Skin Deep: Lynne Tillman's American Genius, A Comedy

Skin Deep: Lynne Tillman's American Genius, A Comedy


“Like skin, the comma both connects and divides.” Peter Nicholls traces Tillman’s endlessly subordinating, endlessly equivocating sentences, showing how their quest for historical and social clarity passes through an interminable sequence of deferral and denial.

My parents had to have my dog put down when I was a kid. Later in life, I had a finely bred cat that went crazy and had to be destroyed. I have hemophobia which makes an ordinary blood-test an ordeal. So much I share with Helen, the narrator of Lynne Tillman’s recent novel American Genius, A Comedy. Further references will be given in the text to AGAC. No doubt there are other things we have in common, for Helen’s compulsively repetitive monologue at once invites and irritatingly repels such easy forms of identification. AGAC, of course, is a book much concerned with such irritations, literal and metaphorical. In a very immediate sense, it is about the painful irritation of the skin: Helen suffers from the skin disorder “dermatographia,” literally “skin writing”, a condition that renders the body acutely sensitive to “inscription” by the external world (“I became aware that skin could be damaged by use” [24]).AGAC, 69: “My condition, dermatographia or dermatographism, skin writing, is not life-threatening, but because of it my skin tingles, pulses, and itches, and if I were to stroke my arm with a fingernail, white lines would surface and be visible for at least fifteen minutes….in dermatographia only raised lines surface, which resemble writing on the skin.” See also AGAC, 243. The motif of the self bound up in its own embrace - one part of the body itching another to relieve an itch - describes a reflexive loop of “self-touching” that provokes at the narrative level an equally and deliberately irritating habit of repetition.See the fascinating discussion of itching in Steven Connor, The Book of Skin, 232ff. It would not be surprising if Connor’s book had influenced AGAC, especially as it contains an account, with illustrations, of dermatographia. If the self has any stability here it is because it can always - always has to - return to painful moments in the past. Helen’s “mental meanderings” (87) are initially quirky enough to be winning, but her tendency to be “easily distracted” becomes more querulous and self-serving as the novel proceeds - actually not really a “meandering” at all, but rather a doleful and (we sometimes think) self-deluding litany of sullen repetition: “My dog was given away by my parents, who pretended to love her but must not have, or if they did, it’s a mystery how they could have abandoned the beloved, innocent animal to a shelter and had it killed” (140). The event resists interpretation, but while its cause remains a “mystery” that doesn’t prevent it from becoming a focus for lasting resentment (“…I may not recover, because there are some things you don’t recover from. The past can’t be recovered or changed” [19]). At the same time, the constant rehearsal of these grievances makes them seem increasingly stylized, if not sentimentalized (“the beloved, innocent animal”), less a key to Helen’s inner self than one of a series of interconnected signs through which the obsessive patterns of a life may be narrated.

This is not, then, what would normally be termed a “psychological” novel, but one that is primarily concerned with what makes the illusion of psychic stability possible and sustainable in a world that seems to threaten it at every point. Just what that “world” is is also in doubt. Reviewers have wondered whether the novel is set in “an artist’s colony or a psych ward” (Winter), while Tillman herself has kept the mystery going by saying only that the narrator is one of a group of people “all cloistered together in an institution of some sort” (Tillman 2007)Cf. O’Brien, “Interview” where Tillman says “still we don’t know where she is.” There are, I think, enough references to ill-health to make these claims for undecidability a trifle arch. See, for example, 187: “…the weight of the world is a burden. I am here to shuck it off, almost required to do it, otherwise I won’t feel well, do better, achieve a goal, and I must accomplish what I’m meant to do in life, there must be something.”. This indeterminacy is part of the “comedy” of the novel, though the wackiness of the community thinly veils the suffering of its members. Early in AGAC, in fact, we are told that the narrator (as yet unnamed) is speaking from somewhere in which “I was sequestered with strangers in a place not unlike the one where I was sent to summer camp” (20). The memory of her fear and perplexity on that occasion haunts Helen’s later stay in this community, and there is for a second time confusion between incarceration and benevolent authority (Helen speaks in the same breath of the community’s “residents, or fellows” and of the camp’s “counselors”, but elsewhere it is hinted that freedom is illusory: “One resident or guest …prefers ‘guest’ as she insists she makes her own decisions” (171) and “many of the residents here are not equipped for life as it is commonly regulated, but they struggle on…” (43)).

