1The Body Artist is a novel about grieving and an attempt at recovery after the suicide of Rey, the husband of Lauren Hartke, the body artist of the title. Rather than a plot, the reader is offered a slow process whose outcome, just as the traumatic event that motivates it — the death of Rey— is kept from her. The two main events of the text, the suicide of Rey and the body artist performance of Lauren remain out of sight, inaccessible, represented only through the mediation of outsiders’ words, in two marginal moments of the text, partly disconnected, or at least clearly set apart from the narrative proper. Those two passages, Rey’s obituary and the account of Lauren’s onstage performance by Mariella Chapman are respectively to be found after the introductory chapter and before the final one. These two formally written statements, which hush the narrative voice for a while, seem to structure the text into some form of symmetry, framing, in a way, Lauren’s double process of bereavement and preparation for her upcoming performance. Grieving and performing are intimately linked here, and the parentheses provided by the obituary and the show review seem to underline the unbridgeable gap between those events, in the sense of unpredictable happenings on the one hand and the structured regularities highlighted in the first chapter of the novel, wholly devoted to a mundane breakfast scene with Rey and Lauren on the other.
2Yet, this apparent symmetrical structure does not provide the balance expected from symmetry, but on the contrary, it creates a sense of suspension, a feeling of exclusion that, far from closing in the text on itself, opposes the fulness of a roundabout structure moving from before the traumatic event to after the performance as if the two moments formed pendents of each other and the lacuna, the blankness of the ellipses around which the text is built. The obituary and the review are the only moments in the novel where events are seen from the outside and with the distance of what could appear as a constructed narrative of the two climactic vanishing points of the story.
3Although Rey’s death is hardly described in the newspaper article that reports it, his life is nonetheless given a shape, even if a hazy one. Similarly, if Mariella Chapman fails to grasp the meaning she seeks in Lauren’s performance, her interview with the artist manages to arrange the show into successive sequences that may appear as an interpretive — a tentative? — reading of the performance and of the novel itself. What this tends to suggest is that Mariella and the journalist, as voices exogenous to the narrative, embody in a way the ellipses neither Lauren nor the reader are given access to; they give substance to those ellipses, provide a linguistic representation of what is otherwise unsayable and unimaginable: they arrange facts into a legible continuum. In a way, by filling the visual absence of the events of the text, they also highlight this absence, the invisibility of the climactic moments and the impossibility for Lauren to voice them and for the reader to make sense of them. In other words, they inscribe them in the margins of the narrative, pointing to the fact that, as Agamben would have it about Auschwitz, it is impossible to think through Rey’s death and the performance. Rather, it seems to be a matter of thinking along the margins, something Lauren realizes in the presence of an odd character, Mr. Tuttle, when the narrative voice says: “he began to understand that she could not miss Rey, could not consider his absence, the loss of Rey without thinking along the margins of Mr. Tuttle” (82).
4Thinking along the margins suggests that there is no center, or rather, that the center, the stable point of thought and the inside of language, is inaccessible and that the character is unable to accept the death of her husband unless or because she remains on the outside of the event. Remaining outside of the event does not only mean not having witnessed the event, but also not being able to bear witness to it, to assert presence and self-presence by referring them to a unitary center embodied, Agamben suggests, by the first person singular pronoun. Lauren is somewhat in the position of the survivor whose vocation, according to Agamben is “to remember; he cannot not remember” (26), whereas she lacks a voice that would enable her to remember.
5What is there to remember in the case of the body artist, confronted with the incomprehensibility of Rey’s death, apart from the moments in the margins of the event? And how can she remember, that is, collect herself and her memories in order to if not accept, then at least acknowledge the loss of Rey? What does it mean to think along the margins? Not having access to the event, and not being able to voice it, to frame it into a narrative, Lauren rather skirts along the unbearable absence of Rey, just as the reader skirts along the invisible and unbearable transformations of the character into an alien body. The novel seems to be a novel of forgetting and remembering, both in the sense of conjuring up memory and recreating a self after the tragedy, which involves dealing with time and trying to “force trauma into representation” ( Laura Di Prete) in order to if not overcome it then at least “live again” as the character says.
