Lynne Tillman and the Great American Novel
Lynne Tillman and the Great American Novel
Most recent “Great American Novels” are not great, but merely big. Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, A Comedy, by contrast, is designed with scale, not size, in mind. So argues Kasia Boddy, who reads the novel as a critical engagement with book reviewers’ favorite cliché for ambitious social fiction. Instead of resisting cultural obsolescence through sheer assertion, Tillman’s book examines how the cracks and contradictions of American ideology have imprinted themselves on the individual body, bearer of the national disease: sensitivity.
I wanted, from the beginning, to write a novel about being an American now, living here now. (Tillman, qtd in Crawford)
As several reviewers have pointed out, Lynne Tillman’s fifth novel, American Genius, A Comedy (2006) “parodies and undermines” (Homes), but also makes use of, the “jam-packed Great American Novel” (Winter). In examining just how it does this, I read American Genius, A Comedy both in the broad context of the GAN - its history and ideology, ranging from Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) to Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925) to more recent works such as DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) - and in the context of Tillman’s earlier explorations of American history and literature, of repetition, delimitation and the pursuit of happiness. In Tillman’s first novel, Haunted Houses (1987), a character opens Merleau-Ponty’s Sense and Non-Sense to find the line, “Consciousness always exists in a situation” (154). The complexities of both situation and consciousness have consistently informed Tillman’s work - from Haunted Houses to Motion Sickness (1991), which she described as being about the way “the nation state implicated itself in one’s identity” (Boddy, “Conversations” 4), to American Genius, A Comedy, whose narrator’s monologue circles obsessively, and comically, around physical, psychological and national sensitivities.
In recent years literary critics have expressed their unease with the words “America” and “American.” Gregory S. Jay, for example, has argued that using ” ‘American’ as an adjective” might reinforce “the illusion that there is a transcendental core of values and experiences that is essentially ‘America.’”:
This illusion of the “American” in turn fosters the delusion that literary or cultural studies may be properly shaped by selecting objects and authors according to how well they express this essence (177).
But while what Paul Giles calls the “global remapping of American literature” has become orthodox within literary criticism, a considerable number of novelists from Philip Roth (American Pastoral, 1997) and Gish Jen (Typical American, 1991), to Susan Sontag (In America, 2000), Ethan Canin (America America, 2008) and Philipp Meyer (American Rust, 2009), appear to retain a belief in the project of a specifically national interrogation; one which is signaled by their use of both the adjective and its source noun (and that’s not including those reliant on more circumspect or emblematic titles such as Vineland, The Lay of the Land, Imperial or Freedom).Anxieties about exceptionalism are, of course, nothing new. In 1969, for example, George Knox, announced that “American fiction no longer has to call attention to itself with nationalistic labels” (682). What Shelley Fisher Fishkin described in 2004 as the “transnational turn” in American Studies has proved fruitful. Recent interventions include works by Dimock and Buell (2007) and Giles (2010). The Journal of Transnational American Studies was founded in 2008.
But, like many of these late 20th- and early 21st-century writers, Tillman denies that using the adjective “American,” any more than using the noun “comedy,” suggests a commitment to a “transcendental” essentialism. Whatever post-national fiction is, Tillman argues, “it’s not universal.” (“Conversation”). Her own work, she argues, emerges from her perspective “within the American English language as a white, middle-class, second-generation American woman, at a particular moment in history, with my own particular biography” (Broader 21). Aware that it is not possible to sidestep such descriptions - “this is the limit I accept - I’m handed this grammar, this alphabet, this language embedded with cultural nuances” - Tillman instead strives “to turn it upside down, to shuffle it.” The American English language, her “best ally” and her “worst enemy” (Haunted 156-57), is “a deck of cards to build houses of cards” (Broader 23).
One of the most important limits for a writer is that of genre. Tillman has long been interested in genres and how a writer might both acknowledge and think beyond the limits they impose. More specifically, she is concerned with the gender of specific genres and in writing against expectations of “what a writer who is a woman can write” (“Conversation”). “Weird Fucks” (1980) took on “writers like Kerouac whose road was never a female one” (Young 203), while Haunted Houses responded to the absence of a “Catcher in the Rye for women” (Siegle 179). From its opening line, Motion Sickness announces its interest in the Jamesian American-girl-in-Europe - “PARIS: I am in my hotel room, on the bed, reading The Portrait of a Lady” (7). All three works also explore the designation “American.” Haunted Houses tells the stories of three girls: Jane whose father reads her the Gettysburg address at bedtime; Grace, who can’t walk on the beach with thinking of herself as “an explorer, a Columbus coming upon a new world” (25); and Emily who studies history and watches movies, and wonders if the American revolution wasn’t instead an evolution (she settles on rotation), dreams of having sex in a red dress in the West and recognize s her “Americanness in ideas like: things can change. Everything is possible. Just leave him. Her. You’ll get the money somehow” (191).
