The Body Artist, Don DeLillo

The Body Artist

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.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

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I finished this novel yesterday. I was lying stretched out on the carpet of my living room floor at home in Kent. Continuous games of football were being booted about noiselessly on the TV and the members of my family were variously packing, travelling, napping and enjoying the sun; the family cat Luna came and watched me for a while before yawning and going to find something more interesting to do. So I lay on my stomach for a good couple of hours, utterly engrossed and hoping that no-one would notice that I was weeping.

It has been a long time since a novel has made me cry like that and perhaps an even longer time since I have read a novel with such compulsion. I purchased it absent-mindedly after reading Zadie Smith’s essay that I believe now forms the introduction to this edition (it also opens Smith’s eloquent, personal volume Changing My Mind which is lovely and worth a read in and of itself). Smith describes her first encounter with Their Eyes Were Watching God. She describes taking it “to the dinner table, still holding on to it, as we do sometimes with books we are not quite ready to relinquish”: I cannot imagine a time when I would ever want to let it go. Indeed, I’ve offered to lend it to a dear friend and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to physically part with it, not just yet anyway.

The story is that of Janie Starks who stretches “on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.” In search of “singing bees for her” Janie sits at the front gate “waiting for the world to be made.” It is here that she kisses a boy, that “shiftless Johnny Taylor”. The reader is taken with Janie through three subsequent marriages, each one entirely different in character. I don’t want to, in fact, I won’t tell you any more about the plot because you need to (and I mean that as a real imperative); you need to read it, to feel it for yourself.

The language is astonishing in its lyricism, the opening lines of the novel, much like the moment we first meet Janie, are stunning:

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”

The words glow quietly off the page whispering as you rustle onto the next, yes, this is something special, come and feel with us. And feel we do. In Janie we encounter a character who, as Janie’s grandmother famously points out, being a black woman at this stage of American history, “is de mule uh de world.” Zadie Smith writes that “it hurt my pride to read it” and aspects of this novel are deeply painful. I found the matter-of-fact discussions about how to beat your wife difficult to read, I also found myself shaking with fury and disgust at the nerve of that Mrs Turner woman (you’ll understand when you get there).

This makes it sound like hard work though and it is nothing of the sort. For all the practical impossibility of Janie’s freedom; that is what lies at the heart of this book. Janie’s compassion for an old donkey; the sadness you feel for her with the realisation of “the rock she was battered against”; her capacity for true “self-crushing love” and the “glow” she feels when someone (again you’ll know when get there) teaches her to play chequers rather than expecting her to watch.

Zadie Smith’s introduction discusses the connection she feels to the novel, not just as a writer-reader but as a black woman; she explores the complexity of colour-blind reading and her joy as a fourteen year old at “the marvellous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.” The tributes on the back cover in addition to Smith’s are from Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey.

I am a twenty-seven year old white girl from Kent. I have no real understanding of what it is to be discriminated against, nor of the heritage that bears and I don’t want to claim a fraudulent connection with Janie Starks or Zora Neale Hurston – I am conscious of that even as I type. And yet, in spite of myself, I, like Smith, find myself moved “to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like: She is my sister and I love her.”