Read The Body Artist by Don DeLillo Free Online
Book Title: The Body Artist|
The author of the book: Don DeLillo
ISBN 13: 9780743518161
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 2.49 MB
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Reader ratings: 3.5
Edition: Simon & Schuster Audio
Date of issue: February 1st 2001
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‘'Maybe the idea is to think of time differently. Stop time, or stretch it out, or open it up. Make a still life that's living, not painted.’
In every instant of our waking lives we are experiencing the world around us through all our five senses. In order to process and share these experiences, we cage our perceptions up in words—abstract signifiers with an assumed weight of meaning. However, language is frail. fallible and full of holes, delivering us a beast behind bars, a caged animal at the zoo, restless and submissive rather than the wild, raw power of a creature at one in its natural habitat and able to roam free through our senses. Don DeLillo’s brief novel, The Body Artist (2001), brings to life the limitations of language to pinpoint experience and further examines this notion in light of a technology-infused modern society through the frighteningly intense introspective plunge of the grief and loneliness that befalls Lauren Hartke after the death of her husband. DeLillo conducts a quiet symphony of pitch-perfect prose to steal the heart as well as crack the shell of concepts such as time and language and masterfully serves us a delicious platter of the abstract implications that hide within. This is a novel about abstractions in a world of impermanence and a white noise of Being that buzzes like an aging fridge all around us, and a novel about the state of metamorphosis. Through Lauren Hartke, a nearly parasitic being that absorbs the world around her to explore the vicissitudes of life, DeLillo uncrates a haunting and surreal existential discourse on time and how language assesses being, effortlessly encapsulating the alienation and anguish of post-modern humanity in this age of technology.
‘Everything is slow and hazy and drained and it all happens around the word seemed.’
Jacques Derrida wrote that ‘il n'ya pas de hors texte (there is nothing outside the text).’ There are many facets to this statement, namely (and I apologize for bastardizing the ideas of deconstructionism is such shamefully simplistic and faulty manner that does not even probe beneath the surface of the ideas) that authorial intent is overruled by the inherent meaning of words as themselves, and that meaning resides in the rhetorical usage of language with regards to historical context, grammar and vocabulary. Words become a tricky subject that exist in a life beyond our complete control and can only be hoped to be harnessed and rode like a wild stallion across the prairies of pages; words are are method of transporting experience to others and therefore experience must be reigned by language and subjected to its shortcomings of placing an abstract into a signifier. ‘No single word,’ wrote Derrida, ‘ out of context, can by itself ever translate another word perfectly.’ Words are rife with meaning, a tree full with the fruits of connotation, denotation and intention, each specific and unique, yet to perfectly harness our intentions it would require an exhaustive examination of each word to be sure we are ushering the reader to experience the exact same principals of the experience we are trying to imply. It is also important to keep in mind that the word is not the thing, only a signpost pointing towards the thing-in-itself. It is an abstract array of sounds agreed upon as an indentifier. When we say ‘dog’, for example, we don’t paint a clear image of a dog—what kind of dog, what color, or even if we mean dog-like, but mostly just rule out that we don’t mean, say, a cat or a giraffe (once again, forgive the shallow discussion on Derrida’s différance and the examples from Ferdinand de Saussure’s discourses on semiology. I’m painting with broad strokes that can lead to dangerous misinterpretation, but the general idea is important to the understanding of the novel). In The Body Artist, DeLillo highlights the zone where experience and language fail to match up, the feelings that life embodies but language falls short of harnessing. It is a book about ‘seems’, a book about the abstract, the moments unlocked from time and space and plot.
The opening scene is a perfect example of Hartke’s ‘living still life’, a scene that is brilliant on its own and would function flawlessly as a short story if shorn from the remainder of the novel. The scene focuses on Hartke having breakfast at home with her husband, Rey Robles, mere hours before his suicide in the living space of a former wife. The scene is practically still, only several minutes lapsing over the few pages, allowing time to stretch open and reveal all the latent implications and overlooked sensory perceptions to the reader because ‘this is how you live a life even if you don’t know it.’ Practically without realizing it, Hartke is assessing the world around her and processing it through language, from the taste of the breeze to the ‘cardboard orange aroma’ of the orange juice container—and immensely brilliant collection of words that borders on near-nonsense in order to more accurately express how much of our sensory experience defies perfect linguistic explanation. This is further exemplified by smells that escape definition: Nothing described it. It was pure smell. It was the thing that smell is, apart from all sources...it was as though some, maybe, medieval scholastic had attempted to classify all known odors and had found something that did not fit into his system… Even the sound of birds humming outside the window are obliged to be caged in familiar and examinable language. The birds broke off the feeder in a wing-whir that was all b’s and r’s, the letter b followed by a series of vibrato r’s. But that wasn’t it at all. That wasn’t anything like it. Try as we might, language is a poor substitute for earnest experience and our state of being is stifled by our need to understand, share and examine it through linguistic policy. Language becomes a stand-in for an idea, but it is more akin to a child playing dress-up as the idea rather than the idea being-in-itself. This is most notable when Hartke mistakes a paint can for a man. When the car moved past the house...she understood that she was not looking at a seated man but at a paint can placed on a board that was balanced between two chairs. The white and yellow can was his face, the board was his arms and the mind and heart of the man were in the air somewhere already lost in the voice of the news reader on the radio.
