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, skin—and what “sensitivity” means in our culture and society. A new edition of a contemporary classic, with an introduction by novelist Lucy Ives.
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.
[Lynne Tillman] is my secular art angel.
American Genius is a masterpiece. The intricate sentences, which include the alternative or opposite possibilities raised by every topic and event, provide bewitching experiences of the ambiguities of experience, always as clear as crystal, even as they shatter the crystal into luminous shards.
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.
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.
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.
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.