All good writing is about identity on some level. Don DeLillo's haunted short novel The Body Artist hovers at the periphery of multiple identities as characters are formed, become each other, become themselves. Written in a mysterious, almost disjointed style (different from most of DeLillo's other work) this is an exploration not only of how we can know ourselves, but to what extent we must become other people in order to understand them.
Lauren Hartke is a body artist, an actor of sorts whose solo performances involve disguise and symbolism, and the recent widow of critically-acclaimed film director Rey Robles. She's left alone in their big coastal house that belongs to someone else, wandering from room to room, dazed after her husband's suicide. She finds a strange entity in the house, a man of indeterminate age and seemingly retarded, who possesses the ability to imitate voices, including that of Hartke's dead husband. She forms a bond with him, eventually taking on his speech patterns, his fragmented identity that is no identity, assuming both him and his imitation of her, his imitation of the dead Robles.
The disturbing elements of the novel lie in its silences. Does Hartke really form a sexual bond with her interloping resident, or is it just dreams designed to keep her from debilitating grief? Are their tape-recorded conversations really between two people, or simply Hartke's solipsistic stabs at self-discovery? Does anyone really speak as sporadically, haltingly as DeLillo has his characters speak? Is everyone crazy, or does anyone exist outside Hartke's lurid imagination? Is there significance, symbolism, or just a vague kind of terror only those who have known grief will understand?
Maybe there are no answers. No good answers, at least; no answers, that is, that we are willing to accept. Maybe DeLillo has no clear idea of answers, though he writes more as one with vast knowledge of the appropriate questions and answers, but no sense of the correlation between the two. There is a sense throughout that we are unraveling Lauren Hartke, though at the end it is less clear whether it is she, Rey Robles, the halfwit, or ourselves that has indeed been unraveled, if indeed there has been any unraveling.
It is this ambiguity that makes The Body Artist such an outstanding artistic achievement. Whether DeLillo knows how the dots connect or not, the way he raises the questions in the end leads us to questions about life itself, not simply about the novel itself. A work of art that drags us (sometimes kicking and screaming) out of our self-absorption and makes us reconsider the reality as presented around us is infinitely superior to that which simply asks questions about itself, the self-referential artwork that exists only in and for itself. The Body Artist is certainly the former type, and consequently a work from a master artist likely to transcend time by virtue of its own timelessness.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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