Wednesday, December 20, 2006

American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman

Lynne Tillman wrote one of the stories in the collection This is Not Chick Lit, which I reviewed in October, and liked. As a result of that review, her publisher sent me a review copy of American Genius, her novel. This is the first time this has happened to me, that someone I don't know has asked me to read a book and review it on this site. I admit to a bit of trepidation about this; I am an extremely picky reader, and don't like to read books just because I promised someone that I would. Nevertheless, I thought there was a good chance that I might like this book, having liked her short story, so I said yes. I was also intrigued by the idea of reading something from a small press, something that I might not come across in the very mainstream reading world that I inhabit.

My reaction to the book is mixed. I didn't care for the style – it's first person, stream of consciousness, with almost no dialogue, told from the point of view of a woman in some kind of institution – mental hospital? Nursing home? It was never clear to me. I think it must be a mental hospital because of the circular nature of the narrator's thoughts. She keeps returning and returning to the same obsessive themes and memories. Interspersed with these repeated themes are little digressions about things that seem totally unrelated to anything else (architecture, for example). I found it difficult to read because of this. I felt like nothing was connected to anything else, there wasn't enough forward motion, almost no plot, and too much repetition. Yet the writing was tight and interesting; it was kind of like watching a figure skater go round and round in the same precise circles, occasionally adding a new shape, but mostly repeating the same movements. You can admire the skill it takes to perform the drill, but how long can you really stand to watch it?

I was reminded a little bit of Nicholson Baker's books in the way that Tillman digresses into obscure subject areas (alopecia, the history of denim). I spent some time just flipping through the pages, finding these little gems and reading them. Yet she returns again and again to her dead pets, her skin conditions, her difficult mother. It's like picking a scab.

Did I fail to understand the book because I failed to finish it? I think so. Maybe this book is like a crop circle, whose coherent whole is indistinguishable from ground level, but is beautiful from the air. I think if I had finished it I would have gotten it.

So I guess it was just me. I have no patience for the experimental or the overly tricky. While I enjoy the occasional bit of creativity with language, it must come wrapped in a package that meets my other criteria (must be mostly linear, with strong plot and well developed characters). Kate Atkinson is an example of a writer whose whimsy is at the outer edge of what I can tolerate. But some people like this kind of thing. That Jonathan Safran Foer book that I trashed recently has many many fans. Who can tell what will appeal to a reader? I just know what appeals to me.

I can't assign a letter grade to this book because I didn't finish it. Thanks to Richard from Soft Skull Press for sending this to me. I'm such a good girl that I can't seem to dislike it without apologizing just a bit.


Philly Lawyer said...

I was not able to get through it all.

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