No Lease on Life

Sarah Vowell reviews 'No Lease on Life' by Lynn Tillman.

Published January 22, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It's tempting to call Lynn Tillman's "No Lease on Life" a utopian novel. Which doesn't mean that it's a grand book, or even an overly optimistic one. As the chronicle of one ordinary woman's day in the East Village, it's almost mundane in a deadpan sort of way. Who could imagine any contemporary New York story as idealistic? Tillman describes much of the wearing, wearying routine of the city's daily life -- all that garbage, all those druggies and creeps and whores we've met in a million Letterman one-liners jammed into a scrawny crevice of land while the rest of America's so huge and airy and free. But Tillman's book is utopian precisely because it takes those things into account; because its heroine fantasizes about murdering all "the morons" not out of hate, "but dignity and a social space, a civil space, actually civilian space."

On her block, in her building, everyone knows Elizabeth because she speaks up. She worries. She doesn't just wish for less filthy hallways or less street noise in the wee small hours. She calls. She calls the police and the landlord and the super. She reports infractions to the city. An insomniac, she sits at her window night after night keeping track of the semi-chaos and quasi-tragedies. Still, "Elizabeth didn't want to care about everything." A key to her character might be her job. She works part-time as a proofreader. Maybe after years and years of erasing other people's errors on the page, she can't help but want to correct the errors of city life.

The story surrounding Elizabeth is spared from its do-gooder, buttinsky overtones by a constant bone-dry humor. It feels real, maybe too real. But Tillman uses an obtrusive formal device to bump into the reader. She sprinkles the text with dozens and dozens of jokes, inserting them randomly into the narrative in such a way that the plot stops cold. For example, a section about the new stove Elizabeth and her boyfriend had to buy when the old one quit working is interrupted by this "What do you get when you cross a Mafioso with a deconstructionist? What? An offer you can't understand." These breaks scream to the reader a reminder that she's holding a book, not a mirror. But at the same time, the willy-nilly punch lines mimic the way humor works as a kind of non sequitur in daily life: Errand, errand, joke, errand, work, subway, dinner, joke. This sometimes sick shtick comes across as a defense mechanism. And who can't relate? Isn't every public-transportation-riding, rent-paying, law-abiding urban dweller about two or three knock-knock jokes away from homicide? Because New York, and America for that matter, has no monopoly on morons, we can, all of us, remember Tillman's protagonist the next time we fantasize about offing them all, and whisper under our breath, Elizabeth, c'est moi.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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