The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
The massive novel Underworld (Picador; 0330369954) confirmed to many Don Delillo's status as one of the finest American writers of his generation. Whilst some critics thought it hubristic and showy the received wisdom was that Underworld was a genuine classic. To my shame, I have yet to read it! But I have always considered myself a bit of a Delillo fan thinking that both Mao II and Libra were quite superb. I picked The Body Artist off the shelf because of how slim it is, how almost humble it seemed next to the doorstop that is Underworld. And I'm really glad I did ...
Delillo writes beautifully. He is one of the few writers one reads whose sentences are really worth savouring. In such a minor looking work (it is merely 128 pages long) we have some major emotions: this is a raw, affecting book about loss, pain, memory. Lauren Hartke, the eponymous body (performance) artist, begins the novel, in a beautiful eighteen page set-piece, preparing her and her husband Rey's breakfast and wondering amusingly, in allusive, spare, quiet, sometimes humdrum yet pregnant language, both aloud and to herself, what this life is. Then Rey leaves, unbeknownst to Lauren for his ex-wife's house, and there kills himself.
Fundamentally and substantially shocked and shaken, Lauren returns to the house they are renting over the summer away from the city. And discovers there an almost mute young man hiding in one of the unused bedrooms. Whether he is the ghost of Rey, a projection of her own grief or, more prosaically, a confused young man on the run from the local hospital, neither Lauren nor Delillo ever finally pin down. Beginning to care for him the young man starts to speak but in snatches - and then more fully - of past conversations that Lauren had with her recently deceased husband. What does all this mean? What does it tell us about the process of mourning? How does the presence of the young man help Lauren negotiate and cope with the loss of Rey? Again, Delillo seems loathe to impose too much authorial direction on his character and her 'ghost'. The one failing of the book, for me, was in the 'editorial' that appears towards the end of the story where Lauren's friend, a journalist, writes a review of Lauren's new dance piece that she performs on her return to the city. Within the review, via a deconstruction of Lauren's act, Delillo seems to be forcing a suggested reading of his novel and it is a clumsy, almost cowardly, device. Notwithstanding that 'intervention' The Body Artist is a haunting and affecting work and certainly worth reading, and reading again.