The Body in Four Parts

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

For a long time now, fiction writer and poet Janet Kauffman has been lyrically and imaginatively inscribing a world of women absorbed by their own physical beings. In her short stories, in her novel COLLABORATORS, and in her poetry, Kauffman has consciously located her women (and sometimes her men) in relation both to their bodies and to the natural world of which those bodies are a central part. This new novel, THE BODY IN FOUR PARTS, disassembles one of those bodies in order to reveal the ways in which the physical parts link themselves to the most elemental aspects of our existence.

The novel, like its protagonist, is divided into four sections, each section associated with one of the traditional four physical elements of nature: Water, Earth, Fire, Air. The body of the protagonist separates itself, likewise, into four distinct personalities: the “I” who is the nameless narrator; a woman named Dorothea, who lives beneath the surface of a river; a man named Jack, who is the narrator’s lover; and a second man named Jean-Paul. Each of the novel’s four sections then focuses on the relation between the narrator (or narrative Self) and the separate entities which cohere to shape that Self.

Kauffman takes her narrator on journeys both literal and figurative, though the two are often only vaguely distinguished. Such vagueness is purposeful, however, for Kauffman wants to challenge our readerly expectations with strange and wonderful twists of language and action; reading a fiction by Kauffman means reading a prose that revels in the richness of linguistic and dramatic possibility.

Kauffman challenges, as well, our personal visions of what is natural in this all-too-often unnatural world. Like her protagonist, we come to celebrate all that is elemental, all that is essentially wild in our natures. We look to reaffirm our lost connections with the world, to reclaim our political and physical passions, to reinvigorate our diminished imaginations. Kauffman’s fiction convinces us that we have not yet wandered beyond our own reach.