No Lease on Life

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


What 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.

Tillman’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.

And 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.

Smirking Obsessives: a Primer on the Novels of Lynne Tillman

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1. Into the Tillmanverse
You never quite realize what Lynne Tillman’s done until it’s too late. She takes formal adventures in flavors of novels that had never before welcomed them. She carefully embeds details deep in her texts that others would dutifully (and dully) trot out up front. She crafts what feels like one distinctive, coherent fictional reality without explicitly connecting any of her long-form stories to one another. Published over two decades, her five novels so far build and explore what I call the “Tillmanverse” through the eyes and ears of worldly, culturally keen women (and one man), shapen or misshapen by their undeniable compulsions, obscure fixations, and grimly complex senses of humor.

The Tillmanverse now has one more extension in the form of Someday This Will Be Funny, a collection of short stories newly published by Red Lemonade. Their women (and occasional men) write copious communiqués, trust and distrust their memories, trust and distrust their imaginations, don’t quite reconnect with the cast of their past, see themselves in their relationships, move ahead at the behest of odd desires, and stake out patches of the cityscape all their own. What’s more, they do it in text that knows just what to tell and what to leave completely untold. Tillman tends to lay out her novels and stories in pieces, but with piece-curation skills like hers, who needs wholes?

Indeed, the latest book’s 22 tales showcase Tillman’s abilities in microcosm; what you find in them, you find in even greater depth and quantity in her novels. What better time, then, to take a look back at all her full-length novels to date? The more detailed your map of the Tillmanverse, the richer you’ll find your own wanderings through it.

2. Would you really call it agency?
Haunted Houses, Tillman’s debut novel, braids the stories of three women growing up in and around New York. The epigraph “We are all haunted houses” seems to bode ill, as if predicting for the protagonists 208 pages of playing receptacle for assorted traumas. While none of the trio endure quite so rough a time as that, they nonetheless live apparently shapeless lives pocked by impulse, inertia, and confused frustration. They display flashes of agency, whether about the places they live, the books they read, or the fellows they let in, but the book’s overall form never stops asking whether agency is really what you’d call it.

Jane, constantly struggling with her weight, desperate to shed her virginity, and genuinely close only to her hokey, obese uncle Larry, ultimately loses that virginity to a dopey co-worker at Macy’s. The bookish Emily — “Why can’t you be more normal?” laments her mother — grows into a sloppy, lackadaisical culture vulture who attaches herself to English rockers and married Austrians. Grace, spooked in childhood by periodically tussles with her erratic mother and the sight of a blank-eyed farm boy tossing a bag of kittens off a bridge, drifts to Providence and becomes the spitefully reluctant muse of her gay, Oscar Wilde- and Marilyn Monroe-worshipping best friend Mark who stages plays at bars.

Tillman sketches the three childhoods in gritty enough detail to let you assume that, having established the wrongs foisted upon these ladies in youth — isolation, imagined frights never corrected, groundless disapproval, dead friends, freaky dads — she’ll proceed to deterministically follow the reverberations into three disappointing adulthoods. Yet she plays it just craftily enough to throw that interpretation into question while also avoiding the obvious move of getting these three together. From start to finish, Jane, Emily, and Grace remain united mainly by the late-mid-20th century in which they come of age and the geographical territory they do it in. Even when one breaks away, as when Emily takes a proofreading job in in Amsterdam, none shake their vague existential claustrophobia.

3. What we call personality
The travel bug bites Motion Sickness’ unnamed American heroine harder, so much harder that she never stops traveling — indeed, barely pauses in any one place — rendering normal whatever “motion sickness” she suffers. This twitchy peripateticism offers Tillman the chance to structure the novel both in fragments and geographically: you read a shard of narrative in Paris, then one in Istanbul, then one in Agia Galini, then one in Amsterdam, then another in Istanbul, and so on. The protagonist’s financial support? A bit of savings and a small loan from Mom — no wandering aristocrat, she. Her cultural armory? Copies of The Interpretation of Dreams, The Quiet American, and My Gun is Quick, and a love of Chantal Akerman and Luis Buñuel.

Despite her intriguing taste in books and films and merciless drive toward perpetual flight, this woman reveals remarkably little about herself. Yes, we’ve all read narrators who do and say much while concealing even more, but Tillman somehow casts aside even our standard desire to get further into her interior. A swirl of secondary characters, almost all compulsive travelers with a tendency to turn up in several different nations, offers a distraction: our heroine helps an aged eccentric assemble her memoirs, signs on to a tour of aggressive sightseeing with a pair of English brothers, drinks with an ill-fated ex-cop, separately encounters a Buddhist American single mother and her runaway husband, and falls for a Yugoslavian who argues, with increasing strenuousness, for the melancholic weight of history that supposedly hunches all Europeans.

But does this supporting cast counterbalance the failure to probe of the narrator’s deeper character, or do the countless, always-developing nuances of her various relationships with them constitute her deeper character? Haunting cafés with one, momentarily shacking up in a rented room with another, writing postcards to many others but tearing most of them up — these actions, and nothing else, could prove enough to make a human being. “In a sociology course I took the professor said that what we call personality doesn’t exist except in relation to others,” Tillman, with an uncharacteristic explicitness, has her protagonist say toward the book’s end.

