Monday, October 23, 2006

American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman

The first line of direct dialogue in this novel comes on page 204. An interesting lesson to my students who belive a novel should resemble a movie script. The first 203 pages are all monologue, a steady flow of long sentences that move from one thought to the next, between anecdote and fact and description of the moment and then back again, returning from time to time to some key motifs (skin, Zulu phrases, a murdered cat, breakfast, lunch and dinner) in a rhythm that feels surprisingly natural. And this is what I loved most about the novel. The first 203 pages are like moving into someone else's brain. It's not a conventional structure in the this happens and then that happens sense (though there is some of that), and yet the novel does not feel abstract and detached or even difficult to follow. Because Tillman, though she stays in the brain's eye view of the narrator, never forgets that the narrator has a body. So the physical world is not absent, it's just witnessed through this voice that never breaks out of its own head ... until p. 204. And I suppose that break may have been necessary in order for the novel to reach an end... the circular nature of the monologue might never have permitted a sense of conclusion otherwise. Overall, it's a truly original piece of writing.

The thing most reviewers note about the novel is you are never sure where it's set--the two common guesses being an artist's colony or a mental institution (insert obvious joke here). And I admit I read it as an artist's colony, probably because in that way I could match it to my own experience. But I tried to force myself to read it as both--or even other--possibilities since Tillman clearly chose not to be clear. I often talk to students about the difference between ambiguous writing and confusing writing--ambiguous having multiple possible correct readings and confusing having one correct reading that the reader can't figure out. And yet even in ambiguous reading I have a tendency to believe there is one correct answer. So I found I couldn't simultaneously read this as a novel of a mental institution AND a novel of an artist's colony. Just as I can't simultaneously read Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body as narrated by a man and by a woman--my brain insists on reading her as a woman. But it would be interesting if I could--will have to work on this.

1 comment:

jksather said...

I just wanted to thank you for keeping such an interesting blog. I haven't read all of the archives yet; have you read/discussed Justin Cronin, Jane Mendelsohn, or Robert Olen Butler?