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American Genius A Comedy Lynne Tillman Soft Skull: 292 pp., $15 paper

October 29, 2006|Louisa Thomas | Louisa Thomas is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.

"MY body is encased in sensitive, dry skin," says Helen, the protagonist of Lynne Tillman's new novel, "American Genius, a Comedy." Helen suffers from dermatographia, a skin condition in which the lightest scratching elicits visible lines, leaving a scrawl, like writing on a page. For her, skin is not a barrier between internal and external but the plane on which they meet. Her sensitive skin manifests her sensitive mind.

"American Genius" does not offer much of a traditional plot. Mostly, it is a record of Helen's weird and vivid interior world, a stream-of-consciousness account of her daily routine at a retreat of an undetermined, vaguely institutional nature for creative types with overstimulated nerves. Helen ruminates on what's for lunch, takes walks and occasionally observes the other convalescents, described mainly in terms of their idiosyncrasies and skin ailments -- a Turkish poet who loves talking about sex, an anorexic with psoriasis. Much of the thin story takes place over a single day; although there is one climactic scene, Tillman plumbs mundane experiences (ordering eggs for breakfast, pulling on a pair of socks) just as deeply.

Only meager details of Helen's past filter through, but what does is grim: Her father is dead, her brother missing, her mother slipping into dementia; she's lost friends to illness and accident; she's been married, divorced and betrayed more than once. But it is the scarring itself, both psychic and physical, rather than the cause of injury, that is the focus of her inner monologue.

For the most part, the action evolves from the twists and turns of her memory, which is a steel trap. Helen was at one point a historian, but now she's more of "a recorder and collector, a listmaker," with an encyclopedic mind and seemingly perfect recall.

Facts offer a refuge. They provide wormholes out of the painful particulars of the past: A recollection of her declining mother talking in her sleep about her cat, whose fur is "like silk," leads to a dispassionate digression on the history of silk.

Relief, though, is always temporary. Facts have trap doors too. The meditation on silk becomes a discussion of textiles, her father's business. Helen is reminded of the office stock boy, Junior, who, in turn, brings to mind her nanny, which makes her think about her mother's housekeeper. Suddenly, we're back in childhood, with its attendant traumas.

"Memory can be consumptive, a sickness," Helen says, "whose effects are wily and subversive, worthy of flight or fight, and tenacious unwritten histories leave tremulous marks on bodies in action, at rest, but not their final rest, and under siege."

"American Genius" is not an easy book to read. There are long, dry asides on Eames chairs, Helen's cats, her Polish beautician, the Zulu language and, of course, dermatological conditions of every kind. Facts reappear, and what is interesting the first time can be irritating the second or third. Phrases recur like mantras (lunch is "usually the poorest meal of the day"), while gripes from childhood are dredged up again and again. The cat put to sleep, the Shetland pony denied -- of all the horrible events in her past, Helen is curiously fixated on seemingly small injustices.

The effect of these repetitions is heightened by the hermetic quality of Tillman's syntax. Apparently crucial information -- who this woman is, where she's living, why she's there -- is buried deep within whorled lines, and many references are made casually and explained only later, if at all. Independent clauses are strung together with commas, and a sentence or two can make a dozen associative leaps.

"He has lived in the same house for years," Helen reflects of one friend, "not far from where I first ate Indian food, which I instantly liked, whose spices and smells were new to me then, as was the man I first ate it with, whom I fell in love with for a short time, but Indian food is no longer new, though I still appreciate its tastes and smells, and that friend's house is also near the beauty salon where I first had my legs waxed. The salon's chairs mocked 18th century French design." It is the chronicle of a photographic, neurotic, obsessive mind.

Such patterns, though, are closer to those of the average American mind than they at first appear, and this is where Tillman's genius lies. We may not be thinking about silk and skin disease, but we are plagued by concerns, small and large, in a manner that would seem obsessive to any eavesdropper. We don't spell out our biographies, but shards pierce through, often unbidden. We are easily distracted. We return, over and over, to childhood slights, small and large, even when we have better things to worry about. We don't know when to stop.

"Most people will divulge more than you want to know," Helen says. She's not speaking of herself, but she might as well be. Later, she adds, "What is said is often unremarkable, though sometimes horrible, but it's still easy to feel the tiresomeness of another's life, as well as your own, since interest in other people is also an interest in yourself, because human beings are interested in themselves and in ways of survival. All stories are somehow survival stories, with bad or good fortunes."

Helen's thoughts are frequently difficult and sometimes even tiresome. Yet they are always compelling. They map a path of survival through thickets real and imagined. The thorns may scar, but scars can tell a fascinating story. *

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