American Genius, A Comedy is a confounding book in which the narrator, Helen, depicts the circular and contradictory nature of her thoughts during a time of retreat in an institution about which we know only a little. The institution is more than a hotel because we know it is meant to be a place of rest, somewhere in which its residents can relax and restore their strength, but there is a suggestion of its being one step away from a mental institution.
She has come to be relieved of the burden of her aging mother who suffers from dementia and much of Helen’s narrative returns to her relationship with her mother, her dead father, her missing brother and their family pets. Though we are never given a rounded history of any of her past, we do know that her father designed, wove and sold material for the clothing industry. She has a wealth of fabric knowledge that weighs each material’s suitability to encase, shroud, protect and mimic different skin types and needs.
Helen is obsessed with skin as the largest organ. Her own skin is sensitive, something she remarks many women wish to be.
‘But skin is the agent of the body that protects its other organs, by covering them, and by being an information station that allows the other organs, my doctor explained patiently, to adjust to changes in the outer environment. My condition, dermatographia or dermatographism, skin writing, is not life-threatening, but because of it my skin tingles, pulses, and itches, and if I were to stroke my arm with a fingernail, white lines would surface and be visible for at least fifteen minutes, as my skin releases histamines, which produce swelling, and this occurs in about ten percent of the population, but the swelling is not a hive, since in dermatographia only raised lines surface, which resemble writing on the skin. My dermatologist says friends could leave messages on my back, but they’d fade quickly.” (p69)
This interest in skin is a delightful ongoing metaphor. The information exchange of skin is two way: as skin relays information to other organs, so the organs, the mind included, relay information to the skin. Others can interpret our mental and physical state through reading the skin, though meticulous observation is key and no one can see without bias – and so emerges the politics of skin.
Helen’s ability to move between thoughts of dermatographia, shampoo and dreams of Kafka, or anorexia and her careful efforts to always try to buy cotton socks, mark the circuitry nature of her narrative: it evades, it repeats, it evolves into a remarkable rendition of consciousness in and over time.
One could argue that not much happens in the novel, but Helen is never truly idle. She reads about American history, she learns Zulu, she tries to design comfortable and elegant chairs, she takes apart objects, she mulls over her own past, the lives of the other residents who impinge upon her time there and in whom she takes equal delight and distaste, and thinks often of her Polish cosmetician whom she knows only as a client. The turns of her mind are playful, elegant and searing.
Helen is fixated by time. She calls herself a daughter of time and over and again she intones that ‘time is all we have’. She burns keepsakes from her past, she is fascinated by another resident’s compulsive collection of timepieces and thinks often of those who have passed out of time, her dead friends and family, her pets, that she can now only communicate with in her own mind. These lines of thought intertwine with the plot, as even an escape into the woods beyond the residence is unsuspectingly circular (I’m also trying hard not to mention the séance…).
American Genius, A Comedy would be a perfect subject for a thesis not least because its unassuming, tangential structure is as considered as any of the male canon whilst remaining assuredly female: this is a novel that touches on all the so called ‘female’ subjects of beauty, weight, clothes, romance and cats with an elegance and intensity that requires and rewards revisiting. It is funny. It is unpretentious. Though some may find it a little intense, I feel sure American Genius, A Comedy will stand the test of time and earn Lynne Tillman lasting notoriety, at least for as long as the time we have allotted to us. And I’ve said all this without reflecting upon what the novel says about American society, which is plenty.
Some of you may notice that this review comes a week late. I was, and remain, determined to keep November as a writing month and so the reading and blog have been delayed. This will be my last post until December when hopefully I’ll be much further along with my own writing.
Happy reading everyone. Do feel free to keep on sending me suggestions.