In Cast in Doubt, Tillman creates Horace, another traveler whose gender alone makes him feel at first like a stark departure. But his homosexuality emerges in the early chapters, either bringing him closer to or distancing him from his lady colleagues in the Tillman oeuvre. The relevant question: what do male homosexuality and female heterosexuality have in common — a lot, or nothing? If Horace doesn’t approach this issue directly, he at least takes on questions in its orbit when he develops a controlling aesthetic-intellectual infatuation with a girl who one day lands in his tiny Greek town.

Horace, you see, has long since gone expat. At 65, shacked up on Crete with a surly twentysomething local, he tosses off crime potboilers while avoiding work on a hazy magnum opus called Household Gods. When Helen — surely the most loaded possible name, given the Greek context — enters his life, his hypertrophied fictionalist’s mind builds around her a towering mystique. Though the objective details portray Helen as nothing more than a callow, flighty psychiatrist’s daughter with a loopy scrapbook in hand, Horace looks at her and practically gets vertigo. Needless to say, her disappearance, which comes as suddenly as her arrival, only intensifies his obsession.

Beneath Cast in Doubt’s stolidly un-flashy surface, Tillman uses Helen’s draw on Horace to perform a fascinating act of genre subversion. Horace funds his self-imposed exile by writing the surprisingly inventive yet still groan-inducing exploits of detective Stan Green, and Horace looks to Green as his model when he resolves to drive across the island in pursuit of his quasi-muse. But Tillman very nearly sets the issue of whereabouts entirely aside, focusing instead on who-abouts. Soon after dedicating himself to his investigation, Horace comes to realize how little he ever knew about Helen. This doesn’t stop him from speculating, sometimes wildly, which enriches the inevitable collision of his imagination and reality — reality coming in the form of that diary in which Helen scribbled so purposefully.

Parts of the book play as a detective tale; other parts play as a standard psychological narrative; most parts play as a genre less easy to pin down. Horace’s way with stories, the remote setting to which he relegates himself, the hodgepodge cast that surrounds him — a South African provocateur; a black New York “scenemaker”; a former opera star, a limp, cynical aesthete; a hirsute English hermit — and the reigned scowl underlying even his happier moments all remind me of David Markson’s Going Down. What can we call this tiny genre? I suggest “oblique, vaguely menacing narratives of fictional complacent expatriate writers.” Barnes & Noble can start building that shelf any day now.

4. What every malcontent needs
If it weren’t for all the jokes, No Lease on Life would read as yet another story of crushing rent-controlled New York squalor. When Tillman writes squalor, she writes squalor: layer upon layer of grime; collapsed, immobile junkies; heaping piles of human waste; slashed bags of garbage; spreading pools of milk. And that’s just inside Elizabeth Hall’s building! In the first half of the book, Tillman recounts Elizabeth’s battles to nail down an apartment in New York, to fight a minute rent increase, to get her drunken superintendent to clean anything at all, to convince the guy across the street to quite revving his car so early in the morning — all in the course of one night.

Transfixed by the sweep of street chaos on her block, Elizabeth stares out the window instead of sleeping, fantasizing about taking up a crossbow to murder the “morons” and “crusties” vomiting and knocking over trashcans all night long. Tillman evokes an almost farcically shambolic New York familiar to anyone who enjoys the literature and film that came from the city in the seventies, but she sets this novel in 1994 — you can tell by the O.J. trial references — thus illustrating that the place didn’t go completely minty-fresh in the nineties. Or at least Elizabeth’s block — her world — didn’t.

When I talk about No Lease on Life’s “jokes,” I don’t necessarily mean that Tillman or Elizabeth, despite the grit-toothed resolve evident in the both of them, lighten these circumstances with the cynical wit every educated lowish-class urban malcontent needs. Besides the line between the book’s two days, which bear the titles “Night and Day” and “Day and Night”, only jokes break up the text. Common, punchline-y, sometimes tired, often sexual or racial jokes, none of which, miraculously, have an explicit relationship to the narrative. I happened to laugh the loudest at this one, which also bears an unusual thematic relevance:

A man who lived in New York City couldn’t stand it any more. So he moved to Montana. His closest neighbor was ten miles away. The first month was great — he didn’t see anyone. It was quiet. After three months he started to get restless. After six months he was so bored, he thought about moving back to the city. A neighbor called. He invited him to a party. The neighbor said, get ready for a lot of drinking, fighting, and fucking. Great, the man said. Who’ll be there? You and me, the neighbor said.

In American Genius: A Comedy, Tillman brings strands of Elizabeth, Emily, Grace, Jane, and the others into a single consciousness, allowing us unprecedented entry. But do we enter it, or does it entrap us? Not until a hefty chunk of pages has passed does Tillman reveal the name of Helen, the novel’s central character and one who has voluntarily entrapped herself in some sort of colony or low-security institution. Though she rarely roams far from wherever it is she lives, her thoughts spread, soar, and loop — especially loop — through subjects and variations on the industrial technology of textiles, the Zulu language, former Manson acolyte Leslie van Houten, and dermatology — especially dermatology.

Helen: we’ve heard that name before. Could the mind of this middle-aged American History PhD. exiled from the greater social sphere belong to the very same Helen of Cast in Doubt, thirty years on? Or to one of the now very much grown girls of Haunted Houses? Or to the traveler of Motion Sickness, who finally learned a way to stay put and then some? Tillman prevents us from firmly believing or rejecting any or all of those possibilities. I can imagine any of her main characters at home here, wrapped in this oversensitive skin and oversensitive consciousness, reacting in vast paragraphs to this community of disparate eccentrics, ready at any moment to see and build upon the patterns in the seemingly yet deceptively formless play of data, ideas, and recollections that combination sparks.

Surprise Me!