The New York Times
American Genius, A Comedyby Lynne Tillman
Lynne Tillman’s previous novels have won her both popular approval and critical praise from such literary heavyweights as Edmund White and Colm Tóibín. With American Genius, her first novel since 1998's No Lease on Life, she shows what might happen if Jane Austen were writing in 21st-century America. Employing her trademark crystalline/i>/i>… See more details below
Lynne Tillman’s previous novels have won her both popular approval and critical praise from such literary heavyweights as Edmund White and Colm Tóibín. With American Genius, her first novel since 1998's No Lease on Life, she shows what might happen if Jane Austen were writing in 21st-century America. Employing her trademark crystalline prose and intricate, hypnotic sentences, Tillman fashions a microcosm of American democracy: a scholarly colony functioning like Melville’s Pequod. In this otherworld, competing values rationality and irrationality, generosity and selfishness, love and lust, shame and honor collide through a witty narrative, cycling through such disparate tropes as skin disease, chair design, and Manifest Destiny. All this is folded into the narrator’s memories and emotional life, culminating in a séance that may offer escape and transcendence or perhaps nothing. Grand and minute, elegiac and hilarious, Lynne Tillman expands the possibilities of the American novel in this dazzling read.
The New York Times
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American GeniusA Comedy
By Lynne Tillman
soft skull pressCopyright © 2006 Lynne Tillman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe food here is bad, but every day there is something I can eat and even like, and there's a bathtub, which I don't have at home. I can have a bath here every day before dinner, which is at 7:30 p.m and usually unsatisfying. But I can't wait for dinner because it's the official end to my day, and there will be other people around with whom I can talk and who may distract me. I'm often distracted from the things I must do, which I feel compelled or expected to accomplish. But here I hope to discover what might help me or that I need to know, or what I don't need to know, for instance, about the other residents in the community.
Sometimes I have a chance to have a bath before dinner. I eagerly undress and fill the old-fashioned, footed bathtub with very hot water, pour bath oil under the faucet, three capfuls which is supposed to invigorate your body, moisturize your skin and soothe your mind, and though this never happens, my mind is never soothed, I still liberally pour in bath oil that claims to soothe the mind and help the skin. My skin is dry during the winter and also during the summer, it is dry the year long, I have very sensitive skin, which is what the Polish woman at home who gives me a facial every two months tells me, repeatingeach time I have a facial, Your skin is very sensitive, probably because we don't have much else to talk about. We don't have much in common, but I hear stories about her life and know she was once married, and that she now goes on dates with men and on trips and outings with girlfriends.
One day while I was having a facial in the salon, a dignified word for the cramped, dingy space, the doorbell rang and she answered it. She is the only one working there, except on weekends, when the owner, an attractive woman who takes good care of herself and has two children and a husband, works, too. The woman who gives me facials doesn't have a husband and children but would like to. She is also attractive and takes good care of herself, and works five days a week. At the door was the man she was just telling me about, who was pursuing her and asking her for dates, which she declined, putting him off evasively. He entered the cramped space.
When the Polish woman, known professionally as a cosmetician and beautician, had finished cleaning my pores and moisturizing my sensitive skin, he was still there, waiting, crudely handsome and glowering, sitting on an ugly plastic-covered chair near the table with out-of-date beauty magazines. I glanced at him, someone I knew slightly, but didn't remember how, which is often the case, many faces are unbearably familiar and indistinct, so it was embarrassing, because he was waiting for her, and I shouldn't have seen him in this setting, when she didn't want to date him or maybe ever get married or perhaps couldn't, because she took care of her mother, or she's too picky or because she doesn't really like men. Probably I should have warned her that he was not a good man, it was easy to see, because why else would he surprise her, coming unannounced and perhaps unwanted to her place of work, where she was supposed to be safe from such incidents, but I didn't, because people, women especially, like to hear they have sensitive skin or that they are sensitive. It supposedly distinguishes them from animals who are not sensitive in the way that human beings apply the word. An animal's skin is usually not sensitive, though I have a friend whose cat has sensitive skin; it often has sores at its mouth and is allergic to many kinds of food, and my cat, the one I put to sleep because it stalked me, had dry skin and dandruff. Animals and some men are predatory, though female cats make better hunters. People are strange about their animals. I like animals, especially cats and dogs, birds, too, and I am often disturbed about the fate of animals, though I eat meat, fish, and fowl, and don't appreciate the audible disdain or silent criticism of a few self-righteous vegetarians who sometimes sit at my dinner table here. Two dogs nearly killed one of the kittens our family cat gave birth to, nearly tore it in two, but my mother rescued it and carried it to the vet, where it was sewn up and lived. My mother loved our family cat, then she gave it away after it decapitated and ate my bird, and neither of us, her two children, was able to forget the terrible fate of our cat, certainly not I, even now that my mother's brain is damaged. No one brings it up, not any more, though when my mother talks about the family cat now and how much she loved her, how special the cat was, I avert my eyes, I look down, I have to, because otherwise I might shout, You killed the cat.