Self-description does not involve the establishment of an essential self, but rather knowing and making use of, the limits both of your own preconceptions about other people, and of their preconceptions about you. When the narrator of “Weird Fucks” is caught trespassing and naked in Rome’s Borghese Gardens, she knows what to do:
I point at my head and my chest, emphatically declaring, Stupido americana, stupido americana. I’m not at all sure of the agreement but I figure they’ll get the point. And the point is that if I admit I’m an idiot, particularly an American idiot, Americans are hated in Europe, if I admit this, they may go easy on me. (Absence 16)
It’s a tactic that seems particularly available to those who come from high-profile countries. When the narrator of Motion Sickness is told by a Yugoslavian friend, ” ‘You are like all Americans,’” she notes that, “There is no way I can say to him, You are like all Yugoslavians, as I have no idea what all Yugoslavians are like” (106). Traveling in Europe does not provide Tillman’s protagonists with a way of escaping their Americanness; it follows them everywhere in the assumptions of the people they meet - everything from a lack of historical perspective to clean hair is attributed to nationality. It seems that you “can’t take the country out of the girl when the girl is out of the country” (189).I discuss these passages at greater length in “The Postwar American Journey.”
Cast in Doubt (1992) marked a further development in Tillman’s experiment with issues of identity and identification. It explicitly recasts the question of nation as a question of narration. Among the categories that are put in doubt is the distinction between genre fiction and the supposedly genre-transcending “literary novel.” The narrator Horace “toss[es] off” mysteries while “struggling” for years with Household Gods, his “real work,” a novel which charts his family’s evolution against the backdrop of American history (13-14). When Cast in Doubt begins, Horace is “stuck at the Civil War”, and trying to “conceive and fashion the sense and sensibility of a nineteenth-century feminist abolitionist temperance reformer, and fold her character into a modern novel” (20). Gertrude Stein is “godmother” to Household Gods, for Horace regards The Making of Americans as a “masterpiece” (56).
But for Tillman, the distinction that Horace makes between detective stories and literature, “which transcends its own form, or has no limits”, doesn’t really hold:
literature too is a genre - this literary novel, this search for knowledge - knowledge of the world, or self-knowledge - the enlightenment novel if you want, that too is a genre (qtd in Boddy 7).
A variety of enlightenment novel, the Great American Novel is another recognizable genre: why else would it have become the most “overworked phrase of overworked book reviewers” (Norris 1180)? How else could it have been so often parodied? In the remainder of this essay, I will consider how American Genius, A Comedy develops Tillman’s profound interest in ideas of (gendered) genre and America further by making use of, and in some measure taking issue with, the GAN’s most recognizable conventions: its reliance on a national microcosm and representative characters; its length-justifying claim to “complete and whole articulation” (Wolfe 92); its status as the benchmark for literary prestige, ambition, and sales; its macho reputation. “There comes a time in the mid-life of every male American writer,” noted Tim Adams recently, “when he feels compelled to make his big statement about the state of the union.” The GAN, in other words, is a serious contender for least likely form to be attempted by “a writer who is a woman.” This is certainly the view of the narrator of Motion Sickness who, on observing her friend writing, wonders if she might “secretly … be hard at work on the Great American Novel, although no woman I’ve ever known has ever used that phrase, one that’s ridiculous to me” (14).Following the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010), a flurry of articles considered the proposition that “Great American Novelist is a frame that is coded male” (Pollitt).Tillman refrains from using the phrase in AGAC, but much else in her novel suggests the GAN, perhaps because, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the GAN was the genre-transcending genre most in need of re-shuffling or turning upside down.Joseph Tabbi argues that “world-fiction” is a better term to describe “semi-autonomous and self-deconstructing” (86) narratives such as Tillman’s which “counterpose history and fiction” (83) and which succeed “national literatures” (85). I’m not sure it is necessary, however, to invent a new category for AGAC, especially since Tillman herself explicitly signals an interest in the generic history of the GAN. It had to be relieved of its transcendence.
Compared to most novels with “America” or “American” in their title, American Genius, A Comedy seems short, although at 292 pages it is the longest of Tillman’s novels by at least 50 pages. “One thing I’ve noticed over the years in my writing,” she said in 1993, “is that my work is getting longer.”
I used to write a four-page story, now I’ll write a ten-page story, or a twenty-page story, and I think that’s demanding more. It’s taking up more space. As a woman you’re relegated to a secondary position in culture and one may not feel confident, to make assertions. (qtd in Boddy 8)
Taking up cultural space and making cultural assertions is what the GAN has always been about.
