American Genius, A Comedy


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Book Description

Grand and minute, elegiac and hilarious, Lynne Tillman expands the possibilities of the American novel in this dazzling read about a former historian ruminating on her own life and the lives of others–named a best book of the century by Vulture.

In the hypnotic, masterful American Genius, A Comedy, a former historian spending time in a residential home, mental institute, artist’s colony, or sanitarium, is spinning tales of her life and ruminating on her many and varied preoccupations: chair design, textiles, pet deaths, family trauma, a lost brother, the Manson family, the Zulu alphabet, loneliness, memory, and sensitive skin–and what “sensitivity” means in our culture and society.

Showing what might happen if Jane Austen were writing in 21st-century America, Tillman fashions a microcosm of American democracy: a scholarly colony functioning like Melville’s Pequod. All this is folded into the narrator’s memories and emotional life, culminating in a seance that may offer escape and transcendence–or perhaps nothing at all. This new edition of a contemporary classic features an introduction by novelist Lucy Ives.

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Praise For This Book

Praise for American Genius, A Comedy

"Tillman's beautifully constructed sentences create their own propulsion, able to take a reader in any direction at any moment. From the opening pages, a singular consciousness emerges, both porous and radically isolated, and by stripping out most other elements, the book confirms the ultimate primacy of literary voice, of which this is a rare triumph." --Lidija Haas, Vulture, 1 of the 100 Most Important Books of the 2000s . . . So Far

"If you're looking for a book to really just get lost in, this re-release of Lynne Tillman's dense, winding, frantically brilliant novel is a good bet. Notice I didn't say safe bet, because there's little that's safe within these pages. Instead, you'll find the profane, twisted, knife edge-sharp thoughts of a former historian who is meditating on everything from the concept of sensitivity to the Manson murders. And you'll receive these thoughts in the inimitable literary stylings of Tillman, who goes places few other writers can even conceive of existing." --Kristin Iversen, NYLON

"American Genius, A Comedy is a novel of digression. Refusing linear plot for the meandering structure of recollection, the book takes the form of an stream-of-thought monologue delivered by a former American historian residing in a mysterious, clinic-like setting that might be a sanatorium or an artist's retreat but might also be something more sinister. In slippery paragraphs always on the edge of incoherence, we hear about the narrator's interest in baths, textiles, underarm waxing, the quirks and habits of most of her co-patients, and the history of slavery. A portrait of excessive interiority." --TANK Magazine

"If Jane Austen were pulled along a post-modern highway into the 21st century, forced to shed her fixation on marriage being the ultimate happy ending, the resulting novel might read a little like this." --Ruby Brunton, Cleveland Review of Books

"Tillman gives us a mind hilariously on fire with compensatory distractions, bristling with facts that may not help at all . . . The woman's mind spins, and with it a voice that's ardent and ironic, knowing and oblivious, repetitive and contradictory . . . What kind of 'comedy' is this? . . . The comedy, surely of a sort of late modernism, familiar from Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard: novelists whose narrators simply can't be quiet, but find themselves yammering away, the brain always buzzing, dry lips smacking and teeth clacking as their stories and theories and opinions come tumbling out . . . American Genius, A Comedy was timely in 2006, and still feels queasily of our moment." --Brian Dillon, 4Columns

Praise for American Genius, A Comedy (2006)

"The narrative voice is manic, neurotic, self-generative, very smart, loopy, deeply vulnerable, closely (obsessively) observant, narcissistic, and eminently contemporary. It is also very funny. Flawed, beautiful, sacred, insane." --George Saunders

"American Genius is a masterpiece."--Harry Mathews

"To read Tillman's tightly woven novel, which meshes inner and outer realms as well as past and present, is to enter into an intense relationship, a communion with another spirit, perhaps with some sort of genius. An involvement that, like all forms of heightened attention, be it friendship, love, hate, or pursuits intellectual or creative, is demanding and bewitching, harrowing and bemusing, revelatory and transforming." --Donna Seaman, Bookforum

"Tillman's prose builds to poetic brilliance." --Entertainment Weekly

"What emerges here is a bold showcase of a novel, a cabinet of curiosity, a proposal for what fiction could be." --The New York Times Book Review

"American Genius's Helen is perhaps Tillman's most exquisite invention--representing the purest distillation of her obsessive and maddening prose . . . Tillman's prose has a precision beyond measure--neither random nor opaque, it is overwhelming to read and recognize what is both delirious and normal . . . American Genius is the novel that established a very Tillmanian principle that can be clearly seen in retrospect: Thinking converts into language first, speech second, and feelings always." --Haley Mlotek, The Nation

"Reading the novel is like entering a room crowded with peculiar portraits, all brilliantly drawn. The book is a consummate work, one that levels Western history with family dynamics, pet deaths, Manson family references, the Zulu alphabet, skin disorders, and the loss of memory that afflicts us both personally and as a nation. Tillman once again proves herself a rare master of both elegant and associative writing, urging us to enter the moment, which is all we have and simultaneously cannot keep." --San Francisco Bay Guardian

"If I needed to name a book that is maybe the most overlooked important piece of fiction in not only the '00s, but in the last 50 years, [American Genius, A Comedy] might be the one. I could read this back to back to back for years." --Blake Butler, HTMLGiant

"I don't know if there's a precedent for this charming, maddening, brilliant, painstaking, and utterly mesmeric book." --Garth Risk Hallberg, The Millions

"To unravel the mordant skeins and associative daisy chains of American Genius is, quite often, to feel oneself gently possessed by the mind and memories of another. Tillman's work infers that such a transmission is an ideal for fiction--that narrative isn't just a means of organizing experience, but the stuff of consciousness itself." --Slate

"Tillman explores in all its minutiae how true sensitivity is both paralysing and liberating. When the meandering journey of American Genius finally ends, you might find you've come farther than you thought possible." --The Guardian