Monday, October 05, 2009

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

The Body Artist is a curious, unsettling novella in which nothing is clear and the normal channels of human communication are faulty. For the characters there is confusion and uncertainty, and this ambiguity is replicated for the reader also, through DeLillo’s postmodern playing with narrative, such as when he says: ‘Every time she had to bend and reach into the lower and remote parts of the refrigerator she let out a groan, but not really every time ...’ We are on shifting sands. We cannot be entirely sure what is happening.

The body artist of the title is Lauren Hartke, a performance artist who contorts herself into a series of poses in shows which are long and challenging. She is married to a fading film director, Rey Robles, and the first section of the novella, deliberately claustrophobic, centreing on small details and mundane conversations, gives a first taste of the confusion of communication which forms the heart of the novel. This couple hear each other, but they are not listening. Disaster ensues.

In the remainder of the novel, Lauren, now alone, struggles to acclimatise to the new circumstances of her life. She is alone and lonely, reduced to watching a live internet feed of a two-lane road in Finland, preferring to view in the early hours when the road is quietest, and listening to her telephone answering machine, its voice, its words. Investigating a noise in an empty upstairs room she discovers someone sitting on a bed, an escaped lunatic or a vagrant or a ghost or a foundling or someone, whose voice is remarkably similar to that of her husband. Indeed, he even seems able to repeat whole conversations that Lauren has had with her husband. Lauren and the man, whom she calls Mr Tuttle, begin a series of conversations, which Lauren records and re-plays, trying to understand. He is a mystery. He knows little of the ordinary interactions of human beings. In some way, he is a representation of Lauren’s confused state, and together they grope towards a common understanding of something, anything, ultimately, of Lauren herself: what it is to be Lauren, who she is, her identity, the way that identity shifts in time, through moments. This becomes the obsession of the novel, and it is duly replicated by Lauren in her performance art – literally so, as she appears to shape-shift on stage, to become someone else, somewhere else.

All of this uncertainty underpins the novel. It is a philosophical meditation on time, human consciousness, our perceptions of ourselves and others and how we interact. It is a melancholy piece, made strange by DeLillo’s technique. Perhaps that strangeness is too great: ultimately, I’m not certain what message I am meant to take from it.

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