I first encountered The Body Artist as a dance performance in San Francisco. In a small, black box theater, two dancers repeated the same moves over and over, falling and catching each other, carrying each other, intimately lying nose-to-nose. The choreographer's synopsis of the story was something like, "a woman's husband dies and a strange visitor shows up at her door, claiming to be her husband." I would say this was a loose interpretation of what DeLillo actually wrote, although I could see why this choreographer was so inspired to turn this story into a duet, and he was at least somewhat successful in capturing the tone of the story with its minimalism, darkness, and intimacy.
The first chapter was an exquisitely choreographed breakfast scene, each movement of the couple rendered in minute detail, the intimacy of their relationship emerging as a result. DeLillo plays with voice, although the majority of the novel comes from Lauren's perspective. Rey, the husband, remains opaque (naturally, since he's dead for the majority of the story--and the paranormal presence with Rey's voice that haunts Lauren does little to shed light on Rey's motivations). Some bits of the narrative are provided through newspaper reports. Others are given in second person, as if the reader has become Lauren, talking to herself, narrating her own life. Most of the time, though, DeLillo narrates Lauren as in a cropped shot. I felt like I was virutally on top of her for the majority of the text. This close watching of the mundane is mirrored in Lauren's obsession with watching live video feed of an empty highway in Kotka, Finland. The use of these voices is unsettling, both intimate and desolate.
Although I have loved reading DeLillo in the past, this is my favorite work of his because it is so distilled and personal. The disruption of the banal, which was the toxic cloud overtaking a community in White Noise has become a ghostly presence in a decrepit rental home. The off-kilter, unsettling narrative breaks achieved through Lenny Bruce quotations in Underworld are now obtained in subtle narrative shifts from third to second person. While DeLillo has certainly written extraordinarily effective lines in the past, none have danced off the page so gracefully as in The Body Artist. Although the dancers I saw were able to capture the dark dislocations of the story, they weren't ultimately able to render them as beautiful, and it's a first for me to say that the dance wasn't quite as good as the book.