American Purgatorio: A Novel

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Genius + Soul

It creeps up on me in the middle of a Friday, like the gnawing sensation of possibly having left the oven on: I haven’t been reading enough Lynne Tillman. Thus I don’t know if there’s a precedent for this charming, maddening, brilliant, painstaking, and utterly mesmeric book. Certainly, there are shades of Hemingway and Stein and Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance here, passages on textiles reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Jamesian syntactical snarls. But the voice of Tillman’s fifth novel, American Genius, A Comedy, strikes me as sui generis. And it is the voice, gradually and then suddenly, that gives this novel its form, its heft, its suspense, and its unique quality of beguilement.Along the way, American Genius offers an effulgent answer to the question Benjamin Kunkel posed in N+1’s recent symposium on American writing: Whither the psychological novel? The opening pages throw us into the mind of an as-yet-unnamed narrator who muses on food, farts, Eames chairs, the Manson family, her own family, and skin, among other things. In fact, this woman’s consciousness acts not like a brain but like a skin – “the body’s largest organ,” she points out. That is, her genius is not for solving problems, but for registering them. She is, as she puts it, “sensitive.” Which is another way of saying clinically neurotic. She has trouble living in her own skin, and retreats to the life of the mind.Eavesdropping on her quotidian obsessions, we slowly gather that she is middle-aged, that she has studied and taught American history, and that she has endured the loss of many loved ones. And, importantly, we learn that she has checked in to an enigmatic New England retreat for scholars, all of whom seem to be in crisis somehow – Chataqua via The Magic Mountain. An eccentric cast of characters – a man who, like my college roommate, lives nocturnally; a woman longing to commune with Kafka’s dead lover, a man who lugs his laptop to breakfast – seems to promise drama, or, like the title, comedy. The precise nature of this scholarly colony, and the narrator’s precise reasons for being there, hover at the periphery of her consciousness, and thus at the periphery of the novel. But, in the absence of a traditional plot, our questions – Why did the narrator’s brother run away from home? What is the nature of her crisis? Why this obsession with dermatology? – serve as hooks, drawing us deep into the fabric of the prose.And what prose it is. Unlike some other experimental novels, American Genius unfolds in sentences so clear as to be pellucid. Like a sensitive skin, Tillman’s language registers every flicker of doubt, every shift in the book’s emotional weather. Simple clauses, phrased perfectly and spliced with Kafkan commas, double back to bite their own tails, or to measure the tension between past and present, or to erupt, via figures of speech, into fullness of feeling. Here, for example, is the narrator – Helen, it turns out (surely not the Helen of Tillman’s earlier novel Cast in Doubt?)- ruminating on therapeutic massage:When I’m in the place I call home, where I have a young wild cat and an old, frail mother who may or may not miss me, I see a Japanese therapeutic masseuse, whose attitude toward the body is vastly different from the Polish cosmetician’s, who twice has massaged me with gentle strength and kneaded my body respectfully, though she may not respect it or me. The Japanese masseuse acts against my body, she forces it to comply, as if trouncing a truculent enemy, and I can see her wringing her hands and canvassing my legs before moving toward them, to exact revenge.And here is Helen remembering her father:I watched my father charcoal broil while sitting on the grass or on the poured concrete steps that led from the blue and gray slate patio to the storm door to the back of the house, where my mother pushed her arm through the glass, and he was happy broiling steak over a fire, which he composed of briquettes and newspaper but never doused with fuel, which would, he explain, ignite it quickly but ruin its taste.The cumulative effect of these quiet surfaces, punctured by the abrupt humor of the masseuse’s imaginary adversary or the horror of the mother pushing her arm through the glass door, is at once soothing and hair-raising. The reader is charmed and made anxious, as Helen is. Her sentences, apparently evenhanded, turn out to be deeply subjective, and in the spaces between periods, much is repressed, withheld, or held for