After taking a couple months off from Don DeLillo (Ratner’s Star was completely disappointing to me), I wanted to dip my toes back into the water that is potentially America’s greatest living writer. What better way than with the tiny novella that followed his elephantine epic, Underworld? You see, DeLillo is a writer I really can’t put my finger on. Until The Body Artist, I had read three stories by him and all of them were different to the point that placing them alongside one another was equivalent to atonality. They just seem bizarrely different from one another. DeLillo’s prose is there. His wonderful dialogue creation is there. But yet they don’t share much else.
The Body Artist, however, reminded me at times of White Noise. If White Noise is what the novel’s title claims it to be, namely an examination of the only certainty in everyone’s lives- death- and all the distractions we use to avoid facing it until we must, then The Body Artist is DeLillo’s follow-up in which he examines how we handle a death that is not our own. Lauren, the main character, is a body artist (Surprise!) whose husband, Rey, commits suicide. We are treated to small conversation between the two, sporadic and defense-like (This book is almost a textbook example of how Postmodernist alienation from characters works against itself), and then we are thrown to a write-up that details the suicide of the man we just read for twenty pages. Make no mistake, despite my criticism and feeling the beginning of the book fights the reader against better judgment, The Body Artist has a good start and hooks you.
The novella is all about humanity in mourning. Soon after Rey dies, Lauren hears a noise and goes to investigate, finding an ageless man sitting on one of the many beds in the massive house. This specter of a human holds only shadows of reality and wisps of full humanity. Lauren becomes obsessed with conversing with him, or attempting to converse with him. Her attempts amount to repeated tries to assimilate something stuck in another reality, another fold of time, into her own dimension of being. The “conversations” they have border on both frustrating and nerve-wracking. The simple idea of a ghost story brings to mind horror, but DeLillo never takes the story there.
Instead, DeLillo takes a similar path to that of House of Leaves author Mark Danielewski. In House of Leaves, a couple is torn apart and pushed together by a house that models its interior on the psychological makeup of the one who is exploring it. Whereas normal a symbol is an element or a small beat of a novel, Danielewski makes the entire point of the novel an examination of a symbol, repeating examined and rushed to the forefront. The Body Artist has its major symbol lost in the background, I feel: The house in which she is living. The psychological makeup of her labyrinthine faculties. DeLillo isn’t doing anything ground breaking in this novella, but it is good, nonetheless. He is simply telling us that mourning causes us all to be haunted by our ghosts. That ghosts are real, more real than reality, and both intensified and cured by time.
Perhaps DeLillo was just really into Derrida at the time. Either way, The Body Artist was a simple, short read that brought me back to comfort in being a fan of Don DeLillo. It’s not a novel that will amaze you (though, who am I to say such a thing?), but it is quite good and rings true to anyone who has either read Derrida question who is speaking for who or has lost a loved one.
A short review for a short book.
Recommended to: Those who are nervous to move past Underworld in the Don DeLillo run of novels (let’s face it: All the reviews for DeLillo’s novellas since 2001 have been negative and underwhelming), and those looking for a simple novel that can get you reflecting on your life in a meaningful way.
Avoid as if it is being topside on a cruise in high seas: Those looking for obtuse and complex novels, and those who think the idea that we are all haunted in our own way should be met by eye-rolls and dismissed as tepid and uninteresting.