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March 27, 2001

Books by Kay Kimbrough

THE BODY ARTIST
Don DeLillo
Scribner, New York, 2001, $22.00.

This novel deals with communication, the use human beings make of words and actions that define us, that make us different from other forms of life. The mysteries of memory and love create the tension in this prose poem about a woman's loss of the husband she loves and about how she recovers from her loss.

The opening scene of the novel shows Laura and Rey, her older husband of sixty-four years, having breakfast, two different breakfasts, and trying to talk to each other. There are hints that Rey has had enough of his life: He says, "Why shave at all? There must be a reason...I want God to see my face." He then laughs "in the empty way she didn't like." He starts an argument about the stupidity of listening to the radio: "I was not blaming. Who turned it on, who turned it off. Someone's a little edgy this morning. I'm the one, what do I say, who should be defensive. Not the young woman who eats and sleeps and lives forever."

Laura is too preoccupied with the taste and smell of her breakfast to pay attention to what Rey means. He states his despair, but she hears only words, not meanings. They discuss a noise she has heard on the third floor of the old house on the coast they have rented, a noise different from the animals that live in the walls. He thinks the noises have stopped, but she thinks she heard it yesterday. He says, "Good. I'm glad...You need the company." After a discussion about his lost keys, he leaves. Laura never sees him again.

After Rey's death, Laura grieves. She is alone in the house, dealing with her loss by keeping house: "It felt like home, being here, and she raced through the days with their small ravishing routines, days the same, paced and organized but with a simultaneous wallow, uncentered, sometimes blank in places, days that moved so slow they ached." She also looks at the auto-biography he had been writing, conscious of the deception in it, the "stories shaped out of desperations not always clear to her."

She finds the early morning the worst time, experiencing the universal feeling on waking that she has to remember something, instantly recognizing the thing at the same time. She works hard at managing time. The first sentence in the novel is "Time seems to pass." Time no longer seems to pass for Laura. It seems stuck in a nightmare moment of loss, but she fights time by controlling it: "The plan was to organize time until she could live again."

Laura begins to practice her art again. She is a body artist, pushing her body beyond ordinary limits, controlling body instead of life and death and time. She also becomes obsessed with staring at a video of a road in Kotka, Finland, a place that represents reality to her. "It was simply the fact of Kotka. It was the sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame,...with a reading of local time in the digital display in a corner of the screen. Kotka was another world but she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds."

Laura finally finds the source of the noise on the third floor. She finds a man asleep, a strange man who has lost or never found the power of communication. She struggles to understand him, to make him talk to her, to explain himself. Meanwhile, she continues to struggle against her body, making it obey her. The strange man sometimes speaks in Rey's voice, sometimes in Laura's. He has a voice of his own, a strange voice. Finally, the stranger leaves, leaving Laura to wonder who he really was, Rey's ghost, her subconscious, or her memory transformed into a visitor.

Laura's body work culminates in a performance that is described by her former college classmate as "obscure, slow, difficult and sometimes agonizing...It is about you and me. What begins in solitary otherness becomes familiar and even personal. It is about who we are when we are not rehearsing who we are."

"Solitary otherness" haunts Laura after the death of Rey by suicide. She wonders about the man she loved, questions how well she knew him. According to his first wife, she did not know the man at all. Was she trying to find Rey or herself in her piece of body art? She becomes both male and female, old and young, on stage. She fights time and death.

She returns to an earlier loss at the novel's end, remembering the death of her mother when she was nine. She finally realizes, "It wasn't her [Laura's] fault. It had nothing to do with her." She also realizes that Rey is gone, that she is alone, that maybe she was alone all along. The final image of Laura flinging open a window on the sea, feeling "the sea tang on her face and the flow of time in her body, to tell her who she was" ends this story of grief and self-discovery. This image opens the story to a sense of relief, of release from tension, of life moving forward, of time moving on. The past is over, and the future is ahead.

Laura has learned from her grief that she can survive it. She has also learned about love: "You don't know how to love the ones you love until they disappear abruptly. Then you understand how thinly distanced from their suffering, how sparing of self you often were, only rarely unguarded of heart, working your network of give-and-take."

DeLillo's language is clear, beautiful and haunting enough to make reading it again and again a deeper pleasure each time. What he understands about human psychology is as remarkable as his writing. DeLillo has moved from the outer and under world to the inner world of the human psyche.


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