An Intimate Guest: On Lynne Tillman’s ‘What Gets Kept’

March 4, 2015 | 4 books mentioned 5 min read

What Gets Kept LP_Lynne Tillman (1)-2What Gets Kept. It’s the title of Lynne Tillman’s latest creative project, an LP of recordings of Tillman reading selections drawn from her oeuvre. The name itself is at once serious and playful; and like much of Tillman’s writing, it embraces this contradiction. There’s a nudge of self-acknowledgment, too, that however arbitrary or intentional the choice, what appears here has become part of the “kept.”

Make note: this isn’t album with anthological aspirations or “greatest-hits” ambitions. (For the better.) Rather, the album resembles a 40-minute retrospective show. It’s a curated collection, with Tillman as the guide. Contained within? Ten pieces spanning Tillman’s career, including passages from her first novel, Haunted Houses, her first story collection, Absence Makes the Heart, and up through last year’s critical collection, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? An amplification of themes and obsessions that surface repeatedly throughout Tillman’s writing — from the influence of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis to memory and imagination and Marilyn Monroe, the depiction of women’s lives and desires, and, perhaps most significantly, language, its inscrutability, its everything.

covercovercoverTillman’s work can’t be contained but it can be collected, aggregated, selected: “Collecting seems such a conscious activity,” Tillman says via Madame Realism, when reflecting on Freud’s personal collection, “though the unconscious…is always lurking.” Madame Realism makes assumptions about Freud based on his collection of art. “It was as if Freud, who was father to fantasy, had himself become a source for fantasy…Didn’t this exhibition ask the spectator to enter into his mind, to partake of his fascination, his lover’s discourse?” Perhaps we can make assumptions about Tillman from her choices here, too. Accumulation (and omission) becomes not only a guiding act for generating this album, but also a fundamental concern throughout What Gets Kept.

And what is lurking? Not always what we’d expect. “It’s startling, what gets kept,” the narrator remarks in “Original Impulse,” a story focused on the uncanny assortment of reminiscences, dreams, desires that stick with us. Tillman through Madame Realism looks back to Coney Island’s long defunct past as turn-of-the-century fantasy; she recreates the atmosphere of Semiotext(e)’s legendary Schizo-Culture conference, when John Cage quietly took the stage, or then there’s Marilyn Monroe fictionalized, at her labia in a mirror. And somehow Tillman manages to unite Monroe and Freud, with telling how part of Monroe’s estate was awarded to The Anna Freud Centre, and how “Marilyn, in death, would be happy to learn that her money was supporting Freud’s work.”

Memory informs and perhaps even invades the present. “Only amnesiacs live in the present,” Tillman remarks. The imprint of the past is carried with us, sometimes consciously but more often not: a former classmate wears the same makeup 20 years out; an ex-lover has a recurring appearance in dreams. Inevitably, to be remembered is to have acquired significance, to have affected someone and, through them, the world in some way. In “Save Me from the Pious and the Vengeful,” Tillman says: “Memory is what everyone talks about these days. Will we remember and what will we remember, who will be written out, ignored, or obliterated. Someone could say: They never existed. It’s a singular terror.”

To be forgotten is to be overlooked, erased, discarded. It’s FOMO eternally. In “The Original Impulse,” a character considers apologizing to her wronged ex-lovers but quickly reconsiders: “Most likely they’d claim they’d moved on and forgotten her. Besides, they might say, you never really meant that much to me. Or, let’s be friends on Facebook.” With a shift in perspective, she sees it would do her no good to apologize: they’re probably long over it and she would see how little she meant to them. We star in our own narratives, and it’s sometimes better not to be reminded of what role we’ve been relegated to in the narratives of others. Though one thing that might be worse than being forgotten is making an empty gesture in the absence of connection.

No one knows the limitations of language better than a writer. Tillman says it again and again, “Out of nothing comes language and out of language comes nothing and everything,” and “What words were there for nothing. Nothing.” Tillman has admitted that she “subject[s] [her] sentences and words to a kind of Grand Inquisition…always trying to leave out what’s extraneous.” Stilted language, miscommunication, inadequacies of description always threaten to interfere. Despite this ambivalence, however, Tillman has unwavering faith in stories, their survival, and enduring significance — “certainly there will always be stories.”

But characters come first, through their voices, “the character talks itself into being, through its articulations and mistakes…The character is built with words. The voice is words.” Voice and words, they’re inextricable. Tillman’s authorial voice is singular, and her spoken voice is, too. It’s truly an amplification of the voice on the page. It may sound redundant, but for writers this doesn’t necessarily hold true. Many people have remarked on the quality of Tillman’s voice: its strength and intellect, its wit and warmth. It’s also raspy, sensitive, perceptive, keen—delivered with a New York accent, of course.

Colm Tóibín wrote of the first time he saw Tillman read, and how he was struck by her delivery, her voice, and its many textures:

She was wearing black; she had a glass of whiskey on the rocks in her hand. Her delivery was dry, deadpan, deliberate. There was an ironic undertow in her voice, and a sense that she had it in for earnestness, easy emotion, realism. She exuded a tone which was considered, examined and then re-examined. She understood, it seemed to me, that everything she said would have to be able to survive the listeners’ intelligence and sense of irony; her own intelligence was high and refined, her sense of irony knowing and humorous.

coverAnd the humor! I’d be remiss to not mention the humor here on the album, or in Tillman’s work, or in her voice, even, how it complements her seriousness, provides another layer. The final cut on the album, the last word, is “A Few Jokes,” quite literally, where she recites riddles from her novel No Lease on Life. There’s one about a hunter, a gun, a pissed-off bear, and some sodomy, or try this one out: “There’s a restaurant on the moon. Yeah? Great food, no atmosphere.” The jokes are lighthearted, playful, corny even, and offer a unique glimpse into the playful, unguarded Tillman. Like Madame Realism entering Freud’s imagination through his art collection, by listening to this album you become an intimate guest in Tillman’s lair.

What is it like? Imagine this voice crooning at you with so much intelligence and wit. For 40 minutes, telling stories. Imagine the vinyl swirling in circles, the click of the needle, while meditating on artist Peter Dreher’s cover painting of a silver bowl, dissolving into reflections of what becomes yellow and blue labia, the artist and his canvas — your own personal Rorschach — and you will have an idea. Whatever you see, you will hear and know this LP is for keeps.

Lynne Tillman’s What Gets Kept is a limited-edition LP, available from Penny Ante Editions, issued as part of their Success and Failure Series. A release party will be held at Printed Matter, NYC, on March 6.

is the author of the novel, The Enhancers, forthcoming in fall 2022 from Meekling Press. She’s published two poetry chapbooks, and her stories and essays have appeared in Fence, New York Tyrant, Tin House, and Make Lit, among other publications. Read more of her work here: