Lynne Tillman’s No Lease on Life by Betsy Sussler

Part of the Editor's Choice series.

BOMB 62 Winter 1998
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Lynne Tillman. Photo by Michel Delsol. Courtesy of Harcourt Brace.

Elizabeth, the audacious heroine of No Lease on Life, would like to murder, preferably by knife or strangulation—pleading temporary insanity—the crusty junkies and skinheads who inhabit her tenement street. Not the drug dealers, prostitutes, and small businessmen who work the street, they at least have a purpose. But as Tillman posits in her epigraph: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,/ for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).

Plagued by the homeless sleeping and defecating in her vestibule; yuppies shooting up in her hallway; the endless wail of sirens; late-night revelers; boom boxes and car alarms, Elizabeth’s droll tale of a white middle-class girl in New York City’s downwardly mobile slum recalls the humor of both Kafka and Woody Allen. Tillman’s secondary characters rant like Woody Allen’s while the novel’s tenants occupy an endless duration of poverty and a faceless, intransigent bureaucracy straight out of The Trial. It is no wonder that Elizabeth cannot sleep. Or that her proofreading job seems to be the only way she can effect any change, albeit with punctuation.

Tillman punctuates Elizabeth’s wry opinions with ethnic jokes so demeaning in their stereotypical assumptions, so dead on in the way we view each other, that they become quintessentially American. What the middle class wants to forget is where they’ve come from, what our self-deprecating unconscious, our jokes, reveal is that we cannot. Which in the end is what this wonderfully eccentric and witty novel does so well. Like the other America, the land of the trapped, desperate, and destitute, it haunts us at every turn.

—Betsy Sussler

No Lease on Life will be published by Harcourt Brace in February.

Lynne Tillman by Geoffrey O'Brien
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Marcia Douglas by Loretta Collins Klobah
Half Way Tree

In echoes and splices of “narrative sonic bites,” Douglas sets her experimental novel, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread, to the dub pulse of Rasta tradition.

Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre by J.W. McCormack
Comemadre Abedit

Let’s begin with death. “Let’s say that in the course of all human experience, death is pure conjecture: it is, as such, not an experience. And all that which is not an experience is useless to mankind.” The speaker here is Ledesma, one of a cadre of lovelorn, thoroughly chauvinistic doctors up to no good at a sanatorium just outside Buenos Aires.

Gunnhild Øyehaug’s Wait, Blink by Ryan Chapman
Wait Blink

What kind of novel would you write if you had never read a novel before? Would it have the mounting tension of a campfire tale? The breathless cadence of fresh gossip shared with a best friend? If you’re Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug, you unspool 50,000 words with the inventiveness of Scheherazade and the guilelessness of a Red Bull–fueled, hyperarticulate ten-year-old. This is Wait, Blink.

Originally published in

BOMB 62, Winter 1998

Featuring interviews with Elizabeth Murray, Kerry James Marshall, Anthony Hecht, Michael Winterbottom, Liza Bear, Wong Kar-Wai, Olu Dara, Martin Sherman, and Philip Kan Gotanda. 

Read the issue
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