Friday, June 20, 2008

American Genius: A Comedy by Lynne Tillman

This book became a nightmare and an addiction once I was able to get into the wordy drone of the protagonist’s voice. The narrator (we learn her name very late in the book and it appears like a dug-in tick after weeks of stress-free hiking) is living in an institution that seems a cross between a writer’s colony, a fraudulent rehab spa and a summer camp, where each day is passed waiting for the next meal and not much is done, seemingly, to actually help any of the eccentric guests.

Here is a meditation on breakfast:
“People often want to recite the tragic events that have deformed their lives, offering up their pasts as a series of tableaus of deceptions, or unspeakable insults, since people blame others endlessly, and these assaults and imprecations clutter, like a dog’s defecations on the street, their lives and stories. What is said is often unremarkable, though sometimes horrible, but it’s still easy to feel the tiresomeness of another’s life, as well as your own, since interest in other people is also an interest in yourself, because human beings are interested in themselves and in ways of survival. All stories are somehow survival stories, with bad or good fortunes.”

As you get deeper into the novel and into the flow of the narrator’s speech, certain patterns of reminiscences and obsession emerge. Among them are the institution’s meals, her childhood pets, skin (“skin doesn’t lie”), Leslie Van Houton, the Zulu language and archaic sexual phobia. One her biggest preoccupations is design:
“When I was first here, no chair gave me what I wanted…The chair designer Harry Betoia sad, “The urge of good design is the same as the urge to go one living. The assumption is that somewhere, hidden, is a better way of doing things,” and that’s sensible, or in my life it is, because I’m looking for a chair that fits m and in which I can feel at home, since homeyness is easier to locate in things than in people, or even in animals, but I like cats, dogs, an chairs almost equally, thiugh I have more control over chairs, which are inanimate, but any cat or dog is in some way pleasing, while most chairs aren’t.”

My favorite part of this book, though difficult, is the voice. The narrator seems so far away (not knowing her name until very late is part of this) until one time you pick up the book and her obsessions seem almost normal because one can so clearly understand her reasoning, and how she gets from one thought to another. You gotta be hypnotized to have that much detail work and after the difficult adjustment to the rhythm of the book, I dutifully stared at Tillman’s swinging watch until the end. Another thing that made American Genius different from most other books I have read is that while a few mysteries pop up in the book, postcards from a familiar but unknown sender, an unsettling woman from town, a destroyed career, a missing brother, they never become the way the book advances; if anything, those tantalizing bits lead to even more blind corners.

Even though being firmly inside of the mind of mentally ill was exceedingly uncomfortable for me (in large part because so little of it seemed alien), the experience was exhilarating. Wow. American Genius kind of reminded me of Edith’s Diary, a brilliant book about the descent into mental illness written by the queen of creeping horror, Patricia Highsmith. Don’t read either if you are feeling fragile.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Anything that successfully works in Leslie Van Houten is a must-read for me!