In a conversation I had with Tillman back in 1995 when she was working on No Lease on Life, she described her aims as follows:

I’m less certain now about what can be undone, though I still believe in talking and writing, making things or unmaking them if possible….I’m questioning notions of outer and inner, public/private, how each of us - how I - exist in a framework in which we are affected, bombarded, by the world, and still manage to think, feel, have our own worlds. (Nicholls, 284)

The skin, “the largest organ of the body” (113), perfectly encapsulates, conceptually and metaphorically, this sensitive interface as it “registers the inner world on the exterior, as the world external to it marks it as well” (64). The skin is at once “a containing and passively receptive surface” that expresses both our boundedness and separation and our extreme vulnerability in and to the world - “it can neither close like the eyes or the mouth, nor be stopped like the ears and nose” (Connor, 12, 15). Cf. Benthien, 23: skin “serves both as a representation of the whole and as that which conceals it.” AGAC has no place for a classical distinction between mind and body, but speaks instead of the flesh in all its immediacy, the skin as zone of contact, “discontinuous and spasmodic, like the modern world itself” (Connor, 135). Connor, 135. This is “the skin exhibited by hysteria” and, as Connor has already noted (132), the hysteric body “is always female even when it is male”. This distinction between “body” and “flesh” is helpfully clarified by Gerald Bruns who observes that

Body is a Greek concept. It is what has been shaped into a thing of beauty and object of regard; it is self-possessed, which means under control and capable of struggle and achievement….Flesh meanwhile is a biblical concept (basar in Hebrew). It is essentially passive and weak, torpid and shapeless, wet and fragrant, warm and luxurious, yet for all that driven and hungry because insatiable (concupiscent). Flesh is for eating and being eaten, whereas the body is defined by self-denial or self-transcendence. (Bruns, 707)

There is little hope of “self-transcendence” in Tillman’s novel, where the skin’s “blazing” and “flaring” is involuntary as it “reveals and encloses too” (70). Sometimes it announces what is only “skin deep” (which is fortunate [106]), at other times more ominously “skin lets us know that a surface often isn’t superficial” (31) and that the malady is systemic. The suffering “I”, of course, has no choice in the matter and this element of determinism colors the whole of AGAC.Compare Anzieu’s proposal that “the ego is the projection on the psyche of the surface of the body” (A Skin for Thought, quoted in Connor, 49). Cf. Anzieu, The Skin Ego, 208: “the Ego does indeed constitute itself upon a tactile foundation”. Helen expresses a deeply-held conviction when she declares that “about the most important things in life human beings don’t have much choice. I am making do, unmaking too, being as watchful and free as I can with what I’ve been born into” (87). The margin of possibility seems a narrow one: “I appreciate arbitrary direction, since mostly I have no choice, not about where I was born or to whom, into what skin or sex or town” (152). Such “arbitrary direction” might present itself through a Tarot reading or a séance, though these are only thematic solutions to a plot problem. At a deeper level, it is really only in the insistently repetitive structures of Helen’s own thinking that any kind of direction might be found. It is here that Tillman has her novel bear the weight of “think[ing] about being an American now” (O’Brien, 5), as she attempts to make the way that “Skin contracts and expands” provide a kind of structural figure for “what I wanted the novel to do: to move from small events and issues, like a facial or an annoying dinner party, to great ones, like American history, democracy, sensitivity, sex, race and racism” (Tillman, 2007).

The key to this string of concerns lies once more in a concept of “sensitivity” and its compensatory posture of “Sensory Defensiveness” (130): “the world,” declares Helen, “is increasingly poisonous, or toxic” (222) and “People have become more sensitive over the years” (99). This idea of increased sensitivity is at the core of the novel: being “sensitive” is what a liberal society encourages us to be, but as Tillman observed in a recent interview, “sensitive people aren’t any less cruel, and can be as cruel or crueler and very insensitive to other people” (O’Brien, 3). The skin disorders that “blaze” and “flare” in the pages of AGAC announce private pain, but also suggest that the sensitivity they express is perhaps the damaged remainder of an ethics of concern for the other that contemporary American culture has come increasingly to pathologize as weakness and anxiety. These skin deep signals are, after all, in contrast to the impervious “shallow, thick-skinned, insensitive character, an opportunist or someone so damaged as to be incapable of love and compassion” (33).

