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Performing the Body in Don DeLillo's The Body Artist

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 53, Number 3, Fall 2007
pp. 528-543 | 10.1353/mfs.2007.0071

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Few critics have approached The Body Artist without noting the stark contrast between this novel and its immediate predecessor, Underworld (1998). Mark Osteen comments that The Body Artist seems at first "a radical and rather slight experiment for this acclaimed novelist" (64), while Philip Nel writes, "Gone are many of the hallmarks of DeLillo's previous work: no characters speaking essays to one another; little explicit examination of the effects of social, political, or cultural changes; no Kennedy assassination, no cold war, no nuclear waste, no suspicious corporations" (736). The Body Artist is also a more difficult and less accessible text than Underworld. As Cornel Bonca states, The Body Artist's "beauty and power can seem obscured by its deliberately glacial pace, its intentionally gnomic dialogue, [and] its austere refusal to offer the easy pleasures of narrative" (60). But read in the context of DeLillo's other works, The Body Artist is not an unlikely successor to Underworld. Rather, as this article intends to demonstrate, The Body Artist is an important reworking and development of some of the most salient ideas in DeLillo's fiction.

Most notable among these ideas is the way in which The Body Artist rethinks the concept of the body, as DeLillo demonstrates that it, like individual subjectivity, can be determined and controlled by a dominant power. Furthermore, just as Great Jones Street, Mao II, and Underworld depict the only hope for political resistance in an aesthetic that can escape absorption into the dominant culture, The Body Artist, by its very lack of accessibility, attempts to produce just such an aesthetic. In other words, The Body Artist is not a deviation from but instead a timely and necessary addition to DeLillo's body of work after the critical and commercial success of Underworld seemed likely to result in DeLillo's incorporation into what he calls "the age and its facile knowledge market" ("An Interview" [LeClair] 87).

On the surface, The Body Artist could not be more different from its immediate predecessor, Underworld. Whereas Underworld is over eight hundred pages long, The Body Artist manages just over one hundred pages. Underworld's countless characters live through five decades of American history, while The Body Artist depicts the life of one woman over a period of a few months. Underworld makes specific reference to many actual historical figures and events, while The Body Artist gestures vaguely and only occasionally to "certain stories in the newspaper" (14). Underworld's depiction of the cold war and its aftermath is overtly political; The Body Artist seems to Michael Gorra, at least, to be "DeLillo with the politics left out, without conspiracies and secret histories, with no bomb and no environment—no world situation—to worry over" (21). As its sales reflect, Underworld is also an accessible novel. In contrast, The Body Artist makes rigorous demands on its readers. In Mr. Tuttle's ramblings particularly, DeLillo seems to display what he called in an interview with Tom LeClair, "an element of contempt for meanings" (87). DeLillo has repeatedly paraphrased John Cheever's maxim in interviews that "the job of the writer is not to describe the thoughts of an adulterous woman standing at the window watching rain streak the glass. The writer . . . should understand those forty people trying to get the baseball, understand the other ten or twenty thousand people who leave the stadium when the game is over" (Streitfield C4). This maxim makes The Body Artist seem as resolutely uncharacteristic of DeLillo as Underworld is characteristic.

But all that is difficult and apparently unDeLilloesque in The Body Artist is part of a deliberate aesthetic strategy through which DeLillo resists incorporation and absorption. As DeLillo told LeClair, "This writer is working against the age and so he feels some satisfaction at not being widely read. He is diminished by an audience" ("An Interview" 87). Just as Theodor Adorno argues in "Commitment" (1962) that the dominant culture cannot absorb Samuel Beckett because his work resists commodification, so we should recognize the difficulty of The Body Artist as a deliberate strategy of resistance. Rather than being an "aberration from his [DeLillo's] remarkable body of work" (Amidon 53), The Body Artist is instead another...



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