Named a Best Book of the Century by Vulture“Tillman’s beautifully constructed sentences create their own propulsion, able to take a reader in any direction at any moment . . . the book confirms the ultimate primacy of literary voice, of which this is a rare triumph.”–Vulture “I won’t always be here, and if I consider that, and regularly remind myself that I only have to be in a particular situation for an hour or two, whether I’m unhappy or not, I can manage it. I’ve been cold and miserable; I’ve been lost; deceived; I’ve been bored silly; drunk; my underpants have been wet from nervous agitation; the skin on my inner thighs has chafed to a fiery red from rubbing against wool; I’ve been robbed; fainted from shock; and I’ve been alarmed beyond words or stricken with fear hearing bitter words flare between friends in freakish eruptions of hatred in bizarre locations, since most sites are not right for confrontation, and when I have no right to speak and no involvement, except self-protection, I have become itchy, my skin a plane of heat, as if a match had been struck against it and my entire body set ablaze. But I was able to withstand it, only because I knew it would end.” 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. A new edition of a contemporary classic, with an introduction by novelist Lucy Ives.
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.
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.
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.
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.
American Genius is a masterpiece.
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.
Tillman’s prose builds to poetic brilliance.
What emerges here is a bold showcase of a novel, a cabinet of curiosity, a proposal for what fiction could be.
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.
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.
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.
I don’t know if there’s a precedent for this charming, maddening, brilliant, painstaking, and utterly mesmeric book.
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.
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.