From this point of view, Tillman’s presentation of afflicted sensitivity strongly recalls the nineteenth-century invention of neurasthenia. That term, coined by George Miller Beard in 1869, gave a convenient name to a whole raft of otherwise seemingly unrelated physical and mental symptoms: “anxiety, despair, phobias, fretfulness, insomnia, nightmares, inattention, extreme fatigue, migraine, palpitations, indigestion, impotence, neuralgia, and many more” (Gijswijt-Hofstra, 39). See, for example, AGAC, 43: “they struggle on, the disconsolate woman who has psoriasis and is anorectic, a female radio announcer and musician with chronic fatigue syndrome, the young married man who pretends nothing afflicts him, the sodden, demanding man who consumes a fifth of vodka every night and is an irritant to my skin, like scratchy fabric, and others.”Interest in neurasthenia peaked in the years between 1900 and 1910; one hundred years later many of its symptoms return to trouble Helen and the community in which she lives. Once again, cultural pathology materializes as clinical condition: just as Beard had written that “American nervousness is the product of American civilization” (Gijswijt-Hofstra, 39), so the ubiquitous itching and eruption of the skin in Tillman’s novel is meant to tell us something important about what the title calls “American genius”. That phrase is at first sight something of a puzzle, given that the anxious and damaged characters of AGAC seem to have little or no claims to “genius” if that word applies to ability and achievement. Tillman, however, seems to be using the word to mean something like its Latin root in “generative power” or “tutelary spirit”. Late in the novel, Helen also refers us to Kant: “The Count’s seizure or paroxysm may have been fantastic, crotchety, a delirium, or poetic inspiration - furor poeticus - and, if so, it might approach genius, according to Kant” (273). In Critique of Judgement, Kant suggests that “it is probable that the word ‘genius’ is derived from genius, that peculiar guiding and guardian spirit given to a man at his birth” (Kant, 151), and Tillman seems to be alluding to some national “spirit” which may encompass not only the usual sense of “genius” but also suggest other more negative features. In a recent interview, John Freeman observes that Tillman “still believes that the Constitution was a work of genius and the country itself a fabulous experiment. ‘Genius used to be a force of nature,’ she explains. ‘And it was there when the Constitution was written.’” (Freeman). AGAC puzzles over the subsequent history of this particular “genius”, name-checking some of its more clichéd forms: the habit of “starting over in the American way” (158), for example, or Helen’s recognition that, in true American style, she “had to keep moving” (159) and that “supposedly Americans play hard and work hard and have marketed this idea to the world” (16). Yet beyond these clichés, issued with necessary irony, the larger movements of American history amount to “a series of periods of individual colonists or members overcoming their own savagery” (90). The Puritan origins of America have produced a fetishism of wealth and celebrity - “The famous become paranoid” (173) - while the wretched story of Manifest Destiny and slavery induces a monolithic guilt that nothing can shake: “I can’t undo it, thinking doesn’t” (243). Nothing can obliterate these “scars” on the national body, a “trail of dead skin” that “never lets you forget the event” (176, 175) or the “self-serving assumptions” it so barely conceals (“I felt so sad about America, suddenly, I had left it, or it had left me” [241]).

Beneath America’s carapace of imperial muscle we now discover individual Americans “imprisoned in their skins” (58) or, like Helen, “encased in dry skin” (222). Painful, lacerated skin is but the first border to be defended against invasive attentions from others; Helen’s interest in what Contesa calls “the comedy of other people” (47) has always to be reined in, “since I generally want little to do with others who might intrude upon my feelings and insinuate themselves into my thoughts” (109). Other people are, at best, comic characters in some semi-theatrical performance (the Count, the Magician and so on); at worst, they provide a too easy route back to the self (as Helen observes, “interest in other people is also an interest in yourself” [41]). Yet this self-involvement is more than a matter of mere “interest”: the stakes are higher than that, and if American “genius” found its genuine and lasting expression in the ideals of the early republic, AGAC is painfully aware that individualism (“Everyone has an opinion and speaks it” - or a symptom and guards it) might also be the flipside of a thoroughgoing disregard of others’ needs (having concluded that the right to self-expression is “admirable”, Helen finds herself inquiring why people “care so much about what others think” [247]). Any original “genius” for social harmony now mutates into its opposite: “I vanished or disappeared inside myself, since I thought I knew what could destroy me and, actually, I’d mandated myself to protect my mind….” (147). The phrase “protect my mind” also occurs in a context that suggests that this has a particular personal resonance for Tillman; see Freeman, 2 on her temporarily leaving New York City: “This is a tough town and it was not easy then if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted. I…had to protect my mind.”