6During what she calls “the first days back”, Lauren tries to organize time around “meals, tasks, errands” (31), “shaping the day around a major thing with all its wrinkles and twists, its arrays of swarming variations” (32). The status of this “major thing” is ambiguous and reflects the tension that runs through the novel. It can be read as one of the tasks she assigns herself in order to master time since “the plan was to organize time until she could live again” (37): restocking the pantry, filling the bird feeders, scrubbing the bathroom tiles, as if each of those household occupations provided the frames, the “sequential order [that] we engender to make us safe in the world” (83). But this “thing” deemed “major” could also be considered as the void that those tasks are meant to fill. It remains nameless, as if the center around which she is trying to organize her life were a blank, something unfigurable, or figurable only through undefinable, ungraspable traces, such as smoke: “how he was the smoke, Rey was, the thing in the air, vaporous, drifting into every space sooner or later, unshaped, but with a face that was somehow part of the presence, specific to the prowling man” (32).
7Rey has become “a thing in the air” and this indeterminacy, this shapelessness is not only indicative of his absence, but also of the obsessive quality of trauma. The fact that this “thing” drifts into every space expands the scope of the nameless thing, both the center of Lauren’s obsession and the impossible delineation of this center. The intrusive quality of the smoke excludes all means of containing it and of enclosing it into a recognizable, representable shape or pattern, in a word, of understanding it. It highlights perhaps the loss of control over the world and reality, creating a tension perceptible throughout the novel between the need to control time and reality and the impossibility to do so for lack of a stable center, that is, of recovering a unity likely to cement and articulate the moments Lauren wishes to organize into a narrative.
8The center of gravity which might allow her to try and articulate her loss gives way to instability: her body collapses, “not the major breakdown of every significant function but a small helpless sinking toward the ground, a kind of forgetting how to stand” (33). Her sight betrays her: “things she saw seemed doubtful not doubtful but ever changing, plunged into metamorphosis, something that is also something else but what, and what” (36), leading even to anamorphic visions when she realizes that she is “not looking at a seated man but at a paint can placed on a board that was balanced between two chairs” (70). In other words, she is unable to seize reality, having become a prey to the distortion of time and space. The result is that she cannot be “self-present as “I”, a speaker in the event of discourse, that there [cannot be in her] something like a unitary center to which [she] can refer lived experiences and acts, a firm point outside of the ocean of sensations and psychic states” (Agamben, 122).
9By imposing on herself a routine, Lauren tries to recapture, that is, to remember, what is lost, basically a relation to time, a sense of time “unrolling into moments” as written on the first page of the book. The first chapter of the novel depicts the final morning, the moment before Rey’s suicide. It is entirely devoted to a breakfast scene performed by the couple as if it were a ballet, on “a strong bright day after a storm” (7). In spite of a feeling of suspension due to movements and sentences left in abeyance, due also to Lauren’s relation to words, her groping to find the right word and her acute sense of the disconnection between words and what they designate, the opening scene is articulated so as to suggest a fusion between the main character and the world around her. Even though she cannot remember if the lever of the toaster “sprang or sprung” there is a sense of “things outlined precisely” (7), a sense of order and continuum to which she belongs.
10The conjunction “and” used overwhelmingly in the first pages of the book, more than suggesting an effect of accumulation, creates a mixture of causality and sequentiality, therefore articulating the different movements of the character into a continuous flow, as for example when “she cross[es] to the cabinet with the blueberries wet in her hand and reach[es] up for the cereal and [takes] the box to the counter [...] and then the toaster thing pop[s] and she flip[s] it down again because it [takes] two flips to get the bread to go brown and he absently nod[s] [...] and then he turn[s] on the radio and [gets] the weather” (8). This long sentence leaves the impression of one long uninterrupted movement whose coherence and nuances are cemented by the conjunction. The sequence of movements is not just an addition of different actions but rather partakes in the staging of the familiar, a familiar framed, almost coded, as if rehearsed before, providing what Lauren calls “an undivided moment on a normal morning going crazy in ways so humanly routine” (24). The routine of the breakfast scene, far from verging on the boredom of repetitive everyday life, creates a form of stability in which even the hesitations of the husband and wife, their sense of forgetfulness, their out of sync dialogue are part of Lauren’s intimate relation with the world and of her immediate knowledge of her reality.
