It’s 6 a.m. in New York City. The fourth car alarm to go off in the past hour shows no sign of letting up, and I’m ready to kill. I call the local precinct. “There’s a car alarm that won’t stop. I can’t sleep. Can you do something?” “Okay. We’ll send a car.” Half an hour later, the alarm is still blaring. No sign of the police. Now what? A rock through the windshield? Kill a cop? Suicide?
This really happened to me. I called the police. I contemplated violence. Eight years after leaving New York for Los Angeles, I still feel like I’m suffering from sleep deprivation. One thing, though: I’ve recovered from my guilt over calling the cops about an apparently trivial matter and over my subsequent yen to kill. The cure? Reading No Lease on Life, the acerbic fourth novel by New York art critic Lynne Tillman, who also wrote The Velvet Years: Warhol’s Factory 1965–1967.
From its opening, nerve-jangling car-alarm chorus — and yes, Tillman’s heroine, Elizabeth, does call the cops, twice, and of course they never come — to the hilarious final revenge sequence, No Lease on Life demonstrates with awesome wit and thoroughness how the debilitations of Manhattan living can bring one to the brink of insanity in 24 hours flat.
Nothing is left out, from the big-picture, systemic problems of moneygrubbing, do-nothing landlords, impenetrable city bureaucracies, homelessness, racism and drug-taking on the streets, to the more mundane stresses of pervasive dirt, noise and vermin — the kind of stresses, Tillman suggests, that can drive you to fantasies of knifing those leg-spreading subway riders who take up half your seat as well as their own, or even empathy with infamous subway shooter Bernard Goetz.
I’d like to say that Elizabeth is a symbol of the embattled middle class hanging on to dingy apartments in the slummiest areas of contemporary, Guiliani-run Manhattan where, thanks to real estate prices, only the highly affluent and a few of the subsidized poor can afford to live. Certainly, there’s not much difference between the quality of Elizabeth’s life and that of her less-educated, downtrodden neighbors. An edgy 30-something, one of those generic New York freelancers (it’s never quite clear to what she aspires), Elizabeth has caved in to middle-age panic about health benefits and pension plans and taken a boring “steady part-time job” as a proofreader in the basement (sinisterly referred to, Kafka-like, as “the room”) of a never-named publishing corporation. Another dubious benefit of the job is that she and her computer-expert husband, Roy (so terminally relaxed, in contrast to his anxiety-ridden wife, that he and a friend refer to themselves as “the mild ones”), can afford to live in their tenement slum, somewhere near Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side.
This is an area made famous in the 1980s by a police raid, complete with tear gas, on homeless squatters. Civil rights activists accused police of acting as armed adjuncts for real estate speculators who were trying to shove this impoverished junkie haven toward a gentrification that was ultimately only partially achieved. When Elizabeth looks out of her window, as she often does, usually in the early hours of the morning when she’s awoken by some ruckus or other, she sees prostitutes, “drugsters,” the occasional “lounge lizard,” thuggish “morons” tossing garbage cans at the cars, people trying to sell “condemned bric-a-brac” on blankets, and filthy muttering creatures in rags — in other words, the poor, the drugged-out and the seriously deranged homeless, coexisting uneasily alongside salaried yups.
But this book is only part social commentary. It’s more an eccentric new take on old New York, which, after all, has al ways been dirty, violent and in your face. (Actually, there are now fewer potholes and cleaner subways than when I first moved there in 1977 — not to mention less crime and dog poop — and personally, I’ve always found the street life uplifting. But uplift is not on Tillman’s agenda either.) No Lease on Life is the story of a woman who sees everything with such bleak clarity she’s close to being misanthropic (“Some walked with a lilt, life was a song they’d written. Elizabeth reviled the song, pitied the suckers”), a woman who wants to purchase a crossbow and take out all the “morons” in this “pathetic” world.
At some level, this is hard to take. There are bound to be some New York–savvy readers (as well as those who have never been there but have always suspected the place is the last pit of hell) who, once they have finished laughing and nodding, “Yes, yes, it’s all true,” are also going to feel that Elizabeth is a bit over the top. But she’s so upfront about her whininess, so refreshingly ambivalent about her reactions to the surrounding horrors, and so endearingly self-aware about her paranoia (“She was losing it, whatever it was”) that she gets away with all her kvetching. In fact, she positively flies.
The joy of this book is Tillman’s manic stream-of-consciousness rant. With the pacing of a good comedian, she brilliantly blends gritty daily detail with Elizabeth’s angst-laden self-examination, quirky comments on life, scores of randomly interspersed jokes, and page after page of delightfully absurd yet pertinent connections. “Elizabeth wanted a quiet night and a relatively good super. People got a little of what they wanted. No one ever got enough.” No Lease on Life has the ecstatic, illogical logic of the best performance art, and the deep strata of poetry.
Nor is Tillman all bile. Softening Elizabeth’s jaundiced perspective is her instinctive, motiveless decency, her compassion for her poverty-stricken neighbors, though not the manipulative ones. Elizabeth has no romantic illusions about poverty, and she’s a clear-sighted philosopher, not an activist, at heart. But she can’t shut her eyes to outrages: She complains to a mother that she’s abusing her child, works for weeks with a fellow tenant on writing a letter to the city about their deteriorating building. And she listens with empathy to Jeanine, a young prostitute, and various other impoverished people without patronizing them or trying to change their lives. Pulsing faintly but resolutely between the lines of Elizabeth’s disgust is a moral discourse on how to live nobly in a mean-spirited, exploitative world.
If you’re thinking of moving to New York, or to any other large, grimy city for that matter, do not read this book. It’s the ultimate anti-guide, the final word in unboosterism, cast-iron proof of how daily living in an urban setting can drive you to insanity, or at least to cynicism. Yet No Lease on Life is also a profound analysis of what makes not simply New Yorkers, but humanity, tick — a truthful rendering of the tragicomedy of life. And if the final message is that life is pretty depressing, at least it leaves the reader with laughter, and the sense that you can make a difference — if you can bear to come up from underneath the bedcovers, where you have been stuffing your ears against those eternally ringing car alarms.