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by Lynne Tillman (Soft Skull 1st edition published 2006)

"American Genius" is a beautiful book. incredibly well written, it draws you in and throws you out again, with deftly handled repetition forcing the text to hover somewhere between poetry and prose. The narrator is Helen, and Helen was the name of the "missing" character in Tillman's third novel "Cast In Doubt". In "Cast In Doubt", Helen is a young woman who appears to represent romanticism or post-modernism; while the 'main' 'character' Horace, who is searching for Helen (as a way of searching for himself and his 'other') is an archetype of classicism or modernism. When Horace acquires Helen's diary, and he fails to recognise his post-modern "romantic" other, his classical cum modernist facade simultaneously crumbles. Helen in "American Genius" appears to be both a middle-aged version of Helen from "Cast In Doubt" and a fictional version of the author Lynne Tillman. The narrator is living in an institution but exactly why is never made clear, and although she is surrounded by curious personalities, she tends to avoid company. Helen likes to speculate about others, to observe them, but is wary of getting too involved. She tells us about her life and her outlook on life, and in doing so obsessively returns to subjects such as her senile mother, the cat and dog her mother gave away, her father's textile business, the Polish woman who gives her facials, skin and skin complaints, American history, Leslie Van Houten and the Manson murders. These repetitions are humorous and as such serve to 'deconstruct' the so called "Great American Novel", which this book parodies and undermines. If Henry James was a theoretically informed post-modernist (and had thus carefully avoided a stance of po-mo "extremism" precisely because "extremism" is relational and not rational), then this book would serve to ventriloquise him. Helen, ventriloquising Tillman, puts it this way: "I'm not willing to doubt everything all the time, because then doubt isn't doubt, but a form of certainty..." (page 236).

To illustrate the subtlety at work here I'll quote from page 26: "She (the Polish woman) tends to my skin and me, a woman of Jewish origin, a faith in which I have no faith and feel no spiritual kinship, but into which I was born, and tells me how sensitive my skin is, when not many years ago Polish people, possibly her parents or grandparents, might have made skin like mine into lampshades..." Helen continues to muse on the Polish woman, and this leads to the observation: "Louis-Ferdinand Celine said that ten percent of galley slaves were volunteers, because people want masters..." Celine is, of course, a notorious literary anti-Semite and placed in this context his views are simultaneously invoked and cancelled (as they should be). That said, everything Helen writes is cancelled and reversed, negated, turned around, turned over, considered, rejected, and the resultant ambiguity is both provocative and productive - it leaves the reader feeling they know both more and less than when they began the novel. Helen, ventriloquising Tillman, puts it this way: "I'm not willing to doubt everything all the time, because then doubt isn't doubt, but a form of certainty..." (page 236).

"American Genius" is a simulation of the "Great American Novel", a simulation that is more real (i.e. hyperreal - and thus "greater") than the ideological chimera it both simulates and parodies. It is a carefully crafted and structured book that undermines structure and craft to reveal that our world (or rather our anti-world) consists of chaos and flux. Nonetheless, Tillman's simulation of a narrative climax in the form of a seance and its aftermath proves emotionally satisfying, and the intellectual anti-climaxes which simultaneously buttress and undermine this achievement are equally breathtaking: "History repeats itself, but differently, people repeat themselves, there is a compulsion to repeat, which is not chosen, and few actually appreciate conscious repetition, except psychoanalysts, scientists, salespeople and shopkeepers, who depend on regular customers, and artists, who might find elegance in it..." (page 221) Here Tillman invokes Marx, who famously (and it appears "falsely") attributed the claim that "History repeats itself..." to Hegel - perhaps as homage or possibly as pastiche; and Marx informs us that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Following Bergson, or rather the rewriting of Bergson by post-modernists such as Gilles Deleuze, Tillman understands repetition (and difference) to be (or perhaps not to be) the basis of all humour. She even subtitles her book 'a comedy' (a more subtle and less respected form than tragedy), and in her invocation of salespeople and shopkeepers appears to be (but perhaps isn't) standing the critique of the commodity form made by Marx on its head, and in the very way that Marx claimed to have turned Hegel upside down to place him on his feet (but Tillman's interest appears to be "Spectres Of Marx" a la Derrida rather than a desire to correct his "errors").

"American Genius" is a powerful primer on the three R's of post-literate society - "Repetition, Repetition and Repetition". This is not simply as good as fiction ever gets, it is actually better because it dissolves the traditional form of the bourgeois novel and in going beyond it simultaneously returns us to the joys of the "pre-modern".

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Books & Writing

cover of American Genius by Lynne Tillman