Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tillman's American Genius and the Project of Human Consciousness

I'm only about a third of the way through Lynne Tillman's American Genius but I'm seriously thinking of starting a fan club. I can't even remember the last time I chose a novel randomly off a shelf in the bookstore (I liked the title) and was so taken with it.

American Genius
is about a woman in a psychiatric hospital (or maybe an artist's colony) who, so far, has spent the book eating meals and thinking. The narrative is a chain of ideas instead of a chain of events, and lately, I find no plot more compelling than a character thinking deeply and originally about ordinary things. This is what the narrator has to say about friendship:
One such friend, someone I liked but didn't know long, to whom I was indifferent for a period of time, unaware of her own anguish in a time of my own trouble, disappeared, not only from my own view but from others', and when I searched for her, but could not locate her, but then finally did, she would have nothing to do with me. I expect I am an enemy of hers now, while she will always be someone I like whom I may have hurt inadvertently, and those are the saddest enemies to have.

Which is great, but she goes on:
Although, since I didn't know her well, she may be a shallow, thick-skinned, insensitive character, an opportunist or someone so damaged as to be incapable of love and compassion. The saddest enemy is her kind, and I don't want to dwell on it, so I never mention her, because for one thing she was never vital to my life, and also it's usually better not to say anything, especially about subjects plagued by illegibility.

The narrator turns from rueful self-examination to defensiveness, as if she had to chase away her creeping depression with anger.

I read a quote by Philip Roth recently that said something to the effect of (sorry, I tried googling, no cigar) that the only project left for the novelist is delineating human consciousness. And he has a point: movies do plot better; poems do language; reality teevee takes care of relationships. But the novel is where you find out what it's like to be inside someone else's skull.

Speaking of skulls: this book was published by Soft Skull Press, which specializes in novels that no one else will publish. (As the shoe store down my street specializes in "hard-to-fit sizes.") And that is admirable -- Soft Skull publishes some great stuff -- but it's also a goddamn shame, because they only pay their authors an advance of $300 to $1000. I hope at the very least this book has earned her some new readers and the attention of wealthier publishers, because I want to live in a world that gives Lynne Tillman some real money.

More later, when I finish.


Anonymous said...

Added that to my BookMooch list. Looks good. Along the lines of that Roth quote, delineation and such: Robert Lopez' "Part of the World" which I still am due to review, maybe this weekend.


i agree, American Genius is probably one of the most engrossing books i've read in a while. it kind of hypnotizes you if you let it. glad to hear someone else talking about it--- it hasn't seem to get its due. nice post...

Unknown said...

I am a great fan of American Genius oo. Yes, let's start a fan club--or do a wiki.

rmellis said...

I don't know how to do a wiki, but I will definitely start a fan club once I read her other books. Watch this blog for details...