As Tillman has remarked in interview, however, “being able to escape from the world…is of course an illusion” (O’Brien, 5), which is why, instead of trying to stage such a “disappearance,” the novel does the opposite, deploying a finely calibrated periodic syntax to map the tenuous paths of connection between inner and outer. This is not, however, stream-of-consciousness prose, in part because the mechanism of the writing is constantly laid bare so as to expose, in its turn, the sheer contradictoriness rather than the naturalness of thinking. Helen tells us on a number of occasions that she

…like[s] undoing and unmaking things, nowadays I take apart what I put together, pull one sticky side from the other, then scatter the bits on a table or the floor to see its fractured entirety. It’s innocent behavior, no one gets hurt, there was a whole object and then there’s an object ripped apart. (182)

That process of “unmaking” fully invests the prose of AGAC, pointing up the contradictory drives that make Helen’s world such an edgy and “distracted” one, for at the same time as she wants to take things apart, she also desires order and wholeness:

“I want contentment and satisfaction, things falling into place, not apart, which is incongruent with my impulse to take apart and leave things in pieces on the floor” (230). But “congruence”, things in agreement, are also things that, like the events of Manifest Destiny, have unhappily fallen into place and now can’t be “undone” by thinking (243). It is the “sensitivity” that Helen is condemned to suffer that makes her thought a kind of “skin writing”: a painful incision that blooms and fades according to its own laws; an expression of vulnerability and uncertainty that must banish forever any hope of “contentment” or “satisfaction”. Tillman’s sentences are accordingly lengthy and elaborate, with rhythm constantly supervening on grammar so as to allow clauses to occupy adjacent positions without becoming “congruent”. One relatively short example:

The count strolled along the Seine and saw an antique blue watch, fell in love with it, and still loves and collects timepieces, Contesa read Kafka’s Amerika and, because he hadn’t visited it, she fell in love with his writing and mind, next with his brilliant cat-and-mouse letters to Felice, who may be Contesa’s Amerika, because she couldn’t visit her even in letters, whose symmetry she might enjoy, but I don’t remain faithful long to my person, others, and my interests, except I have habits, but resent them. (218)

Like skin, the comma both connects and divides. It may provide a narrative measure, as in the opening story of the Count’s discovery of antique timepieces, or it may force an unexpected apposition that will only be clarified later in the sentence (the comma before “Contesa” is initially ungrammatical and only pays off semantically when she, like the Count, is said to fall in love - in her case with the work of Kafka). But the network of relations is more complex than this, systematically modeled on a pattern of deferral and postponement. So Felice becomes Contesa’s Amerika because, of course, she can’t visit her. She may read her letters, but we can’t tell whether or not she “might enjoy” their “symmetry” because at that moment this reportage is interrupted by the more direct, tell-tale presence of Helen’s voice: “but I don’t remain faithful long to my person, others, and my interests, except I have habits, but resent them.”

If there is one feature that defines the sentences of AGAC, it is this use of subordinating conjunctions (italicized here) to disarticulate (“unmake”) the prose as it moves forward. The texture of the writing is at every turn conditioned by a fluctuating sense of discrimination and qualification. Nothing can quite “fall into place”, because no formulation is ever adequate to itself, to its own moment. Always there must be more speech, even though its explanatory power threatens to drain away in the profusion of qualifying terms. It is here that we can begin to see that “American genius” deals not at all in the currency of “self-evident” truths but rather in a quest for clarity that is constantly interrupting and undoing itself. Certainly, the particular “comedy” to which Tillman’s subtitle alludes has little of the witty fluency we associate with the best comedians and seems closer to the empty “comic” effects at work in Dostoevsky’s fiction, effects that Milan Kundera has aptly described as a “comical absence of the comical” that registers the “world of humorless laughter, where we are condemned to live” (Kundera, 21). Paradoxically, this particular “absence” characteristically announces itself in an overworking of syntax that makes the grammar of qualification and apparent discrimination the expression of a deep-lying negativity. Another example:

The brand of jeans that the odd inquisitive woman wears could have meaning, since everything means something, even if it is not anything much, negligible, or hardly worth mentioning, and, even though interpretations change and often meanings are temporary, especially those about a brand, her jeans still affect my relationship to her, since much harbors in trivialities, though not as much as in profound words and acts, whose significance can also be debated and more likely is. (154)

This long, choppy sentence tells us…what? That brand names mean something and affect one’s relationship to people who display them? But such signification is routine and tells us too much that is already familiar. Does that kind of meaning contrast, then, with the kind we might call “profound”? (Though it’s difficult to see how a word can be “profound”….) And profundity is also “debatable” and “more likely” (or not) will turn out to provide just another occasion for unresolved disagreement. The pull of equivocation becomes habitual, a reflex of thinking itself (my own attempt to describe what is happening in Tillman’s prose has similarly become ensnared in a net of qualifying “buts”, “excepts” and “thoughs”).