Tillman began her 1997 review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld by noting that “contemporary writers worry about the place of writing, the cultural space for books.” This was hardly a controversial point.Tillman herself has written of the 1980s and 90s as “apocalyptic years for booksellers and publishers” (Bookstore xxi).As Tillman notes, DeLillo himself had devoted much of his previous novel, Mao II (1991), to an exploration of the novelist’s lack of influence in “a society that’s filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption” (Passaro). “Years ago,” reflects the writer-protagonist Bill Gray, “I used to think that it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated” (41). Gray is half-aware that he’s being a “self-important fool” (37). But many other novelists and critics echoed these remarks, in particular regretting the demise of what Tom Le Clair dubbed the “art of excess.” The past twenty years, Le Clair argued in 1989, had seen a retreat from “the elephant-like (or whale-like) novel” - from the kind of “masterworks” which took “full advantage of the possibilities of their technology (the book) and medium (language)” (2) to exert the “efficacy of literature” and thus lead readers “to contest and possibly reformulate the mastering systems they live with” (1). As the twentieth century came to a close, he worried, such works of structural complication, “informational density” (18) and, consequently, “cultural significance” (2), had become members of an endangered species, “relegated to the status of white elephant while moths are praised as butterflies” (2). Many others, albeit with different aesthetic priorities, agreed. In 1984, E.L. Doctorow (whose novel Ragtime had been declared a GAN back in 1975) bemoaned the fact that contemporary fiction was suffering from “reduced authority, certainly for its readers who seem to be reading less of it,” but also “in the minds of the writers themselves, who seem to want to take on less and less of the world with it” (111). In 1990 Tom Wolfe famously complained that “young people with serious literary ambitions … are no longer interested in … big, rich slices of contemporary life” (47), while Frank Lentricchia agonized that the “main political line of American fiction” (Dreiser, Dos Passos, Mailer, DeLillo) was being ousted out by “a minor, apolitical, domestic fiction of the triumphs and agonies of autonomous private individuals operating in ‘the private sector,’” the “soft humanist underbelly of American literature” (3, 6). How, asked Sven Birkerts in 1992, could the writer “give comprehensive expression to our times” (381)? “The forces are too various and incalculable. The rate and magnitude of change have outstripped the integrating powers of the psyche” (127-28). “No one,” Birkerts concluded in 1994, “thinks any longer about writing the Great American Novel” (207).
Such comments, while emerging from critics and writers with divergent agendas, shared a desire for a fiction that would, by containing and expressing multitudes, in a more (Pynchon) or less (Wolfe) complicated way, achieve “cultural significance.” In 2006 the New York Times Book Review conducted a survey in which they asked “several hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” to name “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” From 125 replies, the top five were: Toni Morrison’s Beloved (with 15 votes); DeLillo’s Underworld (with 11); Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and John Updike’s tetralogy Rabbit Angstrom (8 votes each) and Roth’s American Pastoral (with 7). “To ask for the best work of American fiction,” observed A.O. Scott, “is not simply to ask for the most beautifully written or the most enjoyable to read.”
The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject.
Despite the academy’s recent renewed focus on transnationalism, then, the fiction shelves have continued to stock novels with a specific national focus, books that make no bones about asserting their “cultural importance” and that command considerable cultural space. “One way a man untrivializes himself is to punch another man in the mouth,” says Father Paulus in DeLillo’s Underworld (538); another, it seemed, was to make an attempt at the Great American Novel.Americana, Libra and Underworld have all been discussed as potential GANs. Most recently, Freedman described Falling Man as “the Great American Novel on Nembutal.”
The encyclopaedic impulse of the GAN is often attributed to its desire to catalogue the “billion forms” of the nation (Th. Wolfe 93). There are various ways in which novelists frame that desire. The most basic mode, perhaps, is the first-person picaresque / Bildungsroman. A character travels around the US, has adventures, and in the process (as it were, inadvertently) assembles an inventory of the state of the nation and a sense of his or her own American identity. The reader is presented with a single perspective but is urged to believe that the individual has gained access to some form of collective knowledge. Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant, Saul Bellow’s Augie March, Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man are investigators of this type. Other novelists opt for a multitude of representative characters and / or supplement their characters’ perspective by incorporating rival modes of discourse (newspaper, documentary, movies, history) into their fiction.“It seems to me that news is a narrative of our time. It has almost replaced the novel, replaced discourse between people” (DeLillo, qtd in Arensberg, 390).
Examples might include John Dos Passos’s newsreels, David Foster Wallace’s endnotes, Vollmann’s glosseries, and DeLillo’s “data-spew” (Libra 15). Describing The Public Burning (1977) as “made up of thousands and thousands of tiny fragments painstakingly stitched together,” Robert Coover explained that he was “striving for a text that would seem to have been written by the whole nation through all its history … I wanted thousands of echoes, all the sounds of the nation” (Coover, qtd in LeClair and McCaffery, 75-76).
In all these works, the aim seems to be what Gertrude Stein, reflecting in 1934 on The Making of Americans, termed “complete description”: “if I could only go on long enough and talk and hear and look and see and feel enough and long enough” (142). What Stein subsequently acknowledged, however, is that “everything described would not do any more than tell all I knew”. “Description”, was not, as she had previously thought, “explanation”. That was where “philosophy comes in, it begins when one stops trying to describe everything” (157).
