Wednesday, September 21, 2011

No Lease On Life

I mentioned in another post that I have started a small press collection where I work. One of those presses, Red Lemonade, publishes the works of Lynne Tillman. Her newest release, Someday This Will Be Funny, sounded like it might be good but I thought I'd give some of her earlier works a try instead. This may seem stupid since part of the Red Lemonade publishing model is making the books available online to be read. Here's Someday This Will Be Funny. But I hate reading things online. So I went the old-fashioned route and got a couple of books; No Lease on Life and Books & Co.

I thought I would really like the latter. It is a non-fiction account of Jeanette Watson and her seminal New York City bookstore, Books & Co. Tillman didn't really write it, though, so much as she compiled it. The book is mostly an oral history of Watson but after every couple of paragraphs of Watson talking, Tillman inserts comments from others involved in the story that mostly pertain to what Watson just said. It made for a very disjointed reading. Between the style and not really being able to get excited about Watson's challenges (her father was head of IBM and when she started her bookstore she asked him for money. Sure, if you put up $150,000, I will too. Guess she had been saving her allowance for a while), I gave up on it. As I said, it was more compiled than written and wasn't really giving me a sense of how Tillman writes.

I got a much better sense from No Lease on Life. The novel is a day in the life of Elizabeth Hall, a low-paid proofreader living in rent-control squalor in New York City. It begins late at night with her being unable to sleep because of noise and hooliganism going on outside in the streets below. Her boyfriend has no problem ignoring the noise every night and seems to accept their living conditions much more readily than she does which only contributes to her rage and anxiety.

Ultimately, that is what this book is - 179 pages of rage and anxiety. There are no chapters, per se. Instead, blocks of thoughts are broken up with jokes. No mention is made of who is telling them or why but you get the sense it's a way for Elizabeth to cope with the stress.

Once the morning comes, you find out more about the other people in the neighborhood and the problems Hall has had trying to get anyone to do anything about the living conditions, the most prevalent difficulty being junkies shooting up in the entryway to the building.

The ending comes with some relief for Elizabeth but it is a small victory. While not a real happy or satisfying ending, it is a somewhat realistic ending. It's not Richard Gere climbing up the fire escape to whisk her away in a limo.

The stress made the story difficult to want to read but Tillman's writing is really good and made it palatable. I think the lack of chapters and the shortness of the book aid in making it readable. I think if there were chapter breaks, I might be tempted not to come back to it. Because the story never really pauses, I found it hard to want to stop reading. Some of the jokes are entertaining, too.

After both of these, I will read more Tillman and may put Tillman's newest on the "to acquire" list for the collection. I recommend checking her out.

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