11This intimacy with the world rests on a paradoxical sense of disconnection, in which forgetting plays a major part: forgetting the names of things, forgetting to taste the cereal, forgetting whether Lauren drinks juice or not. But this sense of forgetfulness is inscribed in the perception Lauren has of time in the opening scene, a scene in which the fact that “the world happens” is equivalent to being one with oneself: “you know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest leaf is stabbed with self-awareness” says the narrative voice. (7) Forgetting is then part of the process, with no real need to remember since everything seems to fall in the right place. Hence, the fact that this oneness is based on disconnection reads more like the assertion that everything and everyone belongs to the world than like a token of separation and alienation. Objects belong either to Rey or Lauren: “it was his coffee and his cup. They shared the newspaper but it was actually, unspokenly, hers” or: “it was her newspaper. The telephone was his except when she called the weather. They both used the computer but it was spiritually hers” (12). The careful attribution of objects to the characters places Lauren in a rather well-defined frame which allows for her just going along with time without needing to control it.
12But the death of Rey introduces a new perception of time, or at least, it heightens the awareness that “the world comes to being, “irreversibly” (7, emphasis mine). Just as the intrusion of an alien hair in Lauren’s mouth disturbs the order of the breakfast scene, prompting her to experience “sharing some food handler’s unknown life or from a reality far stranger and more meandering” (12), Rey’s suicide transforms Lauren’s relation to time and to the world around her, turning them into ever-changing, sometimes oxymoronic structures: “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” (32). This sentence encapsulates the pervasive tension Lauren is caught in, between an attempt at mastering time (“racing through the days”) and the impossibility to do so (“days that moved so slow they ached”).
13But it also highlights the disjunction between Lauren trying to, as Agamben would have it, subjectify herself and the indifference of “the world” (the days) that tends, on the contrary to de-subjectify her. Agamben argues that “once stripped of all extra-linguistic meaning and constituted as a subject of enunciation, the subject discovers that he has gained access not so much to a possibility of speaking as to an impossibility of speaking or, rather, that he has gained access to being always already anticipated by a glossolalic potentiality over which he has neither control nor mastery” (Agamben, 116). Subjectification therefore is the attempt to assert herself as a speaking subject, as the organizer of a narrative always refused by the world around her which she cannot master and which leaves her with the impossibility of speaking. She cannot tell the story she wants to tell.
14This glossolalic potentiality is embodied by the presence of Mr. Tuttle. He is a stranger in the house and can be connected to no reassuring frame of reference: his past and his origins are mysterious. Lauren will never figure out where he comes from or how he got there, let alone imagine that she might be the one who created him as a “metapsychological construct meant to objectify […] the gap produced in [her] by the concealment of some part of [Rey’s] life” (Di Prete). She cannot even identify him, decide whether he is a child or a man. But even more than that, his presence forces her to reconsider all her frames of perception and to put into question her relation to time, space and language.
15He has a double effect upon her: on the one hand, he strengthens her need to map out causality and on the other, he forces her to open up to an entirely new realm of perceptions, transforming her into what Laura Di Prete calls “a listener to what she cannot understand”. He is an intruder in her home and also in her perception of time as being “irreversible” (7), because of his broken language, made of fragments, of words concanetated regardless of syntax or meaning.
16Mr Tuttle’s ability to imitate her and Rey’s voices is not only uncanny, it also challenges her sense of the irreversibility of time by imposing on her the corporeal presence of Rey and by reenacting the moments she spent with him. She suspects that “maybe this man experiences another kind of reality where he is here and there, before and after, and he moves from one to the other shatteringly, in a state of collapse, minus an identity, a language, a way to enjoy the honey-coated toast she watches him eat” (64-65). The ghost-like quality of the little man, so alien to what an individual is supposed to be (an identity, a speaker, someone who feels) echoes the presence/absence of Rey, he too belonging now to another reality, from which identity, speech and feelings have disappeared. Laura Di Prete analyzes Mr. Tuttle as a phantom, the necessary alien element, a sort of internal witness objectifying her loss. He might embody what Agamben calls “the aporia of an absolute desubjectification and “barbarization” of the event of language, in which the speaking subject [(Lauren)] gives way to another subject, a child, angel or barbarian who speaks “unfruitfully” and “into the air” (Agamben 114) In other words, he “marks the threshold between the human and the inhuman” (55), being the pure event of discourse, the only place where testimony can take place according to the Italian philosopher, first because of the absence of an originary temporality.