Tillman makes a similar point when she distinguishes the Great from the Big American Novel. “I grew up,” she recently said, “in an atmosphere in which the great American novel was the thing to do” (“Conversation”). It might be argued that the GAN has been the thing to do and fail to do and mock, since 1868, when John W. De Forest first demanded “a single tale which paints American life so broadly, truly, and sympathetically that every American of feeling and culture is forced to acknowledge the picture as a likeness of something which he knows” (31). But Tillman is concerned specifically with the trajectory of the post-war novel, with the “Great American Novel” that “came out of World War 2, with Mailer and Bellow” as ‘part of the cultural ascendancy of America after the war.” By the time she began writing in the 80s, however, “things were very different. (“Conversation”) It was during the Reagan years, she argues, that “great became big”. But the difference between the two was not simply a matter of quality.
It’s about disproportion. It’s about scale. Greatness, I think, can be linked to how much is covered. Warhol is great because of his reach, but also because of his great concepts. Bigness is just astounding in sheer mass. Not so much what is it that was done but how much was done. Let’s have a lot (“Conversation”).
More than literary “putter-inners” such as Mailer, Pynchon or DeLillo (whose Underworld, she argued, was merely big), Warhol provides Tillman with a model of how to move beyond sheer mass or inventory.Thomas Wolfe famously championed “putter-inners” against “leaver-outers” in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald (Nowell 643).In a 1995 essay on the Factory, she defended the artist from charges of “lack of ‘taste’ or ‘discrimination’ ” and instead praised his “ecumenicism, his range, that catholic appetite.”
In making a mark on different things American, Warhol chose promiscuity… . He was a cultural omnivore … . His desire to have it all was grand, his need to encompass and compass big. Great. (Broader 34-36)
Warhol, then, was firstly big - “he wanted to use everything. Waste not, want not, applies nicely to him, a Catholic / Puritan” - but, additionally, he was great because he then subjected the “categories” in which “everything” was put to a “dialectical” process (36-37). “He flattened, flattered, teased, ironed out or ironized both sides of an argument” so that “simple oppositions” such as male/female, form/content or “individual genius/historical moment” were “disturbed” (37).
Consider, for example, what Warhol does with the proposition that “the more equal something is, the more American it is” (From A to B 97). This is often quoted and read as a “celebratory point” (Hitchens 218), but Warhol is much slier than that. In From A to B & Back Again, he follows the remark with a “for instance” - the fact that, “the other day” he was not given “special treatment” by an auction house and had to wait in the lobby with his dog. The story does not end there. While waiting, he was recognized, approached and asked to sign autographs. “It was,” he concludes the paragraph, “a really American situation to be in.” But this is not quite it, either and so he adds another paragraph, in parenthesis.
(Also, by the way, the “special treatment” sometimes works in reverse when you’re famous. Sometimes people are mean to me because I’m Andy Warhol.)
So what part of the situation is really American? Being denied special treatment, or signing autographs (being singled out as special) while being denied special treatment, or having the special treatment work “in reverse”? As Tillman suggests, it is the disturbance of simple oppositions - here, equal/famous-special and good-famous-special / bad-famous-special - that interested Warhol. If Warhol is a dialectician, however, it is not, as Mario Perniola says, in the pure Hegelian or Marxist sense of laying bare the contradictions between categories “in which the overcoming (aufhebung) actually opens up a new horizon,” a new synthesis or a new “Whole”, but rather in the weaker, static, postmodern sense of immobilizing “a conflict through the determination of opposite contradictions” (26). Warhol wants to have things both, or rather all, ways at all times: he is, for example, both “supercapitalist and anticapitalist” (29). For Fredric Jameson, famously, this means that Warhol’s work is not really “critical”; that is, it “does not really speak to us at all” (Postmodernism 8). But perhaps, it is precisely Warhol’s embrace of what Jameson has called “an unwanted empirical profusions of oppositions” (Valences 18) or his desire to live “with contradictions” (This 79-84) - as the title of an early Tillman story has it - that makes his work not only postmodern and late capitalist but, as he saw it, “really American.” Warhol did not lay bare contradictions in order to resolve them and move on. He fattened them up so that he might sustain them the better.
Cracks and Contradictions
Tillman’s sense of Warhol’s dialectical promiscuity seems at times to chime with her own ambitions as a writer. In “Critical Fiction / Critical Self,” a 1991 essay outlining her aesthetic principles, her “House of Fiction,” Tillman explained her attraction to the novel and story in terms that evoke Warhol even as they name Bahtkin.
one of the reasons I choose to write fiction is that … ambiguity and ambivalence can find its way into a story or into that complex cultural unit called a novel, where, as Bakhtin put it, a “struggle between one’s own and another’s word is being waged,” and which represents the world as a multiplicity of voices, as heteroglossia. (Broader 19)
This is a fairly standard exposition. But Tillman goes further. If the world becomes a multiplicity, so too does the self.