This syntax of equivocation is not without precedent, of course, and one “American genius” comes instantly to mind, the Herman Melville of that darkest of novels, The Confidence Man. This is Melville’s most insistent exposure of language’s capacity to deceive and confuse, and as the following passage demonstrates, his studied use of correlative conjunctions slyly gives with one hand as it takes back with the other:

Goneril was young, in person lithe and straight, too straight, indeed, for a woman, a complexion naturally rosy, and which would have been charmingly so, but for a certain hardness and bakedness, like that of the glazed colors on stone-ware. Her hair was of a deep rich chestnut, but worn in close, short curls all round her head. Her Indian figure was not without its impairing effect on her bust, while her mouth would have been pretty but for a trace of mustache. Upon the whole, aided by the resources of the toilet, her appearance at a distance was such, that some might have thought her, if anything, rather beautiful, though of a style of beauty rather peculiar and cactus-like. (Melville, 50-1)

Through a maze of equivocations, Melville pursues the idea of a “beauty” that is actually not beautiful at all, with the aim of calling into question both positive and negative categories. By the time we reach the end of the passage, we have been told that Goneril is thought by some to be “rather beautiful” (she does have “deep rich chestnut hair), though as readers we find ourselves more repelled than seduced by her “cactus-like” nature. The twists and turns of Melville’s prose - “serpentine”, as he never fails to remind us - make us keenly aware of the linguistic moves that allow this confidence trick, bringing into sharp relief the conjunctions that facilitate a sleight of hand.

Melville’s way of illuminating the functions of what we usually think of as the “minor” bits of language - conjunctions and prepositions, for example - here predicts what would be a defining feature of a later modernism. Gertrude Stein would famously declare that “I like to write with prepositions and conjunctions and articles and verbs and adverbs but not with nouns and adjectives” (Stein, 128), and in this shift of attention to what she called the “background of word-system” she was applying to language the insight she had taken from the painting of Paul Cézanne: “Up to that time composition had consisted of a central idea, to which everything else was an accompaniment and separate but not an end in itself, and Cezanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole” (quoted Walker, 13). Stein used this insight to create the “continuous present” of texts such as Tender Buttons, texts ostentatiously freed from the domination of memory and representation, and freed thus to revel in a sensuous (and sensual) immediacy. Yet in departing from the modes of conventional narrative, Stein’s experiments aimed to generate pleasure from the exposure to language’s constituent elements rather than a Melvillean sense of their capacity to equivocate and deceive. Other modernists focused more directly on the “serpentine” potentials of discourse. In Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, for example, a text that sometimes resonates with AGAC, the founding acts of Nicole’s abuse by her father are hidden away, “shut…into their Victorian side-chambers” like so many errant sub-clauses whose sinuous motion similarly works to conceal the truth (Fitzgerald, 143).Nicole observes that the clinic in which she is being treated “has been good for languages” (142), though later we are told that, rather like the location of AGAC, it “was no longer a single dark and sinister building but a small, scattered, yet deceitfully integrated village…”

The connection between syntactical equivocation and a past that is occluded or grasped only by intimation is, of course, even more graphically displayed in the fiction of William Faulkner. His massive, unfurling sentences and almost impossible parentheses are well known, but note also again the play with conjunctions:

He did not pause, did not take that day or two to let the bones and flesh of fifty-nine recuperate - the day or two in which he might have talked, not about us and what we had been doing, but about himself, the past four years (for all he ever told us, there might not have been any war at all, or it on another planet and no stake of his risked on it, no flesh and blood of his to suffer by it) - that natural period during which bitter though unmaimed defeat might have exhausted itself to something like peace, like quiet in the raging and incredulous recounting (which enables man to bear with the living) of that feather’s balance between victory and disaster which makes that defeat unbearable which, turning against him, yet declined to slay him who, still alive, yet cannot bear to live with it. (Faulkner, 130, italicized in original)

