Starting Over

Thursday, May 03, 2007

American Genius

Lynne Tillman's American Genius is a change of pace compared to much of my reading. The novel covers a mere number of days and follows the stream of consciousness, of thoughts and a small number of deeds of its female narrator, residing in a non-specified residence that seems to combine elements of writer's residence and of a clinic for those needing a break from their lives - but is neither. The narrator, Helen, digresses into obsession and compulsion with thoughts on collecting, cats, on chairs, on food, on family and friends, and always on skin and its minor disorders and conditions. Strongly observant of her fellow residents, she both carefully dissects them as well as creating elaborate stories on which their thin characters hang. She herself remains aloof while neurotically introspective.
In this carefully managed and restricted world, Tillman draws a picture of America that relies on her deep introspection and observation, that resists narrative. American Genius is both frustrating (I was desperately waiting for something to happen) and deeply satisfying. Her riffs on the Manson family (specifically Leslie van Houten), textile design, Zulu language, Puritanism and psoriasis form a kind of musical digression as her thoughts veer towards bold statements and then retreat into doubt and dissemblement. American Genius is structured on the barest of narratives, populated with a fascinating array of characters but centred on an isolated, withdrawn and yet engaged central being. Its a work of genius and therefore not always comfortable and a great American novel.


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