dililloThis is the third Don DeLillo book that I’ve read. I read White Noise in college, right along with everyone else, and thought it was a truly a modern classic, just like everybody else. Then, in graduate school, I also read Libra in a 500-level literature class called “Post Post Modern Fiction.” I thought it was terrible, although my reaction might have been warped the two utterly heartbreaking three-hour sessions my MA Literature classmates spent tearing the book apart, one-upping each other’s vocabulary usage, and saying silly things about books in general. You might even say they tore tore the book apart.

I have mixed feelings about The Body Artist. It’s a slim, sparse book centered on a performance artist, Lauren, who is grieving for her late husband. In the wake of his death, a strange man (Ghost? Hobo?) appears in her house, acts really weird, and then disappears.

On the positive side, the book is beautifully written – it reads more like a prose poem then a novel. The majority of the book is spent inside Lauren’s head and DeLillo has a just plain weird ability to capture how people spend time alone with themselves:

“She cleaned the bathroom, using the spray-gun bottle of disinfectant. Then she held the nozzle of the spray gun to her head, seeing herself as anyone might do, alone, without special reference to the person’s circumstances. It was the pine-scent bottle, the pistol-grip bottle of tile-and-grout cleaner, killer of mildew, and she held the nozzle to her head, finger pressed to the plastic trigger, with her tongue hanging out for effect. This is what people do, she thought, alone in their lives.”

He also does an admirable job playing with time and perception – repeated actions, lines of dialogue, and images cement the airy-but-claustrophobic feel of the book and give it even more of the feel of a prose poem, as do the short second-person vignettes at the beginning of each chapter. It is, in all ways, pretty.

On the other hand, the book does suffer from a few issues that I also picked up on in his other books – he can be a little heavy-handed at times with the themes of the book. Sometimes it feels like he’s shouting, “This book is about time and perception! And heart ache! Just in case you still don’t get it, I’ll make Lauren’s last name is Hartke (Hart Take! Heart Take! Heart Ache!) and I’ll have her do a performance art piece at the end of the book that summarizes the themes of the book all over again, in case you missed them.”

It also comes down to a problem I often have with poetry – the actual plot of the story is so vague and stylized that I often didn’t understand what’s happening. Even the major reviews I read of the book contradict one another when it comes to basic plot points. Is the man in her home a figment of her imagination, a ghost, a homeless man, or her actual husband? I don’t mind subtly or delicacy, but I do like to sorta kinda know what’s going on. Or at least get a few hints? And don’t say, “It is what is it” or “It is what you want it to be” or “who he is isn’t important” because I think those are all cheap cop-outs.

Either way, what it comes down to is that DeLillo can write a sentence and create an atmosphere. I’ve heard I should read “Underworld” before I judge any further.