A review of

American Genius, a Comedy

by Lynne Tillman

Central question: Is thought inherently neurotic?
Format: 320 pp., paperback; Size: 6" x 8.25"; Price: $15.00; Publisher: Soft Skull Press; Editor: Richard Nash; Print run: 5,000; Book design: David Janik; Cover art: Robert Gober; Typeface: Garamond; In the course of writing the book, author drank: Between 1,800 and 2,300 pots of Irish tea; Key industry early in the Industrial Revolution: Cotton textiles; Representative passage: “Seeing deer is always a happy surprise, though they usually run away, especially when you approach them, but if they feel safe and are in the distance, they might continue to eat grass or stand dumbly, with dark brown eyes, limpid and soulful as pathetic fallacies.”

In a study done at Stanford, it was estimated that we have on average 64,000 thoughts a day, and up to 93 percent are repetitions. The repetition of thought lends structure to Lynne Tillman’s stellar new book, American Genius, A Comedy, which, along with being an absorbing work of fiction, also serves as a study of consciousness and memory.

The narrator, Helen, is a neurotic polymath, an Americanist with encyclopedic knowledge about skin, chair design, and textiles (the family trade). She is in residence at an unnamed facility somewhere between an artist’s colony and a mental hospital, preoccupied by various pursuits including burning things, studying Zulu, and contemplating unfurling the Fabric Monolith—a bolt of cloth designed by her father—which she keeps in the corner of her room. She suffers from dermatographia, a condition in which scraping the skin causes weals. It is sometimes called “skin writing.” Problematic skin is the prevailing metaphor of the novel, reminding us that the human condition is both utterly vulnerable—exposed—and claustrophobically subjective. Skin, both public page and protective enclosure, requires constant monitoring and ministration. Helen’s safest intimacies transpire during paid appointments with “the Polish woman,” her cosmetician. She is also fond of her dermatologist, whom she trusts “not to damage me, so that might make a good relationship.” Self-enclosed, if not entrapped, the individual qua self-narrator compulsively marks the involuntary processes and breaches that wrack the bodily vessel, be they welts or thoughts.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Miranda F. Mellis

Miranda F. Mellis is the author of The Revisionist (Calamari Press, forthcoming). Her stories have also appeared recently in Fence, Denver Quarterly, and Post Road. She teaches at the California College of the Arts and is an editor at The Encyclopedia Project.

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