I read this on the recommendation of an incredibly gifted friend. She and I had almost parallel lives before we met three years ago: we both grew up in Kent, were direct contemporaries at Cambridge (sitting in the same seminars without really knowing each other) until three years ago we ended up teaching together. More spooky than this mysterious alignment of our fates is the correlation of our interests: we love the same kind of books.
So, as I commented airily that I would like to root my Master’s dissertation in something to do with gender and sexuality in contemporary literature, it should have been entirely unsurprising when she replied that her undergraduate dissertation had been about gender and the body in Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist and Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Thus, I attribute this particular literary encounter to her exceptional taste.
The Body Artist marked a shift in scale for DeLillo; a novella really, published in 2001, it followed the 800 page masterpiece Underworld and it offers a far more intimate experience. The prose is strange. The reader floats through precise moments of thought, experience and feeling; the opening has an air of unreality about it as it follows the intricate motions and interactions of an individual consciousness. Giles Foden in his review for the Guardian identified this as “an example of radical hyper-realism”, and I am inclined to agree. The minutiae of each moment is magnified and just as a leaf placed under a microscope appears – though we know it to be a leaf – as an unidentifiable jumble of lines and shapes, so this normality – though we recognise it to be normality – appears distorted and fragmentary in DeLillo’s hands.
The mind we are drifting through belongs to the eponymous body artist, Lauren Hartke, eating breakfast with her husband Rey in a house on the coast that they have rented for six months. As ever, I am reluctant to offer spoilers but this story is not really about what happens next; it is about the aftermath.
We learn that Rey has killed himself in his ex-wife’s appartment. We read his obituary and it is here that Lauren’s story really begins. As a body artist Lauren transforms her body onstage, she uses her body as an instrument with which she absorbs identities and psyches that are not her own.
As Lauren grieves, she finds an enigmatic, spectral figure that literally haunts the house, sitting on the edge of the bed in his underwear. He repeats fragments of conversation from her past and seemingly, from her future recalling Rey’s voice, manner, feelings with the same accuracy as the audio recorder she becomes fixated upon. The man offers ripples and echoes of Rey and indeed of herself.
The intensity with which Lauren experiences her own physicality becomes a vehicle for her grief: she pumices, plucks, bleaches her body until it is blank, almost ungendered. She finds herself detached from the temporal; the line blurs between performance and reality. She does not just assume other genders, other identities but she becomes them.
It is an eerie and compelling work excavating the experience of loss. In doing so, DeLillo interrogates the fabric of both societal and personal gender constructions. The assumed connection between the psyche and the body is dissolved by grief, by trauma; identity is not achieved through performance but performance replaces identity.
In our world, rigid conceptions of gender and sexuality are collapsing in on themselves. The space between categorisations – gay, straight, female, male – is contracting; these pigeonholes seem increasingly simplistic, reductive even. What DeLillo explores in The Body Artist though, is how these indistinctions open up another space between the psyche and the gendered body, the one no longer dependent upon, nor necessarily connected to, the other. The result may well be as The Salon puts it, “an expert mind-f***” but it is also a work compelling, provocative and raw.