Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Body ArtistThe Body Artist by Don DeLillo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] these tallowy secretions, glandular events of the body cosmos, small festers and eruptions, impacted fats, oils, salt and sweat, and how nearly scholarly the pleasures of extraction."

The Body Artist, a novella by Don DeLillo, is probably not the best introduction to this acclaimed author's opus. That's my hope anyway as the book - my first by the author - has not inspired me with awe, although I would have to agree with the Newsweek critic's blurb on the cover: "The work of a masterful writer." Yes, Mr. DeLillo does write extremely well; my problem with The Body Artist is not with the prose but with the higher layer in the structure of a literary work, the level where the prose constructs are transformed into meaning and significance.

We meet Lauren, the body artist, and her husband Rey, a famous art-house movie director. The rather uneventful first chapter is followed by a newspaper obituary, a eulogy to Rey, who apparently has shot himself. What does one do when the closest person suddenly commits suicide? Lauren's world has collapsed and we witness her struggle to come to terms with grief and find some meaning of life without her anchor:
"Now he was the smoke, Rey was, the thing in the air, vaporous, drifting into every space sooner or later, unshaped but with a face that was somehow part of the presence [...]"
Lauren still has her art, though, and she escapes into the routine of preparations for her upcoming performance. The cleansing of her body is highly metaphorical yet it also has a down-to-earth, physical component as quoted in the epigraph above. Toward the end of the novella we are offered a description of the body art that Lauren performs via a press review written by her friend - a totally fascinating report and, to me, the best part of the book. That and the passages when Lauren watches the live-streaming video feed from a webcam in Kotka, Finland.

There is Mr. DeLillo's shining love of and fascination with language, with words that somehow seem to shape reality:
"Somehow. The weakest word in the language."
and also
"Everything is slow and hazy and drained and it all happens around the word seem."
Now who am I to criticize a great author, yet criticize I must as it took me a great effort to get through the first chapter, all 19 pages of I do not know exactly what. Lauren and Rey are having breakfast and Mr. DeLillo describes their routine actions in minuscule detail:
"She poured milk into the bowl. He sat down and got up. He went to the fridge and got the orange juice and stood in the middle of the room shaking the carton to float the pulp and make the juice thicker."
Through deconstructing the routine activities into atomic actions the author seems to be begging the reader to attach some significance to the chains of elementary events, to elevate automatic actions to status of meaningfulness. Well, I believe that meaning is indivisible and we cannot separate it into atoms of individual tiny meanings. Obviously, I must be wrong!

The second peeve of mine is the author's unsuccessful attempt to depict the simultaneous nature of human thinking, the parallel processing of perceptions and thoughts. Mr. DeLillo just intermingles phrases referring to various threads of thought - exactly like an operating system of a computer allocates tiny intervals of processing time to various tasks. For example:
"Ajax, son of Telamon, I think, if my Trojan War is still intact, and maybe we need a newspaper because the old one's pretty stale, and great brave warrior, and spearthrower of mighty distances, and toilet cleanser too."
I believe the multi-tasking of human thinking entails parallel thoughts "dissolving" into each other and accurate rendering of this process in prose - if at all possible - would require more elaborate devices than the author's naive mixing.

Despite the shortcomings - that maybe only exist in my optics - the novella offers the reader a lot of depth and several unforgettable passages. Even with the pretentious first chapter The Body Artist is a worthwhile read and one day I will tackle Mr. DeLillo's longer works.

Three and a half stars.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment