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No Lease on Life

No Lease on Life

by Lynne Tillman

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The New York of Lynne Tillman’s hilarious, audacious fourth novel is a boiling point of urban decay.

The East Village streets are overrun with crooked cops, drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes. Garbage piles up along the sidewalks amid the blaring soundtrack of car stereos. Confrontations are supercharged by the summer heat wave. This merciless noise has


The New York of Lynne Tillman’s hilarious, audacious fourth novel is a boiling point of urban decay.

The East Village streets are overrun with crooked cops, drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes. Garbage piles up along the sidewalks amid the blaring soundtrack of car stereos. Confrontations are supercharged by the summer heat wave. This merciless noise has left Elizabeth Hall an insomniac. Junkies roam her building and overturn trashcans, but the mean-spirited landlord refuses to help clean or repair the decrepit conditions. Live-in boyfriend Roy is good-natured but too avoidant to soothe the sores of city life.

Though Elizabeth fights on for normalcy and sanity in this apathetic metropolis, violent fantasies threaten to push her over the edge. In vivid detail, she begins to imagine murders: those of the “morons” she despises, and, most obsessively, her own.

Frightening, hilarious, and wholly addictive, No Lease on Life is an avant-garde sucker-punch, a plea for humanity propelled by dark wit and unflinching honesty. Tillman’s spare prose, frank, poignant and always illuminating, captures all the raving absurdity of a very bad day in America’s toughest, hottest melting pot.

Editorial Reviews

David Gates
Lynn Tillman's latest novel, No Lease on Life, appropriates for artistic uses the indignities most prisoners of rent-controlled squalor only rant about. And it dramatizes what the city that never sleeps can do to a tough, smart, but no longer quite so resilient woman. -- New York Times Book Review
Sarah Vowell

It's tempting to call Lynn Tillman's No Lease on Life a utopian novel. Which doesn't mean that it's a grand book, or even an overly optimistic one. As the chronicle of one ordinary woman's day in the East Village, it's almost mundane in a deadpan sort of way. Who could imagine any contemporary New York story as idealistic? Tillman describes much of the wearing, wearying routine of the city's daily life -- all that garbage, all those druggies and creeps and whores we've met in a million Letterman one-liners jammed into a scrawny crevice of land while the rest of America's so huge and airy and free. But Tillman's book is utopian precisely because it takes those things into account; because its heroine fantasizes about murdering all "the morons" not out of hate, "but dignity and a social space, a civil space, actually civilian space."

On her block, in her building, everyone knows Elizabeth because she speaks up. She worries. She doesn't just wish for less filthy hallways or less street noise in the wee small hours. She calls. She calls the police and the landlord and the super. She reports infractions to the city. An insomniac, she sits at her window night after night keeping track of the semi-chaos and quasi-tragedies. Still, "Elizabeth didn't want to care about everything." A key to her character might be her job. She works part-time as a proofreader. Maybe after years and years of erasing other people's errors on the page, she can't help but want to correct the errors of city life.

The story surrounding Elizabeth is spared from its do-gooder, buttinsky overtones by a constant bone-dry humor. It feels real, maybe too real. But Tillman uses an obtrusive formal device to bump into the reader. She sprinkles the text with dozens and dozens of jokes, inserting them randomly into the narrative in such a way that the plot stops cold. For example, a section about the new stove Elizabeth and her boyfriend had to buy when the old one quit working is interrupted by this "What do you get when you cross a Mafioso with a deconstructionist? What? An offer you can't understand." These breaks scream to the reader a reminder that she's holding a book, not a mirror. But at the same time, the willy-nilly punch lines mimic the way humor works as a kind of non sequitur in daily life: Errand, errand, joke, errand, work, subway, dinner, joke. This sometimes sick shtick comes across as a defense mechanism. And who can't relate? Isn't every public-transportation-riding, rent-paying, law-abiding urban dweller about two or three knock-knock jokes away from homicide? Because New York, and America for that matter, has no monopoly on morons, we can, all of us, remember Tillman's protagonist the next time we fantasize about offing them all, and whisper under our breath, Elizabeth, c'est moi. -- Salon

Kirkus Reviews
New Yorker Tillman (Cast in Doubt, 1992, etc.) returns to fiction after her recent book of essays (The Broad Picture, p. 939), vividly conveying a heat-maddened day and night in one woman's complex relationship with her East Village neighborhood, a junkie zone where everyone has an attitude and no one gets ahead.

On her block, Elizabeth Hall is in the minority in more ways than one: She's white, well-educated, has a regular job, and she cares about her surroundings. While morons are cavorting down in the street during the wee hours, dumping trash cans and smashing windshields, she's up in her window watching and fantasizing about how she might kill them off. After her do-nothing landlord sends notice of a rent increase, Elizabeth responds to a neighbor's call to resist, successfully working the city bureaucracy until the landlord relents—a pyrrhic victory in light of the fact that there's still no lock on her building's front door to keep the junkies from shooting up (or even worse) in the hallways as they please. Meanwhile, as Elizabeth walks her street, she talks sympathetically with Jeanine the hooker and Gisela the crazy bag- lady, offering what consolation she can. But her sleepless nights, her dead-end job as a magazine proofreader, her relentlessly ironic boyfriend, and the shadow man who watches her from his window across the street as she finally takes action, firing eggs surreptitiously from her fire escape onto the heads of another band of troublemakers, add up to a life in which heroic action achieves the same result as treading water.

Tillman's view of city life seen through the not-quite-jaded eyes of a determined survivor has its share of honest moments and rough humor, but too much familiar material and a steady stream of fair-to-weak jokes unmercifully dilute this fourth novel.

