Lynne Tillman is widely revered by other writers—the galley of her new novel, Men and Apparitions, boasted a page of quotes from literary luminaries branded “TILLMAN SUPERFANS” who shovel on the praise with a backhoe—though not by me. I suspect that revering writers does them no favors, but don’t worry, this isn’t the setup for a hit job.
Reading Tillman reminds me of once visiting the home of an acquaintance. Her partner was a brilliant philosopher who’d been left crippled and hunchbacked by a childhood disease. I found myself wondering whether my acquaintance managed to overlook the hunchback or was attracted to it. Either way, she seemed my moral better: far more humane, or far more perverse. The partner was a bastard, nasty to everyone, especially to my acquaintance. Was this too part of the attraction, or something she could overlook? I didn’t understand the erotics of the situation, but witnessing it felt like an indictment of my own conventionality. At one point I idly pulled a magazine down from a pile on a dusty end table—the place was in a state of squalor—and dislodged a stack of months-old unopened mail underneath. “How can people live like this?” I screamed silently inside my head, shamed by my bourgeois housekeeping standards but also really wanting to get home.
Spending time chez Tillman feels like that to me: disjunctive, fascinating, a little appalling. It calls things into question. The random digressions make me crazy, yet I want to imitate them.
When critics encounter an alien sensibility, bloodbaths often ensue. It can be fun to write a takedown, especially of someone whose writing falls outside your comfort zone, and Tillman is such a writer for me. My propensities, unfortunately, lean in the opposite direction. The alien sensibility inspires self-laceration, not self-elevation: Why can’t I write like that? Shouldn’t I write like that? The title of Tillman’s previous essay collection, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, invites such a response: one’s differences from Tillman feel more like capitulations than aesthetic roads not taken.
I could have been Tillman. Like her, I studied painting as an undergrad, but eventually veered toward writing instead. I too came of age steeped in the legacy of the avant-garde. I suspect we have similar bookshelves: we’re interested in critical theory and questions of the self; we venerate Erving Goffman and overquote Freud. On paper we’re a perfect match, yet despite all that, Tillman is from Mars and I’m from Venus. Filter everything I say hereafter through that disclosure.
The signature move of Tillman’s last two books is genre-crossing. Both use a fictional character as a conduit for essayistic observations, critical aperçus, fake memoir (some of which may be true, though who knows), and torrents of ideas. The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories carries the label “stories”…
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