I picture us all, like Bakhtin’s idea of the novel, with many possible voices, as dialogical as words. There are identities, there are shifting subjectivities, and you and I are shifty subjects … . (25)
One way of understanding American Genius, A Comedy, then, is as an attempt to remove the boundary between the heteroglossia of the self and the heteroglossia of the world, between consciousness and situation, between (as Lentricchia saw it), the small, psychological, domestic novel and the “main political line” of the big social novel. “What has to do with the house and what has to do with outside (where Daddy goes to work) is dissolved” (“Conversation”). Like Haunted Houses and Motion Sickness, American Genius, A Comedy considers how the “nation state” is “inscribed” in our psyches (Broader 24), or to put it less grandly, why we think “one thing rather than another” (Haunted 63).Tabbi argues that Tillman “thematizes the problem of boundaries at the level of the human body, not the nation” (79), but the distinction between the personal and political seems to be precisely what she wants to deny.
If the picaresque GAN presents its “typical American” roaming and cataloguing, Tillman encloses hers in a confined and “eclectic community of strangers” (American 148). American Genius, A Comedy is the opposite of expansive. But whether sanatorium or artist’s colony (or some combination), the community is also a “kind of a microcosm of American society” (Tillman qtd. in Miller), a cuckoo’s nest, a Pequod. Tillman wants us to see the narrator as both a very specific individual - one whose particular obsessions with the history of textiles, furniture design, etc have specific biographical sources, to which she often returns - and as an American “type,” such as Henry James or Sinclair Lewis or Richard Ford might have identified.Hallberg distinguishes between the “factual disquisitions” which seem to “spring organically” from Helen’s “private fixations - that is, from her character” and what he saw as the novel’s “more undigested chunks of learning,” and concludes that “the dips into the encyclopedic may present barriers to entry.” The protagonist too wavers between seeing herself as the community’s represent[ative]” and its outcast, “the isolate across from the group” (148, 247). Is Tillman not thinking here of Melville’s ship of isolatos “each living on a separate continent of his own” (122)? Her narrator certainly shares Ishmael’s preference for a “comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed… . or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves” (158).
But “isolate” is only one of many self-descriptions that she offers. Others include:
I’m easily distracted (113)
I become excited easily (135)
I’m vain (123)
I looked for lessons in everything and everywhere (154)
I am a Puritan (159)
I’m litigious, American, I like to watch vicious trials, I’m probably a judge (262)
I’m obstinate and know my rights (249)
I change my mind often (100)
As a child … I wanted to move, had to keep moving, or I’d die. Without realizing it, I was an American, I didn’t know the specifics then, only embodying and enacting them… . (159)
Undoubtedly self-obsessed, her “various zeals” nonetheless venture far beyond herself, encompassing topics from dermatology to chair design to family history, with a particular focus on pets, to reflections on Leslie Van Houten and the Manson family, to the Tarot, breakfast and the Civil War (256). “I have reached the age,” she says, “where I have to tell everything I know” (150). It is not, however, a matter of simply “telling.” Perhaps bearing in mind Stein’s account of description’s limitation, her thoughts struggle through long, repetitive, digressive, incontinent, “twisty”, shiftily shifting sentences, Steinian sentences that interrogate words such as “environment” and “progress,” or pick apart dualities such as friend/enemy (Broader 46). This kind of writing is partly a way of dissolving the barrier between social and psychological discourse. But it’s also, as Felice Bauer is imagined to say to Kafka later on in the novel, that each of her thoughts “undoes,” rather than adds to, “the previous one” (228).
“If there’s an enemy in Underworld,” Tillman wrote in her review, “it’s forgetfulness, the denial of history.” DeLillo, she argues, treats history as a kind of capital, something to accumulate towards a big new “Whole”. “Underworld’s a proliferation, or a collection, of 40 years of great issues and small ones. DeLillo seems to have wanted to put everything he could into it, as if a book could be a time capsule.” As should be clear by now, Tillman’s approach to history is very different. At every moment, she suggests, we should both acknowledge and dismiss history, miss it and recall it, recognize its role in shaping the present but also the ways in which it can become “a refuge from the present.” (Broader 110) In articulating the complexities of this process, the narrator of AGAC has an important predecessor in the figure of Madame Realism, the fictional character whose adventures formed the basis of Tillman’s art and cultural criticism throughout the 1980s and 90s. Blessed with a “dioramalike mind,” a “playground” in which “the verbal slide from history and time to briefcases and timepieces” is hard to resist, Madame Realism tackled all sorts of topics, but a recurring theme was American memorialisation (Madame Realism 158). In one piece, she visits the Normandy beaches, where she ponders the differences between losing the past, and being “lost to it” and “in it” (This Is 146); in another, Ellis Island, where she views the nation “through the lens of immigration” and thinks of “a novel’s many voices” (Madame Realism 158 147); and in a third, Monticello, which she dubs the “pièce de la résistance of American historical kitsch” (Madame Realism 96). In the “obscured” fact that a Jewish family, the Levys, bought Monticello from Jefferson and “saved it for posterity”, Madame Realism locates a symbol of “the cracks and contradictions of the democracy that the enlightened and brilliant slaveholder Jefferson helped build and which might also be contained in his own character” (Madame Realism 96).