- 1 See here Noelle Batt's enlightening analysis of the treatment of time in the novel, perceived as th (...)
17Mr Tuttle seems to shred to pieces the notion of a linear time, deconstructing past and future (“before and after”), or rather poising them into a present that encapsulates the whole dis-continuum of time1. Rey belongs to the past, Lauren is always “thinking into tomorrow” Mr. Tuttle seems to collapse both, “parodically flatten[ing] anticipation and succession on each other” (Agamben). Not only does Lauren think that “maybe he lived in a kind of time that had no narrative quality” (65), she also perceives that time does not unfold for Mr Tuttle. She imagines that for him “it is simply and overwhelmingly there, laid out, unoccurring” (77). Its seems as though for him, time was still, not caught in movement, the future and the past “simultaneous, somehow, with the present” (77). He does not seem to perceive time – the reader and Lauren have no access whatever to something akin to perception – and time does not seem to affect him. By annihilating linear time, he abolishes articulation and becomes pure voice, that of the inhuman, able alone to bear witness, in a “vertiginous movement in which something sinks to the bottom, wholly desubjectified and silenced, and something subjectified speaks without truly having anything to say on its own” (Agamben, 121). Agamben argues that “testimony takes place in the non place of articulation”, that “the one who truly bears witness in the human is the inhuman” (120).
18If Mr. Tuttle may be read as a phantom of Rey, he can also be considered as the other of Lauren. His voice is in a way a return to the corporeal presence, a mirror to Lauren’s transforming herself into pure presence, erasing the human in her. Mr Tuttle’s total lack of empathy or even interaction with the world around him, along with his indifference to time and individuals forces Lauren to reconsider her own relation to the world, to push her own limits of the human. Because, if she cannot appropriate time all she can do is “fit herself to the moment” (122) –she can relate to space, through her body and her language.
19Her senses are what connects her to the world and allows her to open up her imagination and to alter reality thanks to her art. Senses are omnipresent in the novel, and particularly in the first chapter, as the only unmediated relation she has to the world. Verbs linked to tasting, hearing, seeing, touching and smelling pepper the first pages of the book, as her only source of knowledge remember how “the tobacco [is] part of her knowledge of [Rey’s] body” (19). Her senses are open to the world, a world otherwise closing in on her, and they are the source for endless questioning, never verging on certainty. Rather, they allow her an exploration akin to the deployment in space of her body. Always tuned to her ever-changing sensations, her language is never assertive, similar, maybe, to the fluttering birds she observes on the feeder, “flying off and coming back, semi-hovering, nine, ten, eleven birds, not singing exactly but what’s the word, twitter or peep or squeak [...], the color changing birds, the name-saying birds, the birds that feed upside-down” (71). What she observes is an ever-moving landscape, always subject to qualification, as if to ward off any shape that might freeze the world. Conjunctions and adverbs abound in the stream of consciousness of the narrative, stressing uncertainty and undecidability as the always moving shape of language and perceptions.
20Lauren does the same thing to her body, altering it by exercising it, sanding it, imposing violence on it, because “it [is] necessary to alter the visible form, all the way down to the tongue” (97). It is through her body that she connects to the world, a body as alien to her as reality itself. After Rey’s death, “her body [feels] different to her in ways she [does] not understand” (33). It becomes “slightly foreign and unfamiliar” (33). Again, she feels disconnected from herself, as if she were not one, but rather a detached mind appraising her body with a distance. It is not she who feels, but her body, whereas she can only perform mental activities such as understanding and forgetting.
21Her working her body hard participates in filling space and creating movement but also, and more importantly in her giving consistency to her experience. Several times in the novel, she is aware that she is staging herself in the world, that, in other words, she is trying to structure the world by creating gestures and by knowing that they are anything but natural. It also partakes in the need she has to control her body, for example when she exaggerates her movements ( “she half fell out of her chair in a gesture of self-ridicule...” (13)) or when she scrutinizes the way she moves: “the gesture was coincidental, circumstantial, partly her own fabrication”.