From the Publisher
"A terribly up-close and personal examination of urban angst and fury. It is also a funny, frightening, and utterly brilliant tour de force."-Bay Area Reporter
"[Elizabeth] is a character who stays with you after you put the book down-a creature of occasional dark impulses, intermittent grumpiness and perennial willingness to pull up her socks and deal."-The New York Times Book Review
"As energetic and raunchy as a New York street."-San Francisco Chronicle

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In jail, after she'd murdered the moron, she'd be given one phone call, but only after she'd demanded it. She's gonna lawyer up, a sleek cop would whisper to his partner, the beer-bellied one. Elizabeth didn't know who she'd phone from jail. Roy would think it was a joke. She didn't have a lawyer.

I have the right to remain silent. I have the right to remain single. I have the right to live with someone. I have the right to have a lawyer. I have the right to be sad. I have the right to be stupid. I have the right to be happy when other people are miserable. I have the right to make one telephone call.

Silently Elizabeth gave herself a Miranda warning. You aren't Latin, you aren't going to wiggle your hips for money and wear fruit on your head, you aren't going to turn yourself in to the authorities, even though you are guilty. You will try to destroy the authority within. You are not going to destroy yourself. You will sleep tonight. You are going to quit your job. You are going to tell the fat man off. You are going to tell her to leave you alone.

A car alarm shrieked. The block's wake-up call. Elizabeth flipped over on the couch. She covered her ears with her hands. The alarm screeched, wailed, pulsated, pounded. It demanded and sounded like inevitability. It was torture. There were fewer car alarms. No one paid attention to them because they cried wolf.

The chimes on the church across the street rang dully a few minutes after the hour. 8 A.M.

Her friend used to keep a dozen eggs on his windowsill. When a car alarm went off under his window, especially when he was sick and couldn't sleep, he was always ready to toss eggs. He was tall and had long arms. She never asked him if he hit a car. It was too late to ask. He was dead.

Elizabeth watched the clock tick silently while the car alarm screamed. If one of her foes saw her throw eggs, and that foe owned the car or knew the person whose car it was, if the young super caught her doing it, it could mean trouble for her on the block. She worried about retaliation.

Cops didn't respond to car alarms. She didn't want to think about her dead friend. If she phoned the cops, they'd say they were sending a car. They always said that.

Being alive was its own reward.

Roy was sleeping. So was Fatboy. The alarm clock rang. Unconscious, Roy reached for it. He had a hard time finding it on the floor. He did and shut it off. He was still in Roy's underworld. The car alarm stopped. Heavy feet stomped up the stairs. Doorbells buzzed. Their doorbell. Twice. Rebellious, resigned, Elizabeth grunted and crossed the room. She walked to the broken clothes closet. She was naked. She pulled on her thickest robe. It was the Con Ed man.

The Con Ed man always rang twice. He appeared regularly, once a month. Depending on how eager he was to finish his day, which was the beginning of her day, he woke her at 7, 8, or 9 A.M. She'd put on her robe--he'd be shouting, CON ED CON ED CON ED, buzzing everyone's doorbell--and she'd let him in. He'd beam his flashlight at the meter, he'd punch in the numbers on his blue electronic notepad. Then he'd leave.

Elizabeth wondered how he felt about people in general, what kind of feelings he had about waking everyone, if he did, and how he felt about seeing people in semiconscious states, in their ratty robes, or half-naked, and whether he wanted the job so that he could see people like that. She wondered if his job made him like people more or less.

Elizabeth yelled, OK, wait a second. Her nakedness was covered. She opened the door to Con Ed. It was 8:30 A.M.

--You're late, she said.

He grinned and flashed his light at the meter, punched in the numbers. He appeared sheepish. He bent his head down as he walked out the door. He always lowered his head. He was tall, not as tall as her dead friend. Elizabeth shut the door behind him.

In the hospital her dead friend said to his mother, I'm at peace, then he shut his eyes, went to sleep, and left the world in the early morning of an Independence Day.

The Con Ed man shouted again, CON ED CON ED. Some tenants never opened their doors to him. He probably didn't take it personally, unless he was paranoid. Some tenants figured that the amount of gas and electricity Con Ed estimated was less than what they actually used. Those tenants received an official letter. Con Ed insisted upon reading their meters.

Elizabeth switched on the radio--we'll give you the world, 1010 WINS. She turned the volume low. The radio muttered fitfully. She put a pot of water on the stove. A thread dangled from the gas pipe. It hung there petulantly. It'd been there for half a century. It was there because if there was a gas leak, you could put a match to the thread and then explode.

Roy said she used too much toilet paper. She couldn't accept his leaving the seat up. After years of living with him, she still didn't understand him. She once had a boyfriend who didn't use toilet paper when he pissed, like Roy and other men, but his penis leaked. It left a wet spot on his pants. He had an operation on his penis, performed by his surgeon father. Later, he went to a therapist for a long time. Elizabeth broke up with him three years before Roy came along. She saw him on the street every once in a while. He looked insane.

She switched off the news. She turned on Courtney Love who sang morosely, "I make my bed, I lie in it." She had a right to be miserable. Everyone did.

Meet the Author

Lynne Tillman (New York, NY) is the author of five novels, three collections of short stories, one collection of essays and two other nonfiction books. She collaborates often with artists and writes regularly on culture, and her fiction is anthologized widely. Her last collection of short stories, This Is Not It, included 23 stories based on the work of 22 contemporary artists. Her novels include American Genius, A Comedy (2006), No Lease on Life (1998) which was a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Cast in Doubt (1992), Motion Sickness (1991), and Haunted Houses (1987). The Broad Picture (1997) collected Tillman’s essays, which were published in literary and art periodicals. She is the Fiction Editor at Fence Magazine, Professor and Writer-in-Residence in the Department of English at the University at Albany, and a recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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