Monday, July 2, 2007

Books: American Genius, A Comedy, by Lynne Tillman

This wayward catalogue of neuroses, parading as stream-of-consciousness, is a prime example of why I read the work of female authors so rarely. For approximately three hundred pages, Tillman, in paragraph-long run on sentences, using commas where she ought to use semicolons, writes about her sensitive skin, the Polish beautician who gives her weekly facials, her "wild young cat" who scratched her leg and left a scar, as well as her childhood cats and dogs, particularly the ones put to death by her parents, her aging mother, her friends who have died, her dead father's fabric business, her preference for 100% cotton or wool to synthetics, as well her meals and surroundings: a residential colony of sorts, providing respite of some kind for people of a kind that is never disclosed (it cannot be a half-way house, for they are allowed to consume alcohol. Neither does it seem to be assisted living of any kind, as the residents are free to roam about on their own, although there are daily lectures offered, and meals are given according to schedule in the group cafeteria. Perhaps it is a writers' or artists' colony.)

For the first two hundred and fifty pages (approximately), nothing happens outside of the narrator's memory. She ruminates on the list of above topics in concentric circles, skipping via tenuous connections from one memory to another, to an observation, to a quotation, to a recollection of a fact (from American History, from Psychology, from Design (she has a fondness for chairs, particularly those of Eames, most likely due to her "sensitivity" and her tendency to feel uncomfortable). In the last fifty pages, more is revealed, as she begins, at last, to engage with other characters—other residents of the colony—who stage a play and then a seance. There is at last (some spare) dialogue, and we learn the narrator's name: Helen. It is true that the book improves dramatically at this point, but to move from a zero to a two on an interest scale of one-to-ten is no great achievement.

Released by Soft Skull Press and with various positive reviews, American Genius, A Comedy is described as being somehow ground-breaking, but I found that the only new height it achieves is that of tedium. It is womany to a fault, and is not particularly American, intelligent, or comedic (in the sense of humorous or that of matrimonial climax). Its use of commas as opposed to semicolons to separate independent clauses frustrated me throughout the novel's entire duration—grammar can be tossed to the wind for stylistic purposes, it is true, but for the sake of readers' comprehension, Tillman, or at least her editor, ought to have followed the rules. If her intention was to mimic the tone of a journal or diary, or even the breathless marathon of the mind's voice, she succeeds, but to no worthy end.

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