Doubling Genres & Hiding The Evidence: The Novel As Performance Art

Copyright © by Kirpal Gordon, 1/15/07


American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman; 1-933368-44-6; 320 pages; $15.00; Soft Skull Press, 55 Washington Street, Suite 804, Brooklyn, NY 11201

  Lynne Tillman has written a wild ride of a book. 

  In American Genius she brings to the dramatic monologue, that old warhorse thatís covered many a literary waterfront, much of the whacked-out wit, subversive schtick and psycho-anarchy reminiscent of performance art as it has been practiced in lower Manhattan over the last thirty years.

  A veteran of that downtown scene, Tillman has produced a laugh-out-loud satire-in-stealth, simultaneously highbrow and low, epic in proportion and dead-on about life in our dis-United States.  Itís a 320 page non-stop word riff, filled with arcana from the worlds of textiles-fabrics-design (what we elect to wear) and human physiology, especially the life of our epidermis (what we canít help but wear): rashes, blushes, acne, boils, psoriasis, and lo and behold, the secret motherlode of her story, skin tone.

  Exploring these two kinds of covering, manufactured and natural, the obsessively observant narrator contrasts the individual and the collective (democracy) while also investigating the relation between perception and judgment in unpredictable and refreshing ways.  After so much clichť-driven, race-card-baiting by folks on all sides of the equation, here is an intriguing look into the hole in our most American bucket.  Way back in 1905 W.E.B. Du Bois, granddaddy of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote in The Souls of Black Folks, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line---the relation of the darker to the lighter races."  Take a look at the bookís cover: blue thread weaves a pattern with a hairy skin.  Through our epidermis, the mediator of inner and outer, self and other, Tillman unfolds a signifyiní meditation on race.  Her narratorís chatty, witty, nutty investigations pull together thoughts on, among other things, Manifest Destiny, work, religion, the Zulu language and Leslie Van Houten of the Charles Manson family with memories of growing up in suburban Fifties USA.  Cleverly, instead of relying on a more traditional plot and setting, she turns her knowing eye to the various guests.  She is specially taken with Violet, who she nicknames the Contesa (a mulatta fleeing the black bourgeoisie who writes on Kafka), and the Count (an eccentric Southern aristocrat) who come and go at a place whose purpose we can never really determine.  

  Check out the first paragraph: "The food here is bad, but every day there is something I can eat and even like, and thereís a bathtub, which I donít have at home.  I can have a bath here every day before dinner, which is 7:30 p.m., and usually unsatisfying.  But I canít wait for dinner because itís the official end to my day, and there will be other people around with whom I can talk and who may distract me.  Iím often distracted from the things I must do, which I feel compelled or expected to accomplish.  But here I hope to discover what might help me or what I need to know, or what I donít need to know, for instance, about the other residents in the community."

  Where is she?  Like so many institutional situations, it sounds variously like a hospital ward, art colony, sanatorium, think tank, hospice, nut house, health spa, prison and a retreat for intellectuals, but we canít be sure.  At first I was reminded of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, where Rilkeís narrator lives through fever dreams in a country and a language he doesnít know.  However, in the narratorís mad flow, held together by the rubber bands of coordinating conjunctions and ďfree association kibbitzing,Ē Tillman has added a layer of psychological uncertainty. 

  How sane is the narrator and how dependable are her observations?  Her wit runs martini dry to over-the-top absurd, but her mind noise---indecisive, confessional, introverted, afraid of contact---sounds like someone in rational-emotional therapy.  Certain routines---the family cat, her Polish skin care specialist, her aging mother, her lost brother---keep re-appearing unexpectedly in hilarious, knee-jerk-robotic synapses.  Just say, ďNiagara Falls!Ē and slowly she turns, step by step, revealing the warp and woof of her own unstable homeostasis, simultaneously guarded and open as her identity shifts from automaton to becoming the agent of her own behavior change. 

  Look at the word genius in the title: from the Latin, originally meaning a guardian spirit or deity; endowed with talent or wit; in the 18th century: the sense of natural ability or quality of mind.  So, is the guardian spirit of America within us or outside us?  As Henry James once said, literature is about what you leave out as much as what you leave in the telling.  The narratorís unwillingness (inability? lack of concern?) to be more specific builds suspense while it provides clues to this hypersensitive and smart first-person protagonist, a former teacher of history.  However, William James, the novelistís brother and the father of Pragmatism, the only American-grown contribution to world philosophy, holds the best clue to the novelís theme.  This quote of his opens the tale: "Woe to him whose beliefs play fast and loose with the order which realities follow in his experience; they will lead him nowhere or else make false connections." 

  Are these cautionary words for an American century that ended with winning the Cold War, the Twin Towers falling and our occupying the wrong country looking for the wrong enemy or what?  How many Americans can tell the difference between Osama and Saddam or care?  How many of us prefer our illusions clean and untouched in contrast to the responsibility inherent in dreams, to paraphrase Delmore Schwartz?  To what extent are we dupes of what Robert Bellah called the civic religion of America---xenophobic, anti-intellectual, secure in our convictions even if we donít question the assumptions that root these convictions?  The end of the story most powerfully renders how our beliefs inhibit our perceptions of reality.  I wonít give anything away, but William James, among the early pioneers in psychic research, understood that whatever conclusion we make about spirit has nothing to do with science and everything to do with how we see the world.

  For me the other major clue into the comical yet allegorical nature of the narratorís goofy yak-a-thon is jazz, perhaps the greatest American-grown contribution to world culture and certainly a celebration of hybrid vigor.  Thereís a musical quality to her theme-and-variation approach.  Think of Duke Ellingtonís Black, Brown and Beige Suite where Saturday night becomes a Sunday morning spiritual or the kind of all-of-a-piece cohesion to John Coltraneís A Love Supreme or the interweaving of motifs in Miles Davisís Bitches Brew.  They all spell epic Americana, something new coming out the permutations and combinations of existing elements.  Furthermore, instead of narrative seaming the text, the novel is all voice, what reviewer Doug Glover called "such elan, such spirited delight and comic intelligence."  Yes, and what a voice Tillman has created, knowing and yet tentative!  Itís as if the cubist quality of Gertrude Steinís The Making of Americans were somehow wed to the haunting, moody, free-spirited solos of a Betty Carter!

  Matthew Sharpe wrote that Tillmanís book "belongs in the same class as Moby-Dick and Gravityís Rainbow, encyclopedic novels about America and the world.Ē  However, I sense thereís at least as much in common here with the highly distinctive voice of the American epic poem as expressed in Whitmanís Leaves of Grass, Poundís Cantos, Craneís The Bridge and William Carlos Williamsí variable American foot in Paterson.  As Colm Toibin pointed out, "American Genius is written in cadences both sharp and mesmeric."  Itís got language on its mind and up its sleeve, a postmodernistís pluck-&-paste pastiche. 

  Yes, to all that, but for me itís got something even more compelling---the genius of indeterminacy.  Itís that rare kind of a book one is likely to return to over and over through the years because as one reads and re-reads it, another aspect of our own story takes shape in the shifting kaleidoscope.

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