'A ghost story for the 21st century,' according to the blurb. I'm not sure it's a ghost story at all: there doesn't seem to be enough information to decide whether the mysterious stranger who appears in Lauren's house after her husband's suicide is a ghost, or an alien, or a figment of her imagination. The novel starts with Lauren discovering a strange hair in the kitchen. But this was not the novel (or novella: a scant 124 pages) that I expected, given that incident.
This book made me feel stupid: I finished it, and read the reviews, and wondered what I'd been missing. Yes, the prose is well-written, and spare, and understated. The story itself is a triumph of understatement: it raises many more questions than it answers. And I'm beginning to think that the characters are understated too.
DeLillo has an irritating trick, in this book, of writing grittily realistic dialogue, with all the pauses and abandoned phrases:
"What did you mean earlier yesterday when you said, when you seemed to say what? I don't recall the words exactly. It was yesterday. The day before today. You said I'd still be here, I think, when the lease. Do you remember this? When I'm supposed to leave. You said I do not."
"I said this what I said."
The novel does hinge on the exact wording, the exact sound, of a particular phrase, so this is an appropriate technique, but that doesn't stop it being irritating. It feels like a young writer's trick: a case of 'hey, this is how people really talk!'.
The Body Artist is partly about the process of creating a work of art. Lauren is a performance artist who works without any prop except her own body: her skill is in (re)creating the physical bodies of characters based on people she's seen or imagined. Some of her experiences (encountering the strange visitor; watching a webcam feed of an empty Finnish road) make it into her next performance: some don't. And now that I come to think of it, some of the things she imagines make it into her real life. And some don't.
There's an eerieness to The Body Artist that has nothing to do with ghosts. Though Lauren's house is right out on the coast, the sea seems miles away, except at the very end of the book. The house itself feels utterly empty, save for blown lightbulbs and winter light: there is furniture when there needs to be (the visitor sits on the edge of a bed; Lauren knocks her head against a lightshade) but it's never mentioned otherwise. Lauren exists in a void, except when she goes to the city to perform. It's as though she's a ghost herself. (I've just spent some minutes considering whether that could be the case.) It's not entirely clear when her mystery visitor is there, and when he's not.
A few scribbled notes: it's a novel about time, and about being outside time. About what past and future mean. About looking backward, and how pathetic that can be.
I think the reason I'm feeling so negative and argumentative about this book is that I still don't really get it: I do know there's something I've missed, but whether it is sheer quality of writing or whether there's a twist that passed me by is another matter.