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October 19, 2006

Book Notes - Lynne Tillman ("American Genius: A Comedy")

Lynne Tillman's American Genius: A Comedy is a novel difficult to categorize. An eccentric woman's recollections of her life and suroundings, the book works cleverly into focus as Tillman creates one of the year's most memorable (and interesting) literary characters.

In her own words, here is Lynne Tillman's Book Notes entry for her book, American Genius: A Comedy:

I wrote my new novel, American Genius, A Comedy, over five years, stopping and starting too much, and listened to a lot of music, my mood music -- it was always background – I wasn’t actually listening, since often I didn’t hear it, it settled far beneath whatever it was I was thinking and feeling and needing, because I was needing support all the time in an inward way, and music gave me that, but also I believe I heard it, when I didn’t know I was, so it had effects on the book. American Genius’ sentences, most, are very long and rhythmic, and they needed propulsion to carry from one clause to another, so I required it, that and concentration. Rhythms, voices, melodies or dissonances urged me to keep going, when it seemed crazy to try, and also focused me on the demanding sentence structures, even if I was unaware of what I was hearing.

The novel was written going forward and back in time, and then sometimes I went back into what I’d written and added odd material, and there were no chapters, and few paragraphs, relatively, so it turned into a block of writing. In other words, the music I played wasn’t about individual songs but surges of types of sound – blocks of sound, not walls like Phil Spector’s.

Here’s a way to think of it: Bernard Herrman’s soundtracks for Hitchcock’s movies – even Psycho –and the music from Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s violent anti-violence Western. I could count on them to create a space, because whatever happened that day in the writing, I had to feel inside a space. Movie music does that: it’s what it’s meant to do. I can listen to movies all day long and sometimes see the movie.

A reader could pick up my book and read from any place in it –and get a sense of the whole, until two-thirds of the way in when the story shifts.

Glenn Gould playing Beethoven Sonatas equaled: we’re in this game of imagining together. You can hear him humming happily sometimes beneath the music, and it’s reassuring. He goes in and out of range nicely, the way my protagonist does. Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations: concentration aid, since Bach’s logic and reason are merciless, and this novel reckons with reason and unreason all the time. Bach kept me in line.

But then there’s the irrational, which is as much what the novel’s about, and which is always compelling, so let’s say it’d be Miles Davis’s “You’re Under Arrest” : a wake up call and a reminder of how bad things really are. There’s an insanity – or unreasonableness-- I need when writing anything, and Miles supplies it, except when he plays ballads, and then he stops everything and holds it in place. Sometimes Hole’s first CD worked for adolescent angst, which never goes away completely, when nothing can ever be right. Courtney Love sounded like an aggression I needed to usurp for the novel at times.

Anytime I wanted spirit-feeding: Al Green and Marvin Gaye. “I’m Still in Love with You” can be with me all day long, no matter what, because Green goes through every emotion on that CD, joy, sorrow, loss, abandonment, resignation. And, Marvin Gaye – anything remotely to do with life is in his voice.

There’s tons of a certain kind of repetition in AGAC, so playing the same CDs again and again fit. In the novel, I treat memory the way memory occurs – triggered usually by the same events and using the same words to tell it. Every time I remembered, I realized, and when people told their stories from the past, I did it, and they did it, with the same words and images, even cadences. So repeating things again and again was good.

I can’t begin to remember all the CDs I played, so here’s some of them, The main thing to remember is that when I played it, I played it for days. Then stopped, and played another for days....sometimes interspersing another block of sound but sometimes just letting the sounds have their way (with me, with my novel).

Over and Over: Buena Vista Social Club; Cake; Microscopic Septet; Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits; Etta James’ Respect Yourself; Magnolia; Mystic River; Badomi de Cesare’s Wanna Fall in Love? Coltrane’s Love Supreme; Richard Hell and the Voidoids; Picnic; Brian Wilson Presents Smile; Paul Shapiro’s It’s in the Twilight; Kushner and Tesori’s Caroline or Change; Dylan’s John Wesley Harding; Puccini’s Tosca, with Callas; Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish; Jan Johansson’s Folvisor; Modern Jazz Quartet with Fontana Bass; Copland’s Appalachian Spring; Bernstein’s Candide; Brecht’s Threepenny Opera; John Cale’s Songs for the Dying, and on and on.

see also:

excerpt from the book
interview with the author

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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