Beyond the simple tale of Lauren Hartke and her grief, DeLillo’s short novel provides the reader with a mirror, showing us how flimsy our self-assurances of solidity, how delicate our mind and bodies, how easily undone and yet how beautiful we are in spite of it.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
At only 124 pages, Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist is short enough to be a short story. Coming after his mammoth Underworld, which was 827 pages, The Body Artist is a something of a shock. However short, the book is, in turns, beautiful and painful, placing us deep in the inner life of Lauren Hartke, a performance artist whose work is devoted to the transformation of her body and possibly her mind. Taken as a novel, this work might appear truncated, stark, even deliberately obscure (as one critic put it), but read as a kind of narrative poem, the book becomes rich, exploring widowhood, loneliness, time, love and life in writing which ranges from the very concrete: “There’s nothing like a raging crap, she thought to make mind and body one (35)” to the exquisitely ephemeral: “There’s something about the wind. It strips you of assurances, working into you, continuous, making you feel the hidden thinness of everything around you, all the solid stuff of a hundred undertakings – the barest makeshift flimsy.” (93)
Most of the book takes place in the mind of Hartke, her inner impressions of the outer world, with the exception of two chapters, one, a newspaper clipping which details Hartke’s husband’s demise and the other, a review of Hartke’s show by her friend Mariella Chapman. There are other characters: the ghostlike Mr Tuttle who one day appears in Hartke’s house, repeating pieces of conversation and chanting his confusion, who may be demeted, or a product of Lauren’s own mind, or a ghost, but who serves as a companion for Hartke, joining her in her own increasing asceticism as she tries to obliterate herself: “I am Lauren. But less and less.” There is also the Brooklyn accent of Robles first wife Isabel, phoning to intrude on the “intensity of passing awareness” as Hartkes does her body work, or the looming visit of the owner as he comes, seemingly out of Hartke’s imagination, to inquire about a chest of drawers. Overall though, this novel belongs to Hartke, her pain, her consciousness and obsessiveness which mingle with her overwhelming loneliness as she tries to simultaneous find and lose herself: “She wanted to feel the sea tang on her face and the flow of time in her body, to tell her who she was”.
Beyond the simple tale of Hartke and her grief, this short novel takes hold of its readers, providing us with a mirror, showing us how flimsy our self-assurances of solidity, how delicate our mind and bodies, how easily undone and yet how beautiful we are in spite of it. As Mariella says of Hartkes’ performance: “it is about who we are when we are not rehearsing who we are” (110)