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The vivisector of the title is Hurt Duffield, an artist who "saw rather than thought." He was born into poverty, but was adopted at an early age into a wealthy family (he preferred to think of it as his birth parents "selling" him). The first part of the book is about Hurt's childhood, and I found White's vision of the world through the eyes of an unusual child to be mesmerizing.
The remainder of the book, from Hurt's early adulthood to old age, segments his life into his artistic periods (or visions). His artistic periods usually coincide with his lovers of the time. He coldly and selfishly exploits his lovers as pawns in furtherance of his art.
His first lover is Nance, an uneducated prostitute. His paintings of her, which become more and more abstract, bring him his first success and artistic recognition. It is during his affair with Nance that Hurt recognizes and accepts his detachment from other people--the alienation of the artist whose entire being is consumed by his art. In this, Hurt feels a connection with God (if he exists) as a vivisector and himself, the artist as vivisector. Regarding his relationship with Nance,
"Hurt knew every possible movement of her ribs, every reflection of her skin. He had torn the hook from her gills; he had disemboweled her while still alive; he had watched her no less cruel dissection by the knives of light. You couldn't call an experience an experiment, but he profited by whatever it was..."
His victim Nance is not clueless and recognizes his utter selfishness. She tells him:
"'What your sort don't realize,' she wasn't saying, she was firing into his brain, 'is that other people exist. While you're all gummed up in the great art mystery, they're alive, and breaking their necks for love.'"
Another artistic phase is defined by his relationship with his adoptive sister, a hunchback. He obsessively paints her in a series that evolves more and more into abstraction, all masterfully described by White. In old age, Hurt becomes obsessed with Kathy, a (young) teenaged piano prodigy. She becomes his exclusive artistic subject, and she and Hurt quickly engage in a Lolita-like sexual relationship.
This book more than any other I've read conveys the sense of what it's like to be a driven artist. Hurt has no choice in life, other than to paint. Everything and everyone is expendable for his art. In his penetrating consideration of the creative process White makes us see where the ideas come from, and how the artist proceeds to realize his visions.
Perhaps the highest recommendation I can give this book is that on finishing it, I immediately began another book by White.