Friday, February 09, 2007

Pg. 69: "American Genius, A Comedy"

Lynne Tillman is Professor/Writer-in-Residence in the Department of English at the University at Albany. Her novels include American Genius, A Comedy (2006), No Lease on Life (1998) which was a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Cast in Doubt (1992), Motion Sickness (1991), and Haunted Houses (1987). She also publishes short stories, essays, and other non-fiction.

I asked Lynne to apply the "page 69 test" to American Genius, A Comedy. Here is what she reported:
In a way, every page of American Genius, A Comedy is representative of it until the last third of the novel, when it changes significantly. On Page 69, the narrator refers to her skin condition -- dermatographia, or skin writing -- and speaks about the importance of skin. Skin is one of the connectors in AGAC, a theme in the book: skin as barrier to the world, or indicator of your own world, like blushing, or skin is permeable, also letting the outside in, skin tells others, exposes, something you may want hidden, it can betray you. Skin contracts and expands, which is what I wanted the novel to do: to move from small events and issues, like a facial or an annoying dinner partner, to great ones, like American history, democracy, sensitivity, sex, race and racism. Kafka and his ex-fiancee, Felice, also play their part in the novel, because they're the obsession of one of the characters the narrator meets -- Contesa, a mysterious and fascinating woman. The narrator meets many such people, all cloistered together for a time in an institution of some sort.

Here is the complete text from page 69:

more humane, but when I watched the mouse squirm with pain, I realized it wasn’t, or, if Contesa has again spoken of Kafka and Felice and showed me their pictures not long before I go to bed, I dream about them, who are strangers to me, as is Contesa, relatively. She believes she knows Kafka, especially through his letters to Felice, though she can’t know Felice that way, her letters to Kafka aren’t extant, but still it is by her faith in their intellectual and spiritual connection that they invade my unconscious world. Felice’s pleasant, homely face was oily and dry in patches, even scaly, and around her nostrils an irritated aureole of pimples the size of pinpricks. She broke out in welts, red hives on her back and thighs, just as she was about to meet Kafka, who looked like the tall balding man, but was wearing a frayed black business suit. Felice, like the disconsolate woman, but much stouter, stood at the door to the cafe discreetly rubbing her thigh. Suddenly she was terribly skinny, suddenly, and her digestion was poor, so there was a terrible smell coming from her mouth, like the breath of the demanding man, she wasn’t a vegetarian like Kafka, and horrified she ran away and fell down. She tore the skin on her leg, and the ragged wound bled furiously, so in my dream I became dizzy and nauseated. Her skin inadequately protected her, it now flaked like snow on her cheeks, as dry as mine. But skin is the agent of the body that protects its other organs, by covering them, and by being an information station that allows the other organs, my doctor explained patiently, to adjust to changes in the outer environment. My condition, dermatographia or dermatographism, skin writing, is not life-threatening, but because of it my skin tingles, pulses, and itches, and if I were to stroke my arm with a fingernail, white lines would surface and be visible for at least fifteen minutes, as my skin releases histamines, which produce swelling, and this occurs in about ten percent of the population, but the swelling is not a hive, since in dermatographia only raised lines surface, which resemble writing on the skin. My dermatologist says friends could leave messages on my back, but they’d fade quickly. The skin is a barrier against dehydration; it can lower body temperature by the increased evaporation of sweat; it synthesizes keratin, a flexible, durable, and resistant protein.
Many thanks to Lynne for the input.

Read an excerpt from American Genius, A Comedy. There is another excerpt at the publisher's site.

