Sunday, October 21, 2007

45. The Body Artist - Don DeLillo

I raced through most of this slim novel with a slightly superior sneer on my face. It was weird, incomprehensible, boring. I would give it a 1/10, or even a zero, because there was no chance I was going to read it again. It started with the last, unremarkable breakfast between a man and his wife (Lauren) - he smoking a cigarette, she sniffing the foot-odour of her cereal, reading the paper, watching the birds. Then he drives into town and shoots himself in his first wife's apartment and Lauren is left alone.

Or is she? The center of the novel contains her obsession with the retarded man she finds living in her house, and her obsession with reshaping (torturing?) her own body. It feels repetitive, circular, uneventful. The reader feels somewhat embarrassed for her, pestering this poor unfortunate to repeat snippets of past conversations in her husband's voice, desperately trying to make him make sense. Then suddenly this child-man is gone and she is alone again.

It was at this point, almost at the very end of the novel, that I found myself pulled in and willingly riding "the wind-swayed web."(7) Nothing really happened, except that somehow, I began to understand - and to care. I want to quote the passage that marked my turning point:

She wanted to create her future, not enter a state already shaped to her outline.

Something is happening. It has happened. It will happen. This is what she believed. There is a story. A flow of consciousness and a possibility. The future comes into being.

But not for him.

He hasn't learned the language. There has to be an imaginary point, a nonplace where language intersects with our perceptions of time and space, and he is a stranger at this crossing, without words or bearings.

This is a man who remembers the future.

If you examine the matter methodically, you realize that he is a retarded man sadly gifted in certain specialized areas, such as memory retention and mimicry, a man who'd been concealed in a large house, listening.

Nothing else makes sense.

It is a thing no one understands. But it makes and shapes you. And in these nights since he'd left she sometimes sat with a book in her lap, eyes closed, and felt him living somewhere in the dark, and it is colder where he is, it is wintrier there, and she wanted to take him in, try to know him in the spaces where his chaos lurks, in all the soft-cornered rooms and unravelling verbs, the parts of speech where he is meant to locate his existence, and in the material place where Rey lives in him, alive again, word for word, touch for touch, and she opened and closed her eyes and thought in a blink the world had changed.

He violates the limits of the human. (99-100)

This question of what it means to be human, which had been so easy to dismiss and distance myself from, suddenly had me in its grasp. The author is masterful in his choice of when and how to reveal what it means to be a 'body artist'. Everything you have read so far in the novel seems altered when you realise what she, Lauren, had been preparing for. What she is and what she does as a performance artist. I won't spoil the surprise.

As the novel draws to a close, I began to suspect more and more that everything had not been as simple and straightforward as it seemed. Did the retarded man exist at all, or was he part of her creation, a rehearsal, a coping mechanism, or a madness?

Why shouldn't the death of a person you love bring you into lurid ruin? You don't know how to love the ones you love until they disappear abruptly. Then you understand how thinly distanced from their suffering, how sparing of self you often were, only rarely unguarded of heart, working your networks of give-and-take. ... Sink lower, she thought. Let it bring you down. Go where it takes you. (116)

So, with my sneer replaced by an expression of wonder, I reached the last page, regretting only that it was 3am and I couldn't immediately turn back to the first page and start again. This is one of those novels that I suspect will change and alter the reader's perceptions with every reading: "A flow of consciousness and a possibility." Externally, nothing really happens - nature and time move on, it is colder, the birds come to the feeders or they do not - but internally? The possibilities are endless.

Chances I will read it again? 6/10 For a while there it was a definite 10, but then I thought about the other 995 books on the list still waiting to be reviewed... this one was intriguing, but not fascinating enough to guarantee it an instant place among my all time favourites. Certainly one to remember, though.

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