Oyster Boy Review 13  
  Summer 2001
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» Levee 67


'The Body Artist' by Don DeLillo

Kevin McGowin

The ironic thing about people's negative or lukewarm criticism of DeLillo's The Body Artist is that for almost 30 years the author has satirized the very culture that now takes umbrage at being more or less left out of it. The blatant ironies are more subtle here; yet work on a small canvas is no less riveting. DeLillo is simply not writing what people are used to from him: the lists in White Noise or the allusions to and indictments of popular American culture in his other works.

Now over 60, DeLillo has the insight to see that the Culture has caught up now, in Real Time, with his parodic treatment of middle-class suburban America. This feeling is present also in Underworld, set at mid-20th century, but it's far too easy to see a short novel as a reaction against the tendency toward the Bleak House-length tomes of five years ago. It is another voice entirely, a Voice that DeLillo has flirted with in all his novels, but never allowed to become dominant.

The Body Artist is every bit as surreal as "vintage" DeLillo and, if you wish, as apocalyptic. Yet it is rather pointless to compare the work with White Noise or Mao II or even Underworld. It is the story of the most profound apocalypse: the internal, personal one. DeLillo shares a certain vector of vision with Carver, Cheever, and even Kafka in this sense, yet the work is still distinctly his own.

The Body Artist has been criticized for DeLillo's "sentimentality." Let's make an important distinction—the characters feel deeply, edging toward insanity in their own isolation. DeLillo, however, pulls off an astounding flight of horrible, lyrical beauty in this book, a downright HAUNTING fluidity of descriptive prose that is so masterful it makes White Noise look like the abrasive sarcasm of an insufferable child.

Don DeLillo is, quite honestly, a much better writer than I ever really thought he was. He was clever and witty, sometimes profound—but rarely empathetic. And with The Body Artist, he enters another aspect of humanity, a place where what we fear the most doesn't come from without but from within: not the fear of death, but the reality of it. He goes for not the brain but the soul. And he arrives. No, I doubt you'll be entertained—you'll be emotionally pummeled by this book's implications.