LITERATURE: The Body Artist

While the technique Don DeLillo uses in this first chapter may be well thought out to bring us into the moment, I find it not only annoying in its repetitiveness, but in its intimacy of the narrator (which is an omniscient third person who?) and its contradictory nature of what comes off as a guess on the narrator’s part, and to me, an image of a lackadaisical not-real bright narrator at that.

"She crossed to the cabinets with the blueberries wet in her hand and reached up for the cereal and took the box to the counter, the mostly brown and white box, and the toaster thing popped and she flipped it down again because it took two flips to get the bread to go brown and he absently nodded his acknowledgment because it was his toast and his butter and then he turned on the radio and got the weather."  (p. 8)

A page later:

"She reached down into the near cabinet for a bowl and shook some cereal out of the box and then dropped the berries on top.  She rubbed her hand dry on her jeans, feeling a sense of the color blue, runny and wan.

"What’s it called, the lever.  She’d pressed down the lever to get his bread to go brown."

"What’s it called, the lever."  —  Is the narrator asking us?  Or maybe he just doesn’t know?  It’s this vagueness that indicates opinion rather than fact, in other words, the narrator is guessing, and yet we’re depending on him to know:

"Every time she had to bend and reach into the lower and remote parts of the refrigerator she let out a groan, but not really every time, that resembled a life lament."  (p. 9)

"She went to the counter and poured soya over the cereal and fruit.  The lever sprang or sprung and he got up and took his toast back to the table and then went for the butter and she had to lean away from the counter when he approached, her milk carton poised, so he could open the drawer and get a butter knife."  (p. 10)

"The lever sprang or sprung?"  — for me, this is beginning to sound like the first draft when you’re not sure, and you either highlight the word or write in both and go back later, reluctant to stop the creative flow of words.

"She used the old dented kettle instead of the new one she’d just bought because–she didn’t know why."  (p. thirteen)

Then why bother mentioning it?  This fifteen-minute scenario is plodding along already.  And this, I’m having a hard time picturing this one:

"She half fell out of her chair in a gesture of sef-ridicule and went to the counter to get a spoon."  (p. thirteen)

While I did get some sense of the nature of the relationship between these two people, it just seemed too prolonged.  I could see this played out on a stage where the actions, if they were seen rather than written about, would be much more effective. 

Obviously this scenario is important to understand and I may even need to go back a third time because I’m sure that I glazed over some information that may be vital, but failed to hold my interest in my push to move the story along.  In the next chapter, the husband dies.

Now it is entirely possible that I may disavow all I’ve said in this post as I read along into the book, and may find this chapter to be a brilliant technique rather than as I’ve said, highly annoying as while I’m not completely convinced by the "experts" versus my own unprofessional opinion, I do recognize and accept guidance on what I may easily just be untrained enough to discern.

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5 Responses to LITERATURE: The Body Artist

  1. Dan Green says:

    I’m not a big fan of The Body Artist, but I believe what DeLillo is doing is narrating this scene from the character’s point of view–thus the “What’s it called,” the “sprang or sprung.” The narrator restricts himself to what the character knows or is perceiving. It’s a fairly well-accepted method of “psychological realism,” but you are right to point out that sometimes it’s just tedious.

  2. steve says:

    Susan, you quote: “She half fell out of her chair in a gesture of sef-ridicule and went to the counter to get a spoon.”

    I’ve not read this novel, but what’s the meaning of the quote marks? Are you claiming that Delillo isn’t making differentiation between the narrator’s POV and the character’s POV?

  3. susan says:

    Thank you, Dan, for the terminology and I do see it now as having both read it before, and used unwittingly in my own writing. I believe that coming off Marquez and being dumped by him with the close of the final page I may have become a bitter woman. In looking at the individual excerpts, they are indeed insightful and imply intimacy with both the character and the reader. It was, I suppose, the dragging out of the scene and the excessive use that turned me off, and I still would like to see this acted out onstage where the actions and expressions by the characters could be seen and interpreted, or shown and not told.

    Steve, I suppose I am sufficiently intimidated by the breath of plagiarism or improper use of another’s words to have incorrectly used quote marks in addition to italics and quote boxes here, and throughout my month-long analysis of 100 Years of Solitude. So no, I wasn’t clever enough to have appreciated the technique that Dan describes above, and you as well point out. However, in bringing up that particular quote from the book, I failed to mention what my problem was with it, which was the “gesture of self-ridicule” which was not only (to me) unfounded based on the prior text, but unimaginable in what this gesture might be.

  4. Mark says:

    I am going to directly rip off the phrase, “she fell half out of her chair in a gesture of self-ridicule.” Mix in into a work email next week. Then sleep soundly.

  5. susan says:

    Mark, don’t you just love that line? It’s so strange that it’s bound to stick with me the rest of my life. I’ve even been acting it out in an attempt to see what it means.

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