The narrator of American Genius, A Comedy, once a teacher of history, is equally alert to the cracks and contradictions in American democracy and those in the American “character.” For example, she notes that the Puritans were “hardworking, unforgiving and practical,” but also that John Winthrop’s letters to his wife “were tender, immoderately affectionate, and even lustful” (241).In Haunted Houses, Emily copies the line “Winthrop’s life vibrated dizzily between indulgence and restraint” from Edmund S. Morgan’s The Puritan Dilemma (108). Lust also features in a paragraph-long progression from an account of “unappetizing sex” with a Frenchman to an acknowledgement of the fact that she “was free, supposedly,” to do what she wanted and so “could and should pursue pleasure, part of [her] birthright, though as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of American women in the 19th century, it was that lone, unique freedom which damned them to unhappy marriages” (157). Tocqueville argued that infidelities were allowed in Europe but not in America. In other words, freedom had “its own constraints” (O’Brien).
If AGAC focuses its exploration of American ideological inconsistencies on the individual physical body, it’s because the body has become the site on which anxieties about freedom and control are so often manifested. It’s weird,” says Tillman, “there’s such a preoccupation with the body here” (Tillman, 2009). “It’s true,” says her narrator, “that I have a body about which I have no choice, but which I can choose to wrestle” (127). She is deeply concerned with what the community’s residents put into their bodies (breakfasts, lunches, dinners) and what those bodies emit (they are great farters), but her main concern - and the novel’s central metaphor for the boundary between inside and out - is skin, a “parchment for the body” (32).
The first duality that skin highlights is that of surface and depth. “Skin lets us know that a surface often isn’t superficial” (31). This proposition reads like a direct and critical response to the famous scene in Moby Dick in which Ishmael remarks, on first seeing Queequeg’s tattoos, that “it’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin” (22). For Ishmael, in other words, there is an absolute distinction between the fixed but superficial outer self and the inviolable inner self. The whale’s skin, “all over obliquely crossed and recrossed” as it is “with numerous straight marks in thick array”, is a kind of logical extension unto absurdity of tattooing or skin-as-identity. The marks are “something like those in the finest Italian line engravings … [or] mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics … [or] old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable” (314-15). On one hand, then, Moby Dick represents the sublime - the “mystic marked”; on the other, however, Ishmael points out how “random” and “irregular” the marks are and how unremarkable their production has been. They are “probably made by hostile contact with other whales; for I have most remarked them in the large, full-grown bulls of the species” (315). The difference between Moby Dick and other whales does not therefore lie in his skin. There is something extra, beyond skin - for Ahab, malevolence; for Melville, the Transcendental. “Dissect him how I may,” Ishmael later jokes, “I go but skin deep” (388).
Tillman has always been interested in the Transcendentalist position, or, rather, she can see its attraction for characters like Horace (in Cast in Doubt) or Emily (in Haunted Houses) In writing his novel, Horace gives his great-aunt Martha “a transcendental slant” (Cast 65). Emily has fantasies about having “been a transcendentalist” in the forest but they are interrupted when a boy in “black shades” buzzes at her apartment door (Haunted 152). or the narrator of AGAC who (as many others do) misquotes the conclusion of Walden:
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined,” Henry Thoreau extolled, and I would prefer to be an exalted American dreamer (199). Near the end of Walden, Thoreau writes: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours” (343).
Later, while walking in the forest, she thinks that if she “were a Transcendentalist, any walk, a walk itself, in nature might have meaning.” For a moment, it seems as though she is undergoing an Emersonian experience - as the woods stretch ahead “like the universe, with no time and no horizon line to sever sky from earth.” But she doesn’t, in the end, sustain the feeling, perhaps because she isn’t “prepared to machete under and over-growth” in order to “forge a new trail” and so must “aimlessly” follow the “well-worn path” (274-75). Instead of merging with the “transparent eyeball,” she imagines herself “photographed from high above, just a splotch or blot on the forest floor, if that.” From both perspectives, “all mean egotism” vanishes, but if Emerson offers absolute transcendence of the dialectic of self and nature, the “delight” in knowing “I am not alone and unacknowledged” (Nature 10-11), Tillman suggests mere “anonymity.”
Like the marks of race, age, gender and the “armor”/ security “blanket” of national identity” found on the “parchment” of skin, the path through the wood is neither old nor new, neither meaningful nor meaningless, neither earthly not transparent (Motion 127; AGAC 32, 241). There is nothing extra. Rather than distinguish between the outer and inner meanings of skin, then, Tillman draws attention to its capacity to speak of both surface and depth, of “veins and vanity” (143). Skin, in other words, is the place where the body can enjoy a Warholian pun, where its contradictions become liveable in.
I dote on myself (Whitman 51).
