards, yet his work, with the exception of White Noise (1985), a breakthrough novel which won him a National Book Award, is often hard to grasp. He demands of his readers an effort that more mainstream authors often try not to force on their audience. He is quoted as saying, "Making things difficult for the reader is less an attack on the reader than it is on the age and its facile knowledge-market. The writer is driven by his conviction that some truths aren't arrived at so easily . . ."
He has claimed James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon as strong influences. Their impact on him is apparent in The Body Artist in the close, third-person point of view reminiscent of Dedalus and Mulligan in Ulysses, and the Joycean mix of the quotidian with mind-bogglingly difficult life questions. The hilarity of his media chapters have a definite Pynchon flavour.
Read The Body Artist without expectations. It is a fugue, a meditation on time and perception. There are no givens, nothing assumed, everything explored carefully. With a second (or third) reading, there is only depth, knowledge, atmosphere, and a heightened level of awareness to be gained. ˛