AMERICAN GENIUS by Lynne Tillman


A Comedy
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A self-involved, intentionally run-on and cleverly compelling novel about nothing and everything by the versatile experimentalist Tillman (This Is Not It, 2002, etc.).

The narrator of this curious work, both tedious and engaging, has taken up living in a kind of New England retreat or institution (she notes that she arrived “in a voluntary manner, but wearily, as I had little hope”), where she inhabits her own room, shares pleasant living spaces, and takes her meals in a dining hall. She offers many facts about her life, and a bit of childhood history, e.g., her mother is old and brain-damaged; her now-deceased father was once in the textile business (hence her preoccupation with fabrics); and her older brother has “disappeared” from her life. She also cherishes her pets and tends to keep her distance from the other residents—grumpy, eccentric types she renames according to her mood, such as Contesa, a brown-skinned social worker obsessed with Franz Kafka, and the so-called demanding man whose complaints are interminable. Time is “shapeless” at the institution, delineated by mealtimes, and the narrator spends it reading and observing and attending lectures. Aside from long, engrossing digressions on the development of fabrics, the history of the chair, the incarcerated Charles Manson groupie Leslie Van Houten and many other subjects, the narrator maintains one insistent train of thought, involving her sanguine Polish beautician. Indeed, the narrator is fascinated by skin, namely her “sensitive skin,” which is too thin to shield her from the harshness of the greater world. Skin ailments offer clues to mortality, and the narrator becomes a keen “reader of skin.” A séance directed by a resident she calls the Magician closes her sojourn; and feeling at the “end of her rope,” she returns to her home and retrieves her cat from her mother’s care. Has she been transformed? Probably not, but it’s a circuitous, riveting journey.

Tillman is as piquant and provocative as ever.

Pub Date: Oct. 21st, 2006
ISBN: 1-933368-44-6
Page count: 308pp
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2006


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