Before I arrived here, a tarot card-reader, whose predictions I would ordinarily dismiss, since I believe only the past can be read, though it is also unknowable, but who struck me as unusually astute, predicted that I would meet an obstacle or person who would forever change my life. My cards were powerful, he said, which I heard with incredulity, though, as he spoke, it occurred to me that it didn't matter what I believed of his philosophy, since the notion had already taken hold, one that might come to my aid, a placebo, or one I wanted to accept, since belief is important, everything, and also nothing much, an attachment like a skein of froth. About the prediction, I told no one, and my life did change, but not in the way the card-reader foresaw.
My parents gave away my dog, because they said they couldn't take care of her, but I didn't believe them. I should have saved my dog, who was devoted and good, and never hurt anyone, except maybe a plumber. When I left home at eighteen, thrown out by my parents, which had consequences for the future I didn't consider then, a plumber came to the apartment where I stayed for a time with friends to fix the toilet, when only I was there, and because my dog was nervous and scared, protecting me in a strange, new place, she bit the plumber on his calf. He couldn't be reassured she wasn't rabid. The next day a policeman came to the door and served a summons, legally compelling me to bring my dog to the ASPCA, to a division called BITES, where my dog had to be examined, the smallest dog in an ugly office, obviously not rabid, terrified of the bigger, growling dogs near her, and it was after that I gave my dog back to my parents, because I couldn't take care of her. She couldn't live in an apartment, having been raised in a house with a lawn in a neighborhood where she was able every morning to go for walks around town with her best friend, Pepe, a standard black poodle, one of the two dogs who had mauled and nearly killed the kitten, but that was long ago and forgiven because the kitten lived and Pepe was such a good friend to our dog, even though he once bit her on the genitals and she had to go to the dog and cat hospital.
When Pepe came to take her for a walk around town the next morning and she wasn't there, he refused to leave the house until my mother opened the door and let him search for her, and only then, after he'd gone upstairs and downstairs and into the basement, only then, when he didn't find her, did Pepe go home. I gave my dog to my parents for safekeeping, until I could take care of her, because in the winter, when there's snow on the ground, my dog couldn't go for a walk on a leash since the City salts the sidewalks with minerals that hurt dogs' paws, and walking, she whimpered and yelped, and I had to carry her to a place where she could be set down to piss and shit, and after she did, I would have to carry her again. I gave her to my parents, then my parents gave her away, had her killed, though they insisted someone adopted her, after they lied about her age-she was eight, but looked younger, my father contended-so she was adopted under false pretenses, and neither of us children ever believed the story, that she had been adopted, that she had not been killed, but there was nothing to do, it was too late, she was gone.
I'd been asleep, absorbed in myself, not thinking about the animal I professed to love, while I convinced myself theirs was an empty threat, because it was inconceivable that my parents would give her away, then my dog was gone. I know a woman who defended her dogs from criticism even when they attacked a stray cat, which could have been torn apart and killed, and also didn't express any concern for the cat or believe that her dogs should be controlled; instead, the dogs' owner talked about another cat who had successfully defended itself against her occasionally vicious dogs, and, from a safe place, hit them with its paw. Cats can defend themselves was her spurious point, but a domestic animal shouldn't have to know how to defend itself against predatory dogs. People defend the bad actions of their animals, themselves, or their children rather than face the unsavory conclusion that there is something wrong with the animal, their children, themselves, with the world, and their job is to acknowledge it, even to rid the world of it, certainly not to pretend that it isn't there, that everything is all right, that they and their animals are good, because they didn't mean it, and can't help themselves. Instead they do nothing, accepting the brutality of animals, themselves, other people, and the world, since they believe it has nothing to do with them, they want to think it has nothing to do with them. A slap in the face is not a slap in the face when it comes from them, because they didn't mean it, because they had sad childhoods, their parents gave away their dogs and cats, their parents gave them away and didn't love them.
I love my animals. People love their animals, the way they love their own farts and everything else attached to them that is close to them yet not them. Because they are not their animals or their farts, they love them. Eskimos have a saying, Every man loves the smell of his own farts, which most people wouldn't admit. I know a man who was kicked out of a fast-food restaurant because he farted. I was once in a restaurant when an obese boy farted, the smell was overpowering, and a friend and I had to move to a different part of the restaurant, but the boy appeared satisfied, because he loved the smell of his fart. Everyone loves their own farts, which could get them kicked out of restaurants or humiliated in public settings, where people try to act not like animals but sensitively, if it serves their purposes, but no one is sensitive enough about other people. They are sensitive about themselves, their animals, their feelings and beliefs, and other people can go to hell with their dogs, their farts, and their feelings.
