Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

The Body Artist is an exceptionally fine novel.  Original is an understatement in the case of this book. DeLillo is undoubtedly a word artist and I am only sorry that I have not read him sooner.

I picked up this book after hearing a Don DeLillo short story called Baader-Meinhof being read on a New Yorker fiction podcast a few months ago.  The atmosphere created in the short story was mesmerising and so I made a note to find other work by DeLillo.

The Body Artist is about Lauren Hartke who does performance art with her body.  This is the sort of novel that unfurls slowly and unexpectedly so I am loathe to go into any detail about the plot or even the major themes.  I will say I was captivated from the first page and literally did not put the book down until I had completed it.

DeLillo's style is so different to anything I have read before.  In someways it is more like poetry, in that it draws the reader into single moments.  Time slows down in some ways and I felt hypnotised by the beauty and experience of everyday things.

He bit off the stem and tossed it toward the sink.  Then he split the fig open with his thumbnails and took the spoon out of her hand and licked it off and used it to scoop a measure of claret flesh out of the gaping fig skin.  He dropped this stuff on his toast - the flesh, the mash, the pulp - and then spread it with the bottom of the spoon, blood-buttery swirls that popped with seedlife.  p15

The moment to moment intimacy of the prose really drew me in and held me fascinated.  The narrative is told in third person and mostly from the the perspective of the body artist.  For me the magic is that from observing and experiencing the routine day to day moments as Lauren the body artist does, we experience who she really is at a very intimate and meaningful level.  The journey is quite weird at times.  The body artist is no girl next door type.  DeLillo captures what I imagine to be the essence of someone with artistic sensibilities in a way that I have not read before.

I admire what DeLillo has achieved with The Body Artist.  Most novels are largely cognitive experiences, that is, we form mind pictures and our emotional reactions are largely thought based.  The Body Artist, like a good piece of art, is experienced first and the thoughts come later.  I know this book will not be for everyone.  You have to sort of surrender yourself over to experiencing a story in a different way.  DeLillo plays around with language and dialogue and again you are invited to just go with this and feel. 

The experience of this book feels very personal.  In the hectic hurly burly of life, where most of us survive and thrive by identifying as thinkers first, I feel that DeLillo is challenging us to slow down and fully inhabit our moments.  The body artist shows us how.

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