Don’t Call Her Experimental: Lynne Tillman’s Realism Of Indeterminacy

lynne tillman by david shankbone Dont Call Her Experimental: Lynne Tillmans Realism Of IndeterminacyLynne Tillman was laughing and talking about when she’d be famous. “When I’m dead, I’m dead, and it doesn’t matter,” said the writer. “And I don’t believe in posterity.”

Posterity, though, may yet believe in Ms. Tillman. The author of five novels and a number of story collections, she is a writer-in-residence at the University of Albany and has since 2002 been the fiction editor of Fence, a position previously held by Ben Marcus and Jonathan Lethem. Next month, her work will be brought back into print by Red Lemonade, the new publishing imprint of Richard Nash, the founder of Soft Skull who published Ms. Tillman’s last novel, American Genius: A Comedy. She is prolific and consistent if not as widely read as she should be. Her writing follows troubled men and women, overcome by an everyday assault of ephemera, whether external, as in the sleepless New York City night that is the premise of her novel No Lease on Life, or personal, like the narrator’s fascination with her own skin in American Genius. Her stories contain less of a plot than a scattered mind jumping from one association to the next. Her new story collection, Someday This Will Be Funny (Red Lemonade, 160 pages, $14.95), shows she is constantly challenging herself and her readers.

“Relative to certain writers,” Ms. Tillman, 66, told The Observer last week, “ones who call themselves language poets, there’s nothing experimental about my work.” She wore all black and kept her sunglasses on indoors, her small figure at ease beneath a head of disorderly black hair. “Because I’m working with narrative. And compared with more mainstream writers, I am experimental. I am doing something that’s odd. But I don’t write toward any of that. I just tell the story. I think pretty much everything’s a story.”

By the time Ms. Tillman was 8 years old, she knew she wanted to be a writer. As a child growing up in the New York suburbs, she raided her older sisters’ bookshelves, tackling Mailer, Bellow, Robert Creeley and Gertrude Stein before she was old enough to drive. She attended Hunter College to study American history and literature (she’s never taken a writing class), then left the country for six years, living in Europe like many of her literary idols.

She returned to the city in the late ’70s, believing she “could do everything.” She became close with artists like Kiki Smith, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince and Craig Owens, the late editor of Art in America. Her new friends were asking her to write essays about art and image for catalogs and journals, which she resisted at first. She was a fiction writer. As a kind of retort, she created the character Madame Realism–a staunch feminist with a voice as judgmental as the narrator of Middlemarch and as direct as the Associated Press–and started to write about art. She finds a way to talk about her subject without really talking about it.

“Who could understand men,” she writes in the first Madame Realism story, from 1984, which is about surrealism and includes a painting by Kiki Smith of sperm swimming in a circle, “or more, what they really wanted. Dali’s conception of sexual freedom, for instance, written in 1930. A man presenting his penis ‘erect, complete, and magnificent plunged a girl into a tremendous and delicious confusion, but without the slightest protest … It is,’ he writes, ‘one of the purest and most disinterested acts a man is capable of performing in our age of corruption and moral degradation.’ Madame Realism was not interested in display.”

Madame Realism has appeared again and again over the years without ever revealing herself. She is not a character but rather omniscience personified, telling us what to think without ever giving anything away, a metaphor for Ms. Tillman’s style itself: “Out of nothing comes language and out of language comes nothing and everything,” she writes at the end of Someday This Will Be Funny, which continues in this vein of indeterminacy.

“I don’t want this backstory business,” Ms. Tillman said. The word “backstory” might as well have been “incest” coming from her mouth. “I just think that’s horrible. I mean, backstory? What are you talking about? So often in writing classes you hear students say to one another, ‘But I’d really like to know more about that character.’ And I have to restrain myself. That’s not the story. You don’t get to know everything about the character. You get to know what’s necessary.”

Ms. Tillman makes nothing explicit. For that, she is paradoxically readable–we want to unpack the mystery because we know it will remain sealed–but has also been pigeonholed as “experimental”–“Can I shake that off?” Ms. Tillman asks–and kept effectively outside of the mainstream. She has worked with major publishers before–smaller imprints like Poseidon that are now long gone–but for the most part she has remained in the shadows of what is popular or conventional since her first novel, 1987’s Haunted Houses, a book that follows the coming of age (or failure to) of three women in New York, their stories threatening to intersect but never colliding.

“So-called mid-list writers like Lynne are certainly a category that is facing significant challenges right now,” her publisher Mr. Nash said. “They’re simply not making enough money for corporate publishers to want to publish them. While debut writers have a lot working against them, they are a blank slate. So they can be used for a publisher’s projection. The reality is, most writers–especially women writers–are expected to write relationship-based stuff. Lynne discloses how the world is often weirder than our accounts of it give it credit for.”

“She’s not experimental in the off-putting sense of the word,” said Lydia Davis, who Ms. Tillman has published in Fence and who taught alongside her at Bard in the ’90s. “The writing is very open and human. The stories do not allow the reader’s own mind to escape completely into the events of a character. They return to the reader’s mind, to the way you live, the way you make decisions.”

The confidence Ms. Tillman places in her readers–that they will accept not knowing–is what she expects from any story, not just the writers she publishes in Fence or the students in her writing workshops, but from herself as well.

“I want to see that there is really a mind working,” Ms. Tillman said. “Not simply someone thinking about the arc of the story.”

Sitting across from The Observer at the table, looking out the restaurant’s window, Ms. Tillman’s eyes widened suddenly. She stood up fast.

“Excuse me,” she said and rushed outside.

The Observer saw her run up to a tall bald man in a pinstriped suit and a brown leather jacket. She embraced him hard on the sidewalk. It was the Irish author Colm Tóibín. The two walked back together and Mr. Tóibín stepped up to the window. The Observer pressed his hand against the glass in greeting. Mr. Tóibín raised his right arm and-instead of the expected wave–did the sign of the cross over The Observer‘s hand. The two entered and Mr. Tóibín slumped into a chair.

“Why is everyone so difficult except me? Why are people so hard? Hi.”

“Hi,” Ms. Tillman said. “We met in 1990 on tour together. His first novel.”

“Thirty-five years ago,” Mr. Tóibín said in his Irish brogue.

“It’s not 35. I mean, I’m not a mathematician but that’s ridiculous.”

“I know. I just threw it in there to make sure you were listening.” He groaned and rubbed his hands on his head. “How do you get out of things?” He glanced at the table.

“What’s this?”

“It’s my new book.”

In an instant his face lit up, all the self-pity evaporating from his countenance. “Oh, darling!” he exclaimed
as he whipped on a pair of red glasses and started to scan the contents. “Well, I’m glad Madame Realism finally found a conscience,” he said, referring to the story “Madame Realism’s Conscience.” He raised his eyebrows at Ms. Tillman. “She didn’t before?”

“No, she didn’t,” she said with a sly look. “It’s never too late, I suppose.”

mmiller@observer.com