later. Ultimately, we come to know her not as we know characters in novels, but as we know others, or ourselves… which is to say deeply and incompletely, intimately and mysteriously.But American Genius does not merely aspire to the level of character study or prose experiment. By juxtaposing Helen’s personal concerns with her scholarly ones – or, more aptly, razing the distinction between the two – Tillman is concerned to craft a national novel. “I wanted to go for it,” she tells Geoffrey O’Brien in a Bomb Magazine interview, “[to] fully write about who and where we are – or, even, how to think about being an American now.” There is a feminist daring in the way Tillman goes about her work, eschewing battle scenes or historical pastiche in favor of awkward encounters in the colony’s dining hall, private memories of watching the Kennedys on TV. Still, as in Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica – a book whose form and mission complement this one’s – a vivid sense of the Zeitgeist emerges. Tillman reaches the apogee of her powers in bravura passages where world-historical events and painful memories and wry observational comedy are all braided together, shot through with Helen’s obliquely sad sensibility. And when events in the residents conspire, as they must, to goad Helen out of her inertial rut, the smallest action feels charged with the weight of centuries.In case I haven’t made this clear already: Lynne Tillman is a writer in full command of her effects. I am reminded of my recent and belated discovery of the short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg Twilight of the Superheroes, who also made me want to kick myself for having overlooked her work for so long. These writers’ mastery is so evident (and so hard-won), that to critique either feels almost like arguing with her sensibility.Nonetheless, I’m contractually obligated to record my quibbles (that is, Max has me chained in the basement here at The Millions and is withholding my gruel). The first – really more of an open question – concerns the deployment of Helen’s considerable erudition. Usually, her factual disquisitions seem to spring organically from her private fixations – that is, from her character. Nonetheless, I found some of the more undigested chunks of learning, particularly those explaining various medical conditions, to be slack places in the novel. At times, I felt the hand of the writer directing her narrator’s consciousness to areas of thematic fertility. Is Tillman researching this? I thought. Or is Helen thinking it spontaneously? Given the generally seamless illusion of life created here, calling attention to its status as a composed artifact felt like a mistake, however interesting. These bumpy passages generally smoothed themselves out after page 100, and perhaps it’s a case of the book teaching one how to read it. Nonetheless, in a novel as deserving of broad readership as this one is, the dips into the encyclopedic may present barriers to entry.Another initial hurdle arises from the setting. As a present-tense peg on which to hang the narrator’s past, the constrained environment of the intellectual colony at first seems to limit the book’s dramatic possibilities. As in a campus novel, there’s a faint plumminess to the surroundings, and one wonders how Tillman will reconcile the ambitions of the title – American Genius – with a setting so socially attenuated… so uppercrust. That she does is a testament to her immense gifts. The novel took possession of me about a third of the way through, when Helen decided to explore beyond the confines of the colony. And it didn’t let go until the end. Even afterward, at night, in bed, I’ve found myself missing the cadences of Helen’s sentences, the surprising and bewildering turns of her mind.Unlike some other ambitious novels I can think of, American Genius doesn’t require that the reader be a genius, too. It doesn’t try to overwhelm its audience – at least not with shock and awe tactics. Nor does it condescend to us. What it does require is patience. Readers eager for plot, dialogue, characters delivered in a single stroke… the sturdy appurtenances of conventional fiction, will have to open themselves to American Genius, to surrender to its magic, to trust. But they will be richly rewarded. And perhaps even changed.Sidebar: Recent “American” Novels:American Purgatorio by John Haskell (2004)American Desert (2004) by Percival EverettAmerican Skin (2000) by Don De GraziaIn America (2000) by Susan SontagPurple America (1997) by Rick MoodyAmerican Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth

