|Lynne Tillman, Armed and
No Lease on Life
Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, $21.00
A certain lawless, wild humor is threaded through the pages of Lynne Tillman's latest novel, No Lease on Life, a darkly comic tale of mayhem in pre-millennial New York City. Like much of the author's previous work, the novel dispenses with conventional narrative structure. It employs free-associative wordplay and a taut, shapely form of stream-of-consciousness to trace 24 hours inside the troubled mind of its protagonist. The events which transpire are being filtered through the consciousness of one Elizabeth Hall - a woman on the verge of committing a violent crime. As the novel unfolds, No Lease on Life takes any number of risks. It explodes notions of a classical unified subject while exploring the outer boundaries of permissible speech. Written in an urgent, percussive prose, it hurtles forward with the momentum of a rock thrown through a window.
Opening with a barbed joke about drive-by shootings, No Lease on Life is punctuated with aggressive outbursts. From start to finish, the novel traverses anarchic territory - a dangerous, hilariously funny realm which exists beyond the margins of good manners and good taste. Jokes appear at irregular, measured intervals throughout the text, interrupting the flow of language like a rude remark blurted out, unexpectedly, at a cocktail party. Entertaining in themselves, the jokes accentuate the kinetic, jaunty rhythm of Tillman's writing. They poke fun at: Kurt Cobain's suicide, Courtney Love's success, midgets, pederasts, serial killers, Jews, WASPS, African Americans, Irish Americans, Puerto Ricans - and everyone in between. Nothing is sacred. Brimming with in-your-face sass, the narrator is as egalitarian as she is hostile.
As subject, Elizabeth Hall is porous and fragmented. Her frequent digressions - daydreams, scraps of remembered dialogue, sexual fantasies, and extra-literary material such as "transcripts" of conversations - serve to blur distinctions between word and deed, observed and imagined, conscious and unconscious, past and present. Her "inner voice" is foul-mouthed and ill-tempered. It is also captivating. And in its own scrappy and pugnacious way, it's oddly charming.
No one is spared from Elizabeth Hall's fierce, corrosive wit. We learn early on she has a burning, unrealized ambition: she wants to be a killer. The people she'd enjoy murdering are the loud-mouthed morons who create havoc, all night, on her East Village block. They amuse themselves by throwing garbage cans and vomiting. Their behavior makes it impossible for her, or anyone else, to sleep. Pissed-off, irritable, and murderous, Elizabeth isn't a nice character. Yet, immediately, she elicits the reader's sympathies. She's Everychick who's ever tried to keep her block clean, or keep her hallway free of garbage, needles and excrement, or prevent an unfair rent increase. She's a one-woman urban avenger in a world where barbaric, dehumanizing forces have, mysteriously, taken over.
Although enraged when sleep-deprived, Elizabeth has a softer side. She won't do anything, for example, which would get the woefully inefficient postal worker fired. Magnanimously, she refrains from hurling abuses at "the legspreaders" - guys who spread their legs so wide, they take up two seats on the subway. She holds hands with a retarded man who haunts the block because "he needed affection, to be touched," and she befriends an assortment of other wanderers and drifters. It seems she's taken to heart the New Testament scripture, cited at the outset: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
The novel's low-rent mood is carnivalesque. Tillman populates her landscape with characters on the fringes of society: the homeless, the whores, and the addicts. Indeed, many of their true-life counterparts have recently been removed to the city's outskirts by police. Yet this isn't an historical metropolis, so much as a hyperrealistic one. Adding a dose of Kafka and a touch of Fritz Lang, Tillman has transported the unseen, underground New York to a parallel universe. It's a city in which no one dares to utter the now-fashionable words "quality of life." Quality of life is not available. No tourists or suburbanites adorn these pages. Well-heeled young professionals don't lounge on the green lawn of Tompkins Square Park. There is no greenery on view except for a single weedlike tree - and even that is slowly dying. Rather than sip overpriced cappucino at Starbucks, the denizens of this urban dysutopia are more likely to drain a fifth of gin.
No Lease on Life is a rant, a rap song, and an ode to lower Manhattan. It's New York in the midst of a nicotine fit, on an adreneline high, with a caffeine jag. That famous edgy energy is going sour, fast. It's the city as experienced by someone who's been denied, just one time too many, a decent night of sleep.