A Wrinkle in the Mind: On Lynne Tillman's "American Genius"

A Wrinkle in the Mind: On Lynne Tillman's "American Genius"

Lynne Tillman | American Genius: A Comedy | Soft Skull Press | February 12, 2019 (re-issue) | 384 Pages


“Again my head is a mob of arguments, a clutter of loose phrases and ill-conceived ideas”

-Lynne Tillman in American Genius: A Comedy


The overloaded mind is not a purely 21st century phenomenon, yet the increased access to highly detailed information on any topic has surely exacerbated it. A full mind leads to tension in the body, an inability to slip in to the illusive folds of sleep. Manuals for maintaining healthy sleep, such as the one Helen, the narrator of Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy, reads, suggest a slowing of thoughts, an emptying of the mind before climbing into bed. The genius will find such a task much harder than the less… thoughtful person, the manual states, for the genius’ mind is so much more full. Helen, one of the geniuses of the title, is preoccupied by many subjects, sleep being one of them. She exalts the deliciousness of a full night of it, with the fervor only one who’s experienced its lack can muster. 

Imagine being sucked into the swirling vortex of the thoughts that plague just before bedtime, but rather than your own, those of another. That is more or less the sensation of reading this 2008 title (recently re-released by Soft Skull press) with an introduction by Lucy Ives.  The book is a variation of the great American novel, where the epic feats mostly occur inside the head of its narrator, who is more interested in reflection on the past than participation in the present. Ives writes, “While she seems to allow that the present, as a distinct moment, exists, she seems none too sure that it is more than a mushy amalgam of past temporalities.” Or, from the mouth of our narrator herself, “It’s easy to be distracted, especially if you relish the past, dislike it, or wonder at its other, unchosen possibilities.” She is a historian, after all. There are no chapter breaks in the book; instead the reader is pulled into the vortex of Helen’s thoughts as her mind flits from one curiosity to another, from childhood memory to societal observation. 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. 

Helen the book’s narrator, is also the name of a girl who carried a diary with the label “analyst” on the cover from one of Tillman’s earlier novels Cast in Doubt. She’s living in in some kind of residence, the details of which are vague. It certainly hints at luxury, with a kitchen staff who prepare meals, private living quarters with at least two rooms and the possibility of receiving a massage or facial from a stern Polish woman,  yet there is mention of funded stays for residents with fewer means. It appears at times a sort of intellectual residency, her co-inhabitants including a Turkish poet, a professional magician and a social worker interested in the study of Kafka’s love life. Along with the massages and facials, provided lectures with titles such as “Live Food, Raw Food” lend to the feeling that it is more a spa than residency. Other times, it could be an asylum or jail, albeit a very pleasant one. Perhaps the whole place is an invention inside the narrator’s head, where she spends most of her time anyway. 

Whatever the details of the residency, which Tillman chooses to keep from us, it provides Helen plenty of time, in between meals, perusing old manuals and learning Zulu, to observe and to ruminate. Her relationship with others is something like that of an outgoing introvert; other people provide an interruption to her internal preoccupations, but only in small doses. A self-proclaimed “Xenophile”, she is an avid collector of others’ stories, but avoids getting too close, lest the interruption turn to influence: “I join the conversation at breakfast, especially when it’s entertaining, distracting, provocative or annoying, and, afterwards, I might feel soiled and wish for night… when nothing is expected from me and I expect nothing.” The fear of closeness with others is that they may soon come to want something from you, and Helen already has enough worries to not add disappointing others to the list.

She spends the time in between meals in her room or at the library, allowing her mind to wander. Alone, she obsesses over topics ranging from her facialist’s personal life, to skin diseases, to former Manson family members and convicted killer Leslie Van Houten, and even a lengthy musing on the history of the Eames chair. The relationship between the brutal and the mundane feels representative of the “American” culture of the title, where people’s quotidian lives play out in front of a backdrop of violence. Helen once taught college students this history, but banished herself from the job for not being able to reach her students with the idea of the crude brutishness of American culture in relation to other civilizations. A constant worrier will of course enter into the territory of questioning their assertions, but even here Tillman keeps us guessing: "I'm not willing to doubt everything all the time, because then doubt isn't doubt, but a form of certainty.” Helen speaks for the writer herself. 

The relationship between reality and fiction, knowledge and doubt is a common theme in Tillman’s writing. When she was invited to write art criticism, she shunned the idea of presenting her own opinions as the almighty critical truth, and instead created the character Madame Realism, her name a feminist challenge to the highly gendered Surrealist scene. Similarly to Helen, Madame Realism absorbs herself with fixations on history, memory and the slipperiness of the concept of “reality”. The character of Madame Realism becomes a tool to examine the limits of her own existence, as cited by Ives, “Spotted by fans in a women’s restroom, Madame Realism overhears one say, “I think that is Madame Realism, but do you think a fictional statement can ever be true?”” The 2016 edition of the collected Madame Realism stories by Semiotext(e) contain another Tillman character that sits between fiction and reality: Paige Turner. A writer, Turner begins one story with, “I have nothing to say.” Another of Tillman’s tricks, for she then goes on for pages while we follow the instruction of her name. 

Whether or not we have something to say is a constant writer’s fear, and yet at some point the thoughts bubbling around inside need to find an outlet - one that will almost always find a listener. “Other people’s stories can mollify and soothe,” as Helen proclaims. Perhaps this is because other people’s stories can help give the worrier who mostly lives inside their own head a much needed reality check. Helen is both listener and speaker, for everything she hears, as well as everything she thinks, is relayed to us. As we are pulled along the vortex of her thoughts, dotted with minor interactions with her fellow residents, it is safe to say not much happens, narratively speaking. Yet we find ourselves reaching a climax of sorts, in the form of a seance. Despite Helen’s wariness of emotional intimacy, her sexuality pierces through her stream of consciousness throughout. Finally, she may have a love interest, or at least sexual partner. Or perhaps it is a dream. Once the seance has reached its conclusion, our genius ends up right back where she started, having her skin polished by a new Polish woman, who agrees with the former that her skin is very sensitive. 

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