Well-intentioned readers may be forgiven if, upon finishing American Genius
— the latest from novelist Lynne Tillman — they’re seized by a desire to throw open a window. Three-hundred or so pages, after all, spent in the unmediated company of a character’s mind can make even the most adjusted among us feel a bit claustrophobic.
To the extent that it has a plot, Genius
concerns the doings of a one-time historian, Helen, and her sojourn at what by all appearances seems a sort of artists’ colony. Action, though, isn’t really the thing here. Instead, Helen’s ruminations drive the book: the varied quality of the colony’s meals, the love life of her Polish cosmetician, Manifest Destiny, the fabric industry, the unfortunate fate of Manson Family irregular Leslie Van Houten — this is the stuff of the novel. A relentless, discursive stream of observations — opinions, declarations, objections; ideas put forth, rejected, returned to, revised; structure rising out of repetition and fixation — the curious patterns of an individual mind engaging the world.
The book is, essentially, one long record of reading, the physical as symbols to parse and interpret — phenomena as words, the world as a text (to invoke something of a shop-worn metaphor). It at once celebrates such reading and laments its inadequacy with Helen both luxuriating in her experiences and striving to transcend their narrowness. She is by turns hostile and open, judging and seeking, peevish and content — a conflicting, contradictory tangle of impulses, perceptions and prejudices.
But in any case, she’s always present. Helen is the novel. It burns on her voice, intensity and intelligence. And, quite honestly, she makes for somewhat exhausting company. At times profound and most always interesting, Genius
is nonetheless a tough book to love. Even as you delight in its insights, a certain tedium lingers in the background. It’s the sort of book one can’t help but admire but would prefer to do so from a distance.