- 2 I am borrowing this image of the choreography from two of Noëlle Batt's articles on The Body Artist(...)
22This self-reflexivity places Lauren in the three positions of the performer, the stage director and the spectator, thereby multiplying the different perspectives and centers of perception. She is conscious of her movements and of her endless need to become space itself. In this respect, the opening chapter can be read as emblematic, a performance in itself, a choreography2 of movements and words, repeating a variation submitted to slight alterations. Just as she imagines the birds as fluttering forces, she perceives her body as an intensity, where shape and substance become a life force, as shown by her breathing exercises, “life lived, irreducibly, as sheer respiration” (57). The vital force of respiration is what brings life back into her, by erasing her former self, by becoming “a blankness, a body slate erased of every past resemblance” (84), that is, pure matter that will be shaped, in-formed by her self-modeling exercises. She thus metamorphoses into sheer intensity, becoming “colorless, bloodless and ageless” (103), in other words, pushing the limits of the human, violating them in her own turn, negating and erasing all that might appear as a token of identity. Having survived Rey’s death, she nonetheless discards human traits, embracing the world of sensations, no longer truly human but “snake-shaped and flower-bent (57).
23But these transformations all tend toward Lauren’s show, “Body Art in Extremis” which enacts the disappearance of Mr. Tuttle. The show, sequentially narrated by Mariella, is like the inscription, in Lauren’s body, of her traumatic experience and of her trying to cope with it. It recapitulates her body memories, “bringing her experience to the social realm” as Laura Di Prete suggests, therefore transforming the audience and the reader into the ultimate witnesses of her trauma. In a way, just like Mr. Tuttle’s wordless voice helped her reenact the moment before Rey’s death, her show tells her story “not in words, but in the body (Laura Di Prete).
24The reader too undergoes a process of transformation. By perceiving the narrative through Lauren’s eyes, the reader also experiences the gap between awareness and sensations. The numerous ellipses and the reticence of the prose keeps much of the factual information out of the reader’s reach. Only when intrusions in the narrative happen, in the form of the obituary or the press article, does the reader have access to fact. Their inclusion between chapters poses them as elements of rupture, formal frames that break through the continuum of perceptions. More relevantly, it is the language of the novel that best enacts the discrepancy between senses and sense: the rhythms, the broken sentences, the interrupted segments hinder any attempt at a linear reading. On the contrary, the number of repetitions-cum-difference give a chant-like quality to the text. Alliterations and anaphoric devices infuse the text with a sensuous driving force, materialize it in a way into a body whose performance affects the reader. This reader has much in common with Lauren: an attempt at comprehension and a disappearance behind a language whose polysemic quality encompasses sometimes contradictory meanings. By erasing the singularity of meaning, linguistic proliferation is also a force of liberation, the opening up of Lauren’s fertile imagination (remember how she is always making up stories for herself), “a means to escape from the book-walled limits of the self” (48). The intensity of Lauren’s relation to the world and of Mr. Tuttle’s presence stems not from the words they use so much as from what Shoshana Felman describes as “the puzzling relation between words and voice, rhythm, the interaction, that is, between voice, rhythm, melody, images writing and silence” (Felman, 278), the non-language to which language answers. The odd man’s broken language, his bringing back into the present words belonging to the past yet with no referential frame, along with Lauren’s impersonation of voices and people do not so much aestheticize trauma, as Agamben might suggest as display what Di Prete calls “unprocessed corporeal knowledge corporeal knowledge” beyond or before language.
25The Body Artist is a powerful meditation on the estrangement of individuals. The protagonist wavers between the need for frames that would turn the real (the unbearable, the unutterable) into a recognizable, safe and comfortable reality on the one hand and, on the other, her self that oozes out into the realm of perception. She is the recipient and the shaper of perceptions and as such, she contains the world, metamorphoses herself, becomes everything and everyone. The process of reconstruction, of reconciliation between the self and the world takes place not so much in her acceptance of Rey’s death –“it does not happen” – as in her countering of reality through her art. But contrary to Rey, whose film-making was a response to “the terror of another ordinary day”, Lauren goes along with the world, with its aimless and indifferent flows of perceptions. It is her body that, by arranging its own inhuman choreography, testifies to trauma before the eyes of the reader, forced to becoming a witness.