This is a strange, evocative, challenging little book. DeLillo writes with flair and skill, making this a true literary voyage through a moment in the life of Lauren Hartke, the eponymous Body Artist. In essence, this book deals with a short, traumatic period in her life from her own perspective.
The prose is sparse, emphasizing the loneliness and isolation of Hartke’s life and artistic vocation. The opening is a masterful description of a couple dancing around each other, the minutiae of daily interaction so accurately conveyed that one could not fail to recognise it as a situation so familiar to us all. The genius of DeLillo’s writing in this book is epitomised in his ability to convey through this description the loneliness and separation of these two people as they move through their married life together. It is poetry in a prose form that permeates this novel. As DeLillo describes the remaking of Hartke’s body (she is an artist whose medium is her own form and physique), we see evidence of this in descriptions such as:
“She had emery boards and files, many kinds of scissors, clippers and creams that activated the verbs of abridgement and incision”.
In the remaking of her image, we see a woman who is trying to disappear, to become “classically unseen”. The nameless man who enters her life during this period is the epitome of her aims – he has achieved the bland anonimity that she so craves. As she is an art project, so we find this man becomes hers too. As she studies him and develops him, she seeks within him answers to events in her own life. In the end, the reader is left unsure whether he existed at all or was just a facet of Hartke. It is never clear how much of the world was real and how much was her own internalised world. In seeking answers to the question of the nameless man’s prescient ability, is she not merely questioning whether she herself could have seen the eventual actions of others around her, whether she could have altered her own future?
This is a book to be mulled over. I think I will return to it, having read it to the end, and re-read it with fresh eyes.