Among the praise for Lynne Tillman and American Genius:
"Lynne Tillman has always been a hero of mine--not because I admire her writing, (although I do, very, very much), but because I feel it. Imagine driving alone at night. You turn on the radio and hear a song that seems to say it all. That's how I feel."
—Jonathan Safran Foer

"Like an acupuncturist, Lynne Tillman knows the precise points in which to sink her delicate probes. One of the biggest problems in composing fiction is understanding what to leave out; no one is more severe, more elegant, more shocking in her reticences than Tillman."
—Edmund White

"Lynne Tillman's previous novel, No Lease on Life (1998), earned great recognition from the NY Times and the National Book Critics Circle, and [American Genius] ... is worthy of equal or greater praise."
Matt Borondy

"Magnificently, Lynne Tillman makes skin do what Herman Melville made boats do--contain multitudes. American Genius, though less macho, belongs in the same class as Moby-Dick and Gravity's Rainbow: encyclopedic novels about America and the world. Grand and minute, elegiac and hilarious, this book will also contradict anything anyone can say about it."
—Matthew Sharpe, author of The Sleeping Father

“It's a kind of ‘Tristram Shandy’ for our time, if Tristram were American, and institutionalized. The narrative voice is manic, neurotic, self-generative, very smart, loopy, deeply vulnerable, closely (obsessively) observant, narcissistic, and eminently contemporary. It is also very funny. This voice dodges, it annotates, it refuses to tell, it digresses. And out of this voice, as in an elaborate time-lapse photograph, a world is made, a world like ours: flawed, beautiful, sacred, insane.”
George Saunders
In her review of American Genius for Slate, Jessica Winter discussed the "sly brilliance" of Lynne Tillman.

Listen to Michael Silverblatt's 2006 interview with Lynne.

Read Anthony Miller's interview with Lynne in Los Angeles CityBeat, and an older Matthew Sharpe's interview.

Geoffrey O'Brien interviewed her for BOMB Magazine.

Tillman contributed an original short story to This Is Not Chick Lit, edited by Elizabeth Merrick.

Previous "page 69 tests:"
Patrick Radden Keefe, Chatter
Dana Stabenow, A Deeper Sleep
Siobhan Roberts, King of Infinite Space
Erin McKean, That's Amore!
Michael Lowenthal, Charity Girl
Niraj Kapur, Heaven's Delight
Keith Dixon, The Art of Losing
David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old
Mary Sharratt, The Vanishing Point
David Fulmer, The Dying Crapshooter's Blues
Anya Ulinich, Petropolis
Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization
Olen Steinhauer, Liberation Movements
Andrei Markovits, Uncouth Nation
Julie Kistler, Scandal
Robert Ward, Four Kinds of Rain
Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist
William Landay, The Strangler
Kate Holden, In My Skin
Brian Wansick, Mindless Eating
Noria Jablonski, Human Oddities
Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity
Neal Pollack, Alternadad
Bella DePaulo, Singled Out
Steve Hamilton, A Stolen Season
Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air
Donna Moore, ...Go to Helena Handbasket
Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye
Neal Thompson, Riding with the Devil
Sherry Argov, Why Men Marry Bitches
P.J. Parrish, An Unquiet Grave
Tyler Knox, Kockroach
Andrew Rehfeld, The Concept of Constituency
Laura Wiess, Such a Pretty Girl
Jeremy Blachman, Anonymous Lawyer
Andrew Pyper, The Wildfire Season
Wendy Werris, An Alphabetical Life
Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know
Meghan Daum, The Quality of Life Report
Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin' Man
Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost
Paul Collins, The Trouble With Tom
John McFetridge, Dirty Sweet
Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero
Bill Crider, Murder Among the OWLS
Zachary Shore, Breeding Bin Ladens
Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club
Lawrence Light, Fear & Greed
Simon Read, In The Dark
Sandra Ruttan, Suspicious Circumstances
Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography
Alison Gaylin, You Kill Me
Gayle Lynds, The Last Spymaster
Jim Lehrer, The Phony Marine
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.
Debra Ginsberg, Blind Submission
Sarah Katherine Lewis, Indecent
Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
William Easterly, The White Man's Burden
Danielle Trussoni, Falling Through the Earth
Andrew Blechman, Pigeons
Anne Perry, A Christmas Secret
Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers
Kat Richardson, Greywalker
Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire
Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue