THE BODY ARTIST
By Don DeLillo
In a bold move to pre-empt any debate over who will write the worst novel of 2001, Don DeLillo has taken the prize home early. While there’s no way to predict what horrors are yet to come, it’s safe to say there won’t be anything as bad as The Body Artist published in the next ten months.
The sheer awfulness of The Body Artist is even more of a surprise given the talent involved. While Don DeLillo has always been a hit-and-miss author – for every White Noise there has been a Mao II – he has never gone off the tracks like this before.
What went wrong?
The fault is not in the story, though that is weak enough. In outline it deals with a body artist (think “performance piece”) named Lauren who is renting a house with her husband, a film director named Rey. Rey kills himself and Lauren goes on living alone in the house until a strange man shows up. He may be a homeless person, a ghost, or a figment of her imagination. In the fashion of the best high literary crossover into pulp romance (think The English Patient), they get involved.
So far, so bad, but what really makes the book a true disaster is the writing. Gone are the satiric wit, cultural engagement and kaleidoscope narrative of DeLillo’s last novel, Underworld. This time out he seems to be struggling under the influence of that greatest of all posh literary introverts, Virginia Woolf. Every small gesture in The Body Artist is presumed to carry Great Significance. Every subtle change in tense and tone is a profound mystery of meaning. Consciousness doesn’t flow in a stream so much as sit at the bottom of a well of self, listening to murky echoes and repetitions of itself thinking.
Lest you think I’m making any of this up, here are a couple of representative passages submitted as evidence:
She climbed the stairs, hearing the sound a person makes who is climbing stairs, and she touched the oak grain of the newel when she reached the landing.
It was okay. She wanted to be here and she’d be okay. All their marriage, all the time they’d lived together they’d lived right here.
Her body felt different to her in ways she did not understand. Tight, framed, she didn’t know exactly. Slightly foreign and unfamiliar. Different, thinner, didn’t matter.
That Lauren hears the sound of a person climbing stairs when she is, in fact, climbing the stairs, gives some indication of the level of self-absorption she has attained – a reverse Nirvana for the artsy set. Certainly her inability to understand what doesn’t matter anyway is a feeling many readers will share.
The second passage is an example of how the dialogue between Lauren and the stranger works:
“Then when it comes to me.”
“A thing of the most. Days yes years.”
“Do you know what that means? A day. A year. Or did you hear me use these words?”
“Say some words.”
“Say some words.”
“In when it comes.”
“In when it comes. What?” she said
“Leave into leaving.”
“Who is leaving?”
“This is when you, yes, you said.”
“What did I say?”
It is possible to find some defence for what DeLillo is doing. Since Lauren’s body is her art it makes a kind of sense that she is so obsessive about herself, so trapped within her own interior world. But making her sensitive to the point of feeling “her aorta recoil to every blood surge” is simply ridiculous. And the constant dwelling upon the minutiae of daily existence becomes a crushing bore even in a book as short as this.
As for the dialogue, DeLillo tries to excuse it by suggesting that Lauren and the stranger communicate “outside language.” He deliberately fashions their conversation so that it has no rhythm, none of the tempo, inflections or intervals that make normal speech comprehensible. That this results in a lot of gibberish is, I think he would argue, his point.
But this does not explain the rest of the dialogue in the book. Here, for example, is Lauren talking to the man who owns the house she has been staying in:
“Has it been satisfactory then?”
“Mostly, I think, yes.”
“Because if there’s anything.”
“No, it’s fine, I think. Rooms.”
“Rooms and rooms.”
What are we to make of this?
Scholars may find something to salvage from The Body Artist. In terms of its theme I assume it is meant as a response to DeLillo’s fascination with the way cultural products, and in particular the signals sent by mass commercial media, have colonized the subconscious. The only rebellion against the tyranny of the media thus becomes an obsessive inwardness that denies the external world entirely. As he says of Lauren, “the world was lost inside her.”
This is all well and good, at least for Lauren, but if this is DeLillo’s point then it is one that is lost in a dull, derivative paste of writing that is almost beyond parody:
He said, “The word for moonlight is moonlight.”
This made her happy. It was logically complex and oddly moving and circularly beautiful and true – or maybe not so circular but straight as straight can be.
My guess is most readers will find this baffling. I’m prepared to grant what the stranger says is “true,” but what is logically complex about it? Or moving? Or beautiful?
There is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Man on the Dump,” that reflects on a literature grown heavy with cliché, especially words stale with “beautiful and true” associations like “moonlight.” The moon creeps up on a pile of garbage that includes images of the moon itself, along with the wrapper from a can of pears, a cat in a paper bag, and books, one suspects, like The Body Artist.
Review first published February 3, 2001.