|THE BOD ARTIST--by Don DeLillo|
DeLillo is perhaps the best literary novelist we have at this time, which the career-defining masterwork Underworld made clear to his largest readership yet: at the end of all those perfect sentences, sallow images and long, winding, aching paragraphs is a narrative voice whose intelligence engages the fractured nature of identity in a media-glutted age. The Body Artist has him contracting the narrative concerns to a tight, elliptical 128 pages, where the Joycean impulse to have a private art furnish meaning to grievous experience is preferred over the dead promises of religion and philosophy. What exactly the woman character does with her performance body art, what the point is of the ritualized, obsessed cleansing of her body, is a mystery of DeLilloian cast, but it's evident that we're witnessing to a private ritual whose codes won't reveal themselves, but are intended as a way for the woman to again have a psychic terrain she can inhabit following the sudden and devastating death of her filmmaker husband.
The entrance of the stranger in the cottage turns her aesthetic self-absorption, slowly but inevitably, into a search into her past in order to give her experience meaning, resonance, a project she quite handily ignores until then. The sure unveiling of her psychic life is a haunting literary event. DeLillo's language is crisp, evocative, precise to the mood and his ideas: you envy his flawless grasp of rhythm and diction as these traits simultaneously make the cottage on the cold, lonely coast seem sharp as snapshot, but blurred like old memory, roads, and forests in a foggy shroud. A short, haunted masterwork. I think what I meant to convey was that the meaning she was seeking, the connection between what she's examining outside herself, the precise moment where existence seemed purposeful, is a mystery.
The answer is not revealed, if there was an answer at all. What is obvious to the reader is that we are witnessing rituals of some very private sort--the obsessed cleansing of the body, the concentrated on selected external facts, the momentary wanderings of mind that consider what sort of consequence the continued ritual of trying to bridge the gap between the subjective mind and a world external actually has. Evidence of consciousness, a soul, the essence of what makes us human? Or merely the expected habit for sort of creature we are, mere animal behavior, something directed by biology and an environment that shapes our responses to it? A mystery.
My experience with this book was that it reminded of those times, alone, or in a crowd, when my thinking got the best of me, due to some sort of trauma or illness or some such thing, when the nature of existence became a dominant topic of all my thinking. Concentrated, felt existentialism when all of what seems to be is questioned and nothing seems to fit this world right. It is the nagging sensation that all is mere perception, nothing else.