I was thinking, very ironically, about the fall from grace of the Great American Novel and living in the time of Bush and an unconstitutional war. What happens to the American novel if the ideals of the country which had been enmeshed in the novel - being on the right side - no longer exist (“Conversation”).
While AGAC clearly signals its interest in deconstruction - “lately I want to sunder relationships and take them apart” (275) - it would, I think, be wrong to view the novel as wholly parodic. For all her mischief, Tillman “still believe[s] in the American experiment, in the values that are implicit and explicit in the Bill of Rights” (“Conversation”) and her project is partly the long-established one of “argumentative national self-consciousness” (James 789). To entitle her novel American Genius, A Comedy, was, she says, to play “with the eighteenth-century idea of genius as a force of nature. The American experiment of Jefferson and Franklin was a kind of genius, an American form of ingenuity. Calling it a comedy was a comment on what has happened to the American genius experiment in the present” (“Conversation”). Great American Novelists have always seen an “ailing America”; even when swathed in irony, their generic task is, as Philip Roth noted in 1973, to diagnose the “national disease” and hopefully contribute to its cure (92). A belief in the power of the novel to achieve such ends is, of course, itself a “national fantasy” (Berlant), as potent and enduring as the fantasies of power and privilege it seeks to dissect.
For Tillman, the national disease is sensitivity. Her narrator worries inordinately about her own sensitive skin, but nevertheless recognize s that something bigger is at stake. Everyone, she notes, is “sensitive about themselves” but “no one is sensitive enough about other people” (5). On the one hand, too much attention; on the other, too little. This disparity, she suggests, was part of American democracy from its cracked and contradictory beginnings - after all, George Washington “kept hundreds of slaves, couldn’t bear to be touched” (130). But sensitivity about our selves is also, particularly, a “problem” of “the time we live in” (9).
Ever “greater sensitivity” (34) is something that Tillman’s critical essays have also explored. The success of Schindler’s List, she argued in 1994, had very little to do with the Holocaust and “everything” to do with the need of Americans to readjust to a new position in the global scheme of things. At “the end of the so-called American century,” she said, “America’s place in the world, culturally, economically, politically” was “drastically different from what it was” after the Second World War. Americans liked Schindler because they seemed to feel the need “to be legitimated as victims, as oppressed, as hostages to an uncertain fate, as subjects in need of a savior” (Broader 46-47). For Gore Vidal, the “American Empire died” on Sept 16, 1985, “when the Commerce Department announced that the United States had become a debtor nation” (17).
When did it all start to go wrong? AGAC circles back to the narrator’s childhood in the sixties. In the novel’s most lyrical, least ironic, passage, she recalls the January day in 1961 on which she and her father watched the inauguration of John F. Kennedy on television. She remembers JFK’s proclamation, “we dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution,” and acknowledges that this “a heritage” she also “claimed.” As her father “lean[ed] in toward the television,” Robert Frost, “the venerated poet, aged and stooped, his brilliant white hair like a halo, leaned against the handsome young president, who was not healthy, but very few knew that then, who would soon be assassinated, but no one could know that except a seer” (244). The inauguration renewed a vital American tradition. But the revival brought turmoil in its wake. Kennedy died and so did her father, and the sixties found their image, some would say, in the “helter skelter” of the Manson murders (245). As the narrator struggles to reinvent herself in her New England community, Manson family member Leslie Van Houten remains incarcerated in a Californian prison (a parallel microcosm) where she will forever be “the girl who stuck a knife into Rosemary LaBianca’s back nineteen times” (245).
More recent events are studiously not named. There’s no mention of Reagan or Bush or 9/11, although the novel’s “genius,” in the sense of its “prevalent feeling, opinion, sentiment, or taste; distinctive character, or spirit,”O.E.D. is clearly early that of the 21st-century, by which time the “prioritization” of personal suffering and safety, and the illusion of personal control, had become a kind of “sickness” (34). “I worried,” Tillman said, “that that was too obvious” (“Conversation”).
The historical shift in American self-image, from post-war redeemers to “subjects in need of a savior,” runs parallel to, and seems to be reflected in, the American Novel’s “fall” from Great (self-criticism) to Big (self-assertion). Sensitivity then has formal, as well as moral and political, implications. One of the Warholian “teasings out” that ACAG“s narrator undertakes concerns listening and talking:
Many people think they are good listeners, many more than who actually listen, since someone has to be doing all the talking, and most people will say they’re good listeners, many more than who actually listen, although most aren’t good talkers or listeners, but persons who tell stories that fill time, and many explain how they were hurt by others, because they are sensitive, but never admit they hurt others. (17)
Telling stories about one’s own victimhood (misery lit?) may fill the time but it’s not the same as listening and talking. Dialectical genre’s final task is to frame that listening and talking, to de-sensitize the GAN both to its enduring Transcendentalism and to its new preoccupations with self-help.
