Post Road Magazine #14

Lynne Tillman’s No Lease on Life

Lisa Dierbeck

Lynne Tillman’s new novel arrived in bookstores at the end of October from my favorite renegade press, Soft Skull. This is cause for celebration for two reasons. One, Soft Skull and Tillman are a marriage made in heaven. Soft Skull endeared itself to me, personally, by being crazy enough to print a perverse novella I wrote about my stint as Lucifer’s sex slave. (It was a memoir, so I published it under a pen name.) Soft Skull has, in Tillman, an author who is nervy, brilliant, and surprising. Her much-anticipated-by-the-cognoscenti novel, American Genius, promises to break the rules. Tillman is an audacious explorer of the unspoken and the hard to say. She thumbs her nose at narrative convention with panache.

To read Tillman’s magnificent, curious, and uproariously hilarious novel No Lease on Life is to realize that in your own reading tastes and writing style you may have been comparatively timid. No Lease on Life kicks ass. It cuts loose. It isn’t always easy: Tillman makes you think, which some of us, myself included, are in constant danger of forgetting how to do. We take the easy route; we fall back on our habits of mind. But Tillman whispers, “Hey, idiot. Pay attention to what’s going on in the street, in front of you.” No Lease on Life urges us forward into a violet-hued future in which we are as dazed and fragmented as the solitary creatures in a Beckett novel. At the same time Tillman can conjure a more sophisticated past, an imaginary cocktail party for cool and ardent intellectuals. I picture Tillman in clairvoyant conversation with the spirits of various geniuses. Her work has the intellectual fervor of a Susan Sontag and the interiority of the great modernists, with their unhurried and proudly cerebral examinations of the human comedy as it unfolds. Like a Woolf, Proust, or Musil, Tillman investigates, in No Lease on Life, how it feels to be inside a consciousness, to be a woman with contours: this body on that head. To be a human with an expiration date, listening to the ticking clock, permitted to exist only for one precisely rationed portion of time, that vanishing resource that nobody can possess. Her fiction dissects experience in detail and makes us rethink the familiar, shining a flashlight into that scary gap between what we say and who we are, the dark gulf where language crumbles to dust and can’t explain what the fuck we mean, where we’re seized with an awareness of how strange we are. Hers is a universe in quotation marks, not ironic, but existential, as in, who is “I”? But if all this sounds too philosophical, don’t worry. No Lease on Life just rocks. It’s full of mischievous humor and obscene jokes. It made me laugh out loud many times. I can’t wait to read American Genius. Tillman’s writing is wild.


Lisa Dierbeck lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she is a contributor to Barron's and The New York Times Book Review. She is the author of the novel One Pill Makes You Smaller.

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