Saturday, October 18, 2008

Steady-state prose

Last month, the National Books Critics Circle held a panel at the New School on "Merging Genres," and two of the panelists posted articles on the subject at the NBCC blog. Robert Polito included a long list of books that "operate along the seams of poetry, fiction, and essay," one of which was Lynne Tillman's American Genius, A Comedy. The novel, narrated by a middle-aged woman named Helen who is residing in some kind of group institution. Polito thinks it's an artist's colony, but I saw no evidence that Helen was actually making anything. On the contrary, she seems to be escaping her daily life for a period, and although she is free to come and go as she pleases, I had more of an impression of a sanitarium of some kind. In any event, her account reminds me of Samuel Beckett's obsessive characters, placed in ambiguous dwelling places, telling a story full of trailing dependent clauses that rob the thought processes of any kind of decisiveness.

For most of the book, nothing happens. Helen keeps returning to the same thematic material over and over, until it seems less like a symbolic event and more like the eternal rise and fall of the tide. And it struck me that if novels are similar to musical works, American Genius, A Comedy is like a lot of contemporary drone music. For Helen, images and thoughts fade in and out, loosely attached by a thin and nearly random thread of association to whatever was in her mind before. And drone music slowly recycles some basic material, avoiding specific events, creating a placid steady state. Helen's narration is sprinkled with found objects, impersonal snippets of text that she has absorbed unreflectively into her consciousness, with an obsessive detail on dermatological issues and the Medical Sex Dictionary that she has found in the institution's library (and whose presence inclines me to a medical asylum of some kind). Drone music also uses field recordings obsessively, often processing them beyond all recognition of their origins, so they become a subliminal symbolic presence known only to the composers.

Eventually, of course, novels are different from music, and Tillman's static text has a conclusion and a goal that strongly contrast with the ever-present murmur of drone music. Helen's obsessions are her guardian spirits (the "genius" of the title), and title shows that Tillman is connecting Helen's insular institutional sojourn with much larger currents in our society. A prose art form like a novel channels our thoughts more directly than music, while music provides an unfocused access to the threshold of symbolic experience.

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