Bodies of all genders, colours and sizes have been turned into works of art. Disabled bodies, less so. In his debut novel The Art of the Body, Alex Allison chooses as his subject matter the crooked legs, twisted arms and illegible language of Sean, living with cerebral palsy. As a photography student, Sean uses his unusual body – often seen as an anomaly by passers-by – as his own subject. This creates a dual opportunity for the exploration of the disabled body – through the author’s prose and description of poses as well as these final photographs. Sean’s body thus becomes a ‘performance’, and we readers are its ‘witnesses’.
Beyond describing in vivid detail Sean’s disability, Allison uses it to pave new literary ground, making use of unusual figures of speech that allow the reader access to another way of looking at the world. For example, at the very beginning, Sean is described by his carer and the novel’s narrator, Janet as being ‘in bed, just as I left him, laid foetal and still, rolled into the wall, his arms over the covers and T-Rexed into his chest. It is the posture of poverty. His breaths are shallow, testing only the tops of his lungs’. This fragmented body, patched up from odd positions, sounds and smells, forms a Picasso-like work of art.
Insightful dialogue provides a further viewpoint that readers without disability may not have considered. During an interview with a journalist, Sean is asked a series of short, generic questions posed to all interviewees. To the question, ‘what do you wish you knew?’, Sean answers, ‘what jumping feels like’. To ‘what should change?’, he says, ‘more ramps’. Apart from revealing a host of suffering completely absent from an able-bodied person’s life, the cues in this passage are so concise as to mimic the quickness of an interview while rending Sean’s uncompromising answers. Pathos is not Allison’s take on disability – the author chooses crude reality instead.
Although Sean’s body is the book’s focus, Janet also has a part to play in the art of the body. As the narrator, she provides the descriptions of Sean and articulates his body into written form. But she also has her own body-story to tell: one of exhausting care work, of a female body whose job it is to touch and stretch every part of a male body, of the body as a vehicle for all feelings – from pain to sexual pleasure to anger and despair. Through Janet’s perspective, Allison reinstates the body as the centre of sensation and expression, on par with the mind.
Despite the book’s bold approach to the body, some stylistic experiments fall flat. For instance, Janet writes, ‘I stand by his side and place my hand on his forehead, shielding his eyes, posed like affection’. Later on, as Janet and Sean go to Lourdes, a hotel receptionist ‘shrugs in the most stereotypically French way imaginable’, which gives no precision on the man’s shrug whatsoever and fails to add another way of perceiving the situation.
The main twist of the story, which tips Janet and Sean’s relationship off-balance, is also left unexplained. No one knows why it happens, and more importantly, none of the characters inquire. Not one of them seems unsettled enough to seek answers to this twist which is too unexpected to be left unaddressed. It thus ends up becoming an artificial means by which to justify Janet’s future choices and behaviour .
Yet these few failings do not hinder the book’s exploration of the disabled body. Indeed, Janet’s perspective dives deep into what the care work surrounding such a body encompasses: from caring for a patient to caring about them; knowing the limits between the needs of a patient’s body and one’s own. Janet’s journey is all about negotiating these aspects of her job and life. Moreover, in a few but memorable passages, Allison provides us with a reminder of what care work is like today, and how catastrophic the situation can be in some care homes. A documentary that Janet watches allows the author to quote the shocking numbers of residents not adequately fed or fearing abuse and harm. In doing so, it raises both the reader’s and Janet’s awareness, leading the latter to rethink her relationship with Sean.
The Art of the Body offers the reader a multi-layered exploration of the able and disabled body. Through the experiences of Janet, who shares with us her enthusiasm and disappointment, love and loss, care for others and self-loathing, we discover the possibilities a disabled body offers, which is far from incomplete or needing to be fixed. Allison’s talent transforms it all into a tale worth reading.
The Art of the Body is published by Little, Brown and will be on sale from 5th September