At breakfast, I noticed the expressions on two women's faces, women in their late-twenties who looked unhappy, something had not gone well for them, was not going well for them in that moment or in their dreams or in last night's telephone call, but I didn't say anything to them, though I believed I should show concern. I walked past them and ordered two fried eggs over medium-which I like, though when I was a child I would have gagged on-before the kitchen closed, otherwise I wouldn't have eaten until lunch. Lunches are rarely good, they are often the worst meal of the day, and sometimes there is very little anyone can eat, but I didn't want to be hungry later, waiting for dinner, alone, thinking about the dog I hadn't saved, who loved carrots, seeing her guileless face before me, her tail wagging happily, as she ran up the driveway which had an oil slick on it, a leak from my father's gray Buick, of which he was proud, the dog unaware that one day she would be given away by the people who loved her. I've never had another dog. I've had cats, and one especially I cherished, in Amsterdam, all of whose kittens but one died in a week from an infestation of fleas, which occurred frequently during Amsterdam summers, but of which I'd had no experience and no one spoke, never warning me of the inevitable and severe consequences for newborn kittens, for whose deaths I take responsibility. They lay in a drawer in my desk as their lifeblood was drained away, sucked by fleas, whose own life may be valuable to some, but I now have a young cat, technically a kitten, rescued from the streets by animal lovers, who resembles the sole survivor of that doomed litter. My young cat had distemper but he survived, because a veterinarian believed it was worth dosing him with strong, expensive antibiotics, while warning me soberly that the kitten had only a 50/50 chance of survival, but when I visited my cat during the four-day ordeal in which his life hung in the balance, I was chastised by the veterinarian's receptionist, because, upon hearing my kitten cry, I ran to the room from which the cries emerged, a room no bigger than a closet, and messy, and the receptionist became angry, suspecting that I might steal her bag and coat, which were also in the room with my lonely, sick cat. Though the vet saved my cat's life, I have never returned.
My cat plays, purrs, bites, and goes for people's hands. He is a little wild and may become vicious when he's older, or he may calm down, but I don't want to have to put him to sleep, to kill him, if he turns vicious and attacks someone. When I am no longer here, eating breakfast with other people whose complexions and facial expressions signal a distress I don't want to deal with, wondering how much I should get involved with them and their problems, I won't have people come to my apartment and meet my young cat. I don't like their coming, anyway, I don't like people seeing or saying things about what I have around me, on my walls or on my shelves; it is no business of theirs how I live or what I put on a table or my desk, a wooden board with a plate of half-inch-thick glass over it, a reasonable desk in an unexceptional apartment, in which I live with a young cat, and for some years with a man, but not now, and the cat may or may not become vicious, which is a problem for the future.
Everything is a problem in some way, I can't think of anything that's not a problem from the past for the future, and I often worry, frowning to myself, unaware that I'm frowning, my lips turning down involuntarily, which I've been told to stop doing since I was a child, because it creates the impression that I'm sullen and also etches fine lines around my mouth, but I can't. My father worried about the future, which presumably he could imagine, but I can't, just as I can't imagine lines like tributaries running from the river of my mouth the way they do from my mother's, who was angry, who'd abandoned her girlish hopes of marrying a violinist named Sidney, and who often speaks of him now that my father is dead, wondering where Sidney is, and also wondering where my father is, if he is outside, waiting for her in the car that he loved. She might have seen the future in us, if we'd been someone else's children. By the time I knew my brother, he was thirteen and I was two, so he and my parents were the future that lived with and preceded me, it lay before me and also excluded me, so I didn't consider it, not when I was a small child, since it was already in their lives. I didn't mature fantasizing its arrival, and even knowing that I won't be here to witness another future and be dedicated to it, or of it, that I exist as one version of the future I hadn't fantasized, I'm only vaguely intrigued by its promise. The tenacity of the past makes me melancholy, though people like to say the past was a simpler time, but there is no simpler time, there are only simple people, and even they are not simple, but so exhaustively undermined as to be plain. Memory can be consumptive, a sickness, whose effects are wily and subversive, worthy of flight or fight, and tenacious unwritten histories leave tremulous marks on bodies in action, at rest, but not their final rest, and under siege. My body is encased in sensitive, dry skin. Skin is an organ, and the body's largest one, protecting the body under coats of many colors. The story of Joseph is one of two Bible stories I remember, because it was about fabric and colors, both of which my father mentioned, since he was in the textile business, and it was also about rivalry, which my parents never mentioned, though I wasn't aware of reticence then.
Excerpted from American Genius by Lynne Tillman Copyright © 2006 by Lynne Tillman. Excerpted by permission.
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