Such passages, with their calculated deferrals - “yet…still…yet” - and their emphatic relative pronouns whose designation remains nonetheless stubbornly unspecific - “that feather’s balance” - these stylistic devices promise to carry us toward the past even as they make our distance from it ultimately untraversable.On “deferral” in Faulkner’s prose, see Glissant, 9: “Faulkner’s books have always seemed to me to work this way. Deferred revelation is the source of his technique. This has nothing to do with the suspense of a detective novel or with social or psychological clarification; rather, it is an accumulating mystery and a whirling vertigo - gathering momentum rather than being resolved, through deferral and disclosure - and centered in a place to which he felt a need to give meaning.”AGAC does not, of course, invoke the intense Faulknerian desire for historical depth though it shares its ever-present sense that the future has somehow already been lived through, that it yields no promise of a distinctively new horizon. See, for example, Sartre, 85: “The coming suicide which casts its shadow over Quentin’s last day is not a human possibility; not for a second does Quentin envisage the possibility of not killing himself. This suicide is an immobile wall, a thing which he approaches backwards, and which he neither wants to nor can conceive” (emphases in original).Tillman’s novel ends with yet another facial treatment - “I close my eyes, and she goes on” [292]) - and this “going on” bespeaks circularity and deferral rather than any real forward movement, an itching to relieve an itch, or Kafka playing cat-and-mouse with Felice. Those letters of Kafka’s that Contesa falls in love with in fact disclose a “symmetry” (218) or formal balance that is also a kind of deadlocked recognition that no action will be taken or be possible. “I shall not come to see you,” writes Kafka to Felice’s parents, “it would be unnecessary torture for us all. I know what you would say to me. You know how I would take it. So I am not coming” (Kafka, 560). The visit doesn’t happen because it has already been played out in advance, just as we assume at the end of AGAC that Helen’s skin condition will only be temporarily relieved by the Polish woman’s “going on.”

The dark “humorless laughter” that Kundera finds in Dostoevsky is here too, a “laugh with no comical cause” that finds its object in Tillman’s own labyrinthine syntax, a syntax weighed down with explanatory connectives but finally unable to reveal any plausible pattern of causality. The sentences of AGAC become in this way increasingly typical, producing (to borrow a nice phrase from Edouard Glissant) recurring “sites of exasperation” (Glissant, 169). Take this example:

Name isn’t in the Zulu manual, and that’s a pleasant surprise, since everywhere I go, people learn each others’ names, though here only first names, because it’s considered an imposition to know a fellow resident’s last name, as it might reveal more than the person wants, since society, the one I now inhabit especially but all of it that I know too, sometimes needs anonymity and protection. (169; my emphases)

“Since”, “because”, “as”: so the “explanation” proceeds, seeking a figure of causality that the rhythm of the writing works insistently to obscure and undermine. There is a darkly comic urgency about such sentences that, with their deep-seated “itch” to qualify and refine, finally secure nothing but verbal “anonymity and protection.” Equivocation, it seems, provides a necessary line of retreat, exemplifying the “American genius” for elaborating a defensive skin to secure the borders of the self. The syntax of the novel, with its endless complex deferrals, is in this respect at once highly privatized (it constitutes the very mode of Helen’s being-in-the-world) and hopelessly public, stylized, and affect-less (as Jean-Paul Sartre observed of a parallel tendency in the prose of John Dos Passos’s 1919, “It will not take you long…to decide that you cannot use this tone in talking about yourself” [Sartre, 95]). Cf. Sartre, 92: “But beneath the violent colours of these beautiful, motley objects that Dos Passos presents there is something petrified. Their significance is fixed. Close your eyes and try to remember your own life, try to remember it that way; you will stifle” (emphases in original). In the passage from AGAC just quoted, for example, would I actually say about myself that I “inhabit a society”? As Sartre observes of 1919, “The narration takes on a slightly stilted manner, and everything that is reported about the hero assumes the solemn quality of a public announcement…. “Between these two poles, “history” becomes skin deep, a painfully reticulated surface expressing that particular aspect of “American genius” epitomized in Helen’s refusal “to cherish or memorialize memory, create and keep it in its own image, call its loss a sacrilege, confuse it with nostalgia” (242). Perhaps, finally, then, it’s not “history” at all: “it may be that there’s no time, only the peculiar winsome present,” Helen reflects (88), a present, that is, when narrative lasts only as long as the “flare” of skin-writing and is consequently doomed ever to repeat itself.

Works Cited

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