While Tillman’s narrator remains interested in the other members of the community, our understanding of them is restricted to their place in her thoughts. She doesn’t pay attention to their names but eagerly makes up titles - Count, Contesa - or epitaphs - “the tall balding man,” “the disconsolate woman.” She fits others into her “categories of experience, which is what I have” (190), selects her own “version of history” and “builds an altar” to her own memories (146, 155). She speaks rarely of home, but of “the place I call home” (29, 290). Naming represents one illusion of control, a narcissistic desire for the world to begin with one’s own perception of it. And the internal monologue merely reinforces a sense of “narrow-flowing monomania” (Melville, 188).
In the last third, however, the novel changes quite dramatically, opening up suddenly to other perspectives, shifting from monological to the dialogical. “Twisty” sentences (telling stories to oneself) give way, at times, to dialogue (to talking and listening “to other voices”) (218).Until this point, there is only one brief snatch of dialogue on p.134.
As the narrator leaves her “sleeping room to engage society,” we begin to realize that, on one level, this is a story about overcoming agoraphobia - “it’s probably good to be with people,” she writes, “not to avoid them, which I mostly want to do, because I’m not sure what they hold in store” (199, 222). She goes to get her mail and we finally see her name as it appears on the wooden slot; as it appears, that is, to other people (200). Is Helen her real name? Does it identify her as the Helen who featured in Haunted Houses or the protagonist of Cast in Doubt who is “called Helen” although it “wasn’t her real name but was close enough to it” (12)? Does it matter? “In certain moments, for certain reasons and for certain periods of time,” she is Helen (Broader Picture 25). And once she is named, her own naming loses its power. Contesa now reverts to Violet, the Count to Gardner, Birdman is Desmond, “that odd inquisitive woman” is Moira.
Although her “second heart grinds with nameless worry” (206), and we suddenly see her blushing and fainting when spoken to, Helen manages to depart from the comforting routine of breakfast, lunch and dinner, first to attend a play and then a séance. New generic conventions have entered the novel.Might Tillman have been thinking of the community-binding pageants in Virginia Woolf’s national novel, Between the Acts (1941)? At the start of the play, which Contesa has written and staged, its Narrator asks the audience to “touch the hand of the person beside you” (224). It’s not quite a Melvillean “squeez[ing] ourselves into each other” but it does, briefly, suggests the possibility of some kind of connection (Melville, 427). Helen is beginning to think that “home” can be “here” where “the Count recounts” or “Spike expands” or “the Turkish poet sighs” (222).
We are encouraged to believe that we have reached some kind of turning point or climax. Is the play to be a “decisive event” for Helen (230)? Will the carnivalesque séance, a “decrowning double” (Bakhtin 127)Tillman quotes this passage as an epigraph to “Thrilled to Death” (This 253).of the “New England town meeting” (“Conversation”) provide a “genuine experience” (237)? Will either allow Helen to “move on” with her life (249)? When she sets off for the woods one Monday morning (perfect for a “fresh start”), she thinks that spring is “finally coming” and with it a “renewal strategy” (271). But, as we’ve seen, she simply finds herself on a “well-worn path” (275). Helen (rather self-consciously) notes that she is looking at the residents with “brand new eyes” (251) and that “everything’s in motion” (276).Compare with “So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes.” (Emerson 48) and “it is something strictly American to conceive a space that is filled with moving” (Stein 161). The others repeat these well-worn phrases: “One thing ends, another begins,” declares Contesa (278); “It’s never too late,” insists Moira (289).
“Unless it is,” Helen “also thought”. And that, finally, is the crux of the Great American Novel. Unlike furniture or novel design, history can neither fall “into place” (230) nor be “undone” (243). We are where we are, but what does that entail? Do we “stand defeated America” (Dos Passos, 1106), or might the “sickness” pass? Is there “no solution to progress, except more of it” (108), or have Americans trapped themselves in endless repetition? Tillman leaves both options open. Helen returns to the place she “call[s] home” and to the beauty salon for the ritual of her “regular treatment”. All is as it was, except that her previous therapist has left and there is a “new” Polish woman “inaugurating the facial.” The novel ends as Helen closes her eyes and the cosmetician “goes on” (292). Does this represent change? One answer is no - the treatment for sensitivity is merely palliative; the comforting, conservative, comic routine simply carries on.The narrator of Motion Sickness ends up in the same Paris hotel room where she began, “as if it’s all middle,” Tillman said. “Very middle class, maybe, where the novel originated” (Broader 141). Repetition, thinks Grace in Haunted Houses, is “like living at home” (143). Or as a more completely pessimistic GAN, Pynchon’s Vineland, has it: “The personnel changes, the Repression went on … . regardless of the names in power” (72).But another is yes - a new, potentially “much better”, administration has been inaugurated and the American wish, “against all reason,” just might triumph (286). “There’s nothing lost in doing it,” Helen decides, “except the future of hope’s credibility” (276). Who, “except a seer” (244), can predict what will come next - the stasis of comedy or the revolutionary force of genius?
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