A Year in Reading: An Emerging Best of List

Last year, Dan Wickett, proprietor of the Emerging Writers Network and its accompanying blog sent me his list of best books by emerging writers. The post was a big hit, and he was kind enough to share this year’s list with us. Enjoy:NovelsAmerican Purgatorio by John Haskell (interview, audio) – Haskell follows up his I Am Not Jackson Pollack with a page turner of a novel. He has adapted to the longer form with no problem at all.Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos (excerpt) – This is the debut effort by Dean, who has also published many excellent short stories in literary journals the past few years.Homeland by Sam Lipsyte (excerpt) – This one won’t be unfamiliar to LitBlog readers. Lipsyte’s paperback original has some great black humor and was well deserving of the attention it garnered.Bitter Milk by John McManus (excerpt [pdf]) – John’s debut novel after two well received short story collections, and it is quite original with a narrator that may or may not exist, and if he does, it could be in various relationships to the youth he narrates about.Belly by Lisa Selin Davis (excerpt) – Another debut effort, Davis takes an interesting look at how small to mid-size American towns are changing, or Walmartizing, in the 21st Century. That she doesthis and allows her readers deep into the relationships of a specific family is pretty impressive.Garner by Kirstin Allio (excerpt) – A winner from Coffee House Press – Allio writes of a small New England town and sets her tale nearly a century in the past. Her descriptions of the landscapes and the townfolk put her readers right in their lives.Last year’s list had two authors that were established, but not nearly as much as they should have been, in Steve Yarbrough and Percival Everett. This year sees a similarity with authors Lee Martin and Walter Kirn:The Bright Forever by Lee Martin (excerpt) – His second novel and sixth book (including a hard to find chapbook) overall, The Bright Forever is a stunning novel told in various points of view. A little girl disappears and Martin slowly allows his readers the full story – the anguish and honesty he is able to infuse his characters with as they spill this tale is incredible.Mission to America by Walter Kirn (excerpt) – Like Martin, not a newcomer, but a well-respected author who hasn’t received the sort of attention that he has with this latest effort which only boosts Kirn’s reputation as one of today’s better satirists. He takes on religion, new ageism, health nuts, and many others his latest.Short Story CollectionsSightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (excerpt) – An excellent debut collection from this author whose name is sprinkled about in the story anthologies the past two years – Best New American Writing, BASS, O’Henry, etc.God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell (excerpt) – Bissell lets his experiences in the Peace Corps and as a journalist lead him into many excellent short stories mainly set throughout countries formerly part of the USSR. The best in this collection will rival the best you’ll read this year.Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami (blog) – This collection, Lalami’s first, follows four Moroccans as they try to find what they hope will be better lives if they can get into Spain. The stories are very well written and the collection is set up very interestingly with the story of the attempted trip to Spain leading off, and then individual stories about each of the four characters Lalami concentrates on – first a story of each of their lives prior to the trip, and then a story of each of their lives after it.We’re in Trouble by Christopher Coake (excerpt) – Coake is a writer not afraid to tackle the longer story as this collection has a novella or two in it. He’s also not afraid to tackle heartbreak and sorrow, but does so in a manner that doesn’t beat his readers up. He gets right into the minds and feelings of his characters.Copy Cats by David Crouse (excerpt) – One of this year’s Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award winners. The collection has some excellent stories, including the title story which leads it off, but the big winner is a stunning novella that leads me to hoping Crouse is working on something a bit longer like a debut novel to look forward to.Big Cats by Holiday Reinhorn (excerpt) – With her debut, Reinhorn slips into T.C. Boyle neighborhood – her opening lines completely grab the reader and let them know that the author is completely aware of her characters and their situations. The stories also tend to grab odd situations you hear of occasionally, but rarely read about, and use them to allow her characters to move their lives forward.Non-FictionOrphans by Charles D’Ambrosio – (excerpt) – This collection of essays has the bonus of being an interesting little book published by Clear Cut Press. Besides the different look, and pocket size, the book has D’Ambrosio’s writing which is frequently stellar. I found myself reading about religious haunted houses and mobile home inspections without being able to set the book down – a true testament to his writing. Beyond those couple of essays, there are some really interesting efforts that were previously published in a Seattle alternative newspaper about topics I’d be more inclined to read about.House: A Memoir by Michael Ruhlman Ruhlman continues as one of the best in the non-fiction genre these days, choosing a topic and writing about it, completely covering it and allowing the reader to appreciate it in ways they may never have considered. Following past efforts that took on single sex education, cooking, and wooden boats, this time around, Ruhlman writes of a 200 year old house in Cleveland that he and his wife purchase and restore.Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Keith Gessen) (interview) – I don’t think I set this 300 plus page book down once after I started reading it. Alexievich, at danger to her own self, visited the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and interviewed anybody she could find who would talk – people who had been firefighters, or relatives of residents who evacuated, those who didn’t, hunters of animals left behind, etc. It’s absolutely fascinating to read what happened, how people found out, and the various reactions to the news.One Last BookThe Bear Bryant Funeral Train by Brad Vice – Unless you already have a copy, or are willing to drop nearly a thousand dollars to obtain one, you’ll not get a chance to read this former Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award winner. The press recalled and pulped as many of the copies as they could (and it sounds like they got most of the small print run) due to what is being referred to as plagiarism in the opening story, “Tuscaloosa Knights.” It’s too bad something else couldn’t have been figured out as Vice is one helluva writer. If you look around, you can find many of the stories that are within the pages of the few copies floating around – at least two have been in the Algonquin Best New Stories of the South series in the past few years. A recent Five Points has the story, Mule, in it. The story that caused the trouble can be seen at www.storysouth.com (look for the link there to Thicket, where the story truly is located).{Ed: Dan recently responded to further allegations of plagiarism against Brad Vice at his blog.}

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