Last night I read The Body Artist by Don Delillo (2001). It is possibly the most authentic and moving grief narrative that I have encountered. The book jacket did not describe the novel as a grief narrative, nor did the dozen or so reviews that I found online. In fact, to the reviewers I found, the book was incomprehensible, a “metaphysical puzzle”. Yes, I would agree: grief is an incomprehensible, metaphysical puzzle. It was not necessary, however, to tear the book apart looking for its meaning. There is no meaning to the griever.
The novel is a very short story of a woman, Lauren—a ‘body artist’—during the last day spent with her husband Rey—a once-famous, now aging film director—and Lauren’s aftermath in the weeks following his suicide. She returns to the summer rental where they spent their last days together, and falls into deeper and deeper layers of grief, including interacting with a ghost-like, blank-slate of a man who inhabits the house with her and performs an interpretation of her loss, as well as providing her with clues about how to live through it. “He” speaks for her and for the dead man, supplying a meditation on time and space, those backbones of reality that are so shattered at death. The fact of her being what DeLillo calls a body artist (she does performance art that is very graphic in which she morphs not just into other characters, but into other bodies) is also a final metaphor for grief, I believe. The body, too, is metamorphosed by grief.
Grief occurs in the body of the living, tormenting, twisting, changing it in unrecognizable ways. Grief is a debilitating and surreal experience that separates the griever from the living, places her in a limbo where nothing makes sense, and causes hallucinations and psychosis. This little book brought me right back to the edge of that experience, validated what I’ve experienced in my own grief experiences, and provided a score for accompanying others with compassion. The take home lesson may be that grief cannot be understood or solved, but must simply be lived through.