Book Review: The Body Artist – Don DeLillo

The Body Artist

The Body Artist begins with normality: breakfast between a married couple, Lauren and Rey, in their ramshackle rented house on the New England coast. Recording their delicate, intimate, half-complete thoughts and words, DeLillo proves himself a stunningly unsentimental observer of our idiosyncratic relationships. But after breakfast, Rey makes a decision that leaves Lauren utterly alone, or seems to.

As Lauren, the body artist of the title, becomes strangely detached from herself and the temporal world, the novel becomes an exploration of a highly abnormal grieving process; a fascinating exposé of ‘who we are when we are not rehearing who we are’; and a rarefied study of trauma and creativity, absence and presence, isolation and communion.”

Needless to say, faced with the above synopsis of DeLillo’s The Body Artist, I knew I was in for a difficult time of it, and when I finally came to the end, and was able to close said volume (with a not inconsiderable sigh of relief), I’d discovered, among other things, that my preconceptions on the matter had been, unfortunately for yours truly, entirely accurate.

It was not an enjoyable read. The Body Artist is neither entertaining nor particularly intriguing, and seemingly entirely devoid of plot. Many of the passages are uncomfortably jarring, and it is practically impossible to relate to any of the characters, meaning that the reader remains bizarrely detached for the entirety of the narrative. It begins ignominiously, with a passage that, rather than providing an informative opening salvo, simply confuses the reader, and when it concludes, it does so quietly and without fanfare. By that point, I was simply relieved to make it to the end, which is not, might I add, how I normally feel at such a juncture.

Writing:

DeLillo’s focus on the mundane leaves the reader bogged down in specifics. If there were wider plot movements – and I cannot assert such with any certainty – they simply passed me by, leaving me rudderless and confused in the midst of lengthy, jarring passages that seemed to make little sense and go nowhere in particular. While DeLillo’s abilities with language are certainly impressive in that he is easily capable of compelling the reader to question even the most basic aspects of a daily routine, not to mention describing the experience of grief and trauma in a manner that is, if not wholly unprecedented, at least refreshing in its originality, his style is arguably too detached for the reader for form any kind of connection with the characters, and his relentless emphasis on commonplace objects too frequent to be anything other than needlessly irritating.

Characters:

Although The Body Artist is written from the perspective of Lauren, the grieving widow, we hear little from her. In the conversation with Rey’s ex-wife, Lauren’s voice is lost in the proud testimony given by the other woman, in her interactions with ‘Mr. Tuttle,’ she becomes the worshipful caretaker prioritizing his knowledge, ability and well-being over her own, and even the performance she gives at the end of the novella, the culmination of her hard work, and, arguably, a symbolic event indicative of the reclaiming of her identity and life, is related by a reporter. She has little discernible personality, and although she is positioned as the protagonist, makes few decisions of her own, and is mainly a passive figure, operated upon by others. I found her impossible to relate to, and her perspective inaccessible and detached.

Plot:

As a speculative exposition into the effect of trauma on individuals, The Body Artist is a fundamentally clever text. However, with little conceivable plot beyond the detailing of Lauren’s simple existence at the coastal home and her recovery of her identity after her husband’s suicide, it’s difficult to read, and practically impossible to thoroughly immerse oneself in. It’s an artful attempt to put an often inexpressible experience into words, but it’s not the type of book that’s can be truthfully described as ‘enjoyable,’ and I’m unlikely to ever pick it up again.

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