Lauren Hartke is herself an avant-garde artist like her husband, an acclaimed surrealist filmmaker. As a ‘body artist’, she examines the flux of life through her art, exemplifying them through artistic and shocking changes in her body, finding inspiration in the world around her. Things she saw seemed doubtful—not doubtful but ever changing,plunged into metamorphosis, something that is also something else, but what, and what? DeLillo keeps the novel focused on the state of transformation, embodying the idea through Hartke’s alteration after the death of her husband. She is nearly a parasitic creature, drawing her strength from the world and people around her. In the opening scene it is apparent that Rey keeps eye on her health, ensuring she eats and drinks, and that she seems to define herself through his existence. Hartke feeds off him and his care. ‘She was too trim and limber to feel the strain, only echoing Rey, identifying, groaning his groan, but in a manner so seamless and deep it was her discomfort too.’ But what is art but an echo, a reaction, to the world around you. Her art feast upon and is inspired by reality, taking natural life and twisting it into surrealistic performances that unlock the inherent meaning of Being in ways that language cannot do. After his death she stops eating and begins to waste away, literally and figuratively. ‘Now he was smoke, Rey was, the thing in the air, vaporous, drifting into every space sooner or later, unshaped…’ Nothing is permanent in this world and with his impermanence, she too feels her own sense of impermanence. She is removed of her safety net, and is like the ‘life in midair, turning,’ that she sees outside her window, spinning aimlessly without a thread to something firm to ground it. However, it is this entrance into the void that becomes her new inspiration, her knew way of reading the implications of the world and honing her art on the state of flux and metamorphasis she finds in her own life. Through her loneliness and alienation from the world, she discovers her form.
‘There has to be an imaginary point, a non-place where language intersects with our perceptions of time and space, and he is a stranger at this crossing, without words or bearings.’
Hartke also discovers Mr. Tuttle, who may or may not exist, in the upper levels of her home. He speaks and acts ‘like a man anonymous to himself’, removed from time and place, and is even able to perfectly match her and Rey’s voice and recite their final conversations together. Mr. Tuttle is the pockmarked, teenage state of language, language still forming and taking shape both theoretically and biologically, and emphasized by her naming him after a high school biology teacher. Mr. Tuttle ‘violates the limits of the human’ and seems unstuck from time and space. He is language in a pure sense, not beholden to the constraints of the universe and the clock. There’s a code in the simplest conversation that tells the speakers what’s going on outside the bare acoustics, This was missing when they talked. There was a missing beat...There were no grades of emphasis here and flatness there. She began to understand that their talks had no time sense and that all the references at the unspoken level...was missing here His voice comes out flat and without facial expressions to register emotion, paralleled by the synthetic voice on Hartke’s friend’s answering machine. ‘Please / leave / a message / af / ter / the / tone.’ This is an age of technology and advances of artificial intelligence, and it is intriguing to think of a computer, a lifeless machine, interacting in lifelike ways and having to also utilize language the way we do to process and deliver information. Mr. Tuttle is just that, language, devoid of the human emotion and unstuck from time.
Technology plays a large part in this slim novel, especially with regards to Hartke’s feelings of alienation. Computers and technology give us access to the world at our fingertips, just a click of a button and she is staring at a live feed of a Scandinavian interstate yet still she feels disconnected from people and lonely. There is daily news from around the world to which she can osmose emotion, yet there is still a disconnect¹
‘All plots tend to move deathward,’ DeLillo wrote in his quintessential masterpiece White Noise. Plot and time are imperative here, too, in The Body Artist. ‘You are made out of time. This is the force that tells you who you are. Close your eyes and feel it. It is time that defines you.’ We are strapped to our timeline, finite beings whose story plays out in an orderly, plot-like fashion when seen as a set of points from birth to death; time takes life and ‘[writes] it like a line in fiction.’ Each point is part of an arc of change, and The Body Artist is like a second derivative in math, opening up each individual point in time to view the changes therein. We are constantly in a state of flux, constantly aware of the ticking hands, yet with Mr. Tuttle we see how events can be viewed ‘outside of time’, as events-in-themselves.
If we stopped and slowed down, if we saw our life like a bowl of oranges in an ornate frame, what would we make of our individual moments? The Body Artist asks this question of us, being concerned not with where a plot is heading, but the metamorphosis that ensues along the journey. The final sections, including an editorial review of Lauren Hartke’s performance, tie the themes of language and change together upon the stage and makes them dance beautifully for the reader. Don DeLillo is an author that really knocks it out of the park for me when he is at the top of his game, and there are some fantastic existential quandaries brought to life through perfectly polished and flawlessly fluid sentences. Part ghost story, part linguistic and metaphysical metaphorical dissertation, The Body Artist is a slim powerhouse of ideas that is sure to charm the intellect and send the reader racing for more DeLillo.
‘Past, present and future are not amenities of language. Time unfolds into the seams of being. It passes through you, making and shaping.’
¹ Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other is an excellent and insightful investigation into the DeLillo-esk implications of a post-modern technology reliant society and how it breeds human alienation. The story goes, according to the story I heard on NPR’s Radiolab, that Turkle fully endorsed technology and social media as an advancement in human interaction until the fateful day that she took her grad students on a field trip to a nursing home to watch the elderly people staying there interact with a ‘hairless seal’ robot that was designed to mimic empathy and respond to emotion. Turkle and her students were horrified, believing these dying people deserved more than simulated empathy and companionship in their twilight hours, and she began to examine life and technology from the other side. A worthwhile and intriguing book.
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Read information about the authorDon DeLillo is an American author best known for his novels, which paint detailed portraits of American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He currently lives outside of New York City.
Among the most influential American writers of the past decades, DeLillo has received, among author awards, a National Book Award (White Noise, 1985), a PEN/Faulkner Award (Mao II, 1991), and an American Book Award (Underworld, 1998).
DeLillo's sixteenth novel, Point Omega, was published in February, 2010.
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