The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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MAY 2014 Issue

What, Exactly, Would Lynne Tillman Do?

Lynne Tillman
What Would Lynne Tillman Do?
(Red Lemonade, 2014)

Lynne Tillman’s new book What Would Lynne Tillman Do? takes its title from a promotional campaign run by Dear Dave, a magazine of photography and writing put out by New York City's School of Visual Arts, which ran a print ad and then glued posters around downtown bearing only those five words—you see one on the book’s cover from outside of Balthazar, in SoHo, where you can get wonderful chocolate bread. Later, the phrase made its way into the most recent novel by A.M. Homes, one of Tillman’s friends. Now it’s a book, but is it a book that answers the question it poses?

To figure this out, I look to the sentences—Tillman knows her way around a sentence, her compositions are elegant and beautiful; just so—and then think, “No, the words make the sentences,” I should start there. I’m wrong again. I need to begin with the alphabet, the backbone of What Would Lynne Tillman Do? a collection of essays, interviews, reviews, and anecdotes structured as a child’s abecedarium, where “A is for Andy,” “B is for the Bowleses,” “C is for Character,” right through to “Z is for Jonze.” The pieces are, for the most part, short and easily digested, lending themselves to binging, but reading (and eating) too much too quickly can deaden the senses and, therefore, deaden the sentences. I forced myself to linger and enjoy each letter as fully as I was able—this seems like something Lynne Tillman would do, as her thoughtful writing about literature and conversations with authors and artists prove she’s a close and sensitive reader. As the writer Harry Matthews tells Tillman in “H is for Harry Matthews,” “There’s never been any authors. There have only been readers. The authors are first readers.” And there I have one answer: Lynne Tillman would read attentively.

Tillman’s ABC ordering of the text reminded me of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol From A to B and Back Again, which is split into bits like “Why Everyone Needs at Least One Hairdresser,” and “The Good Life in the Country and Why I Can't Take It,” and “Elizabeth Taylor”—titles that could just as easily describe early Talking Heads songs—though Warhol isn’t as structurally rigorous as Tillman. While Warhol indicates headings for each chapter’s sections in the table of contents, the chapters themselves flow without breaks, perhaps because Warhol’s book developed from conversations whereas Tillman—author of five novels, three short story collections, and several non-fiction books (including one on Warhol and The Factory)—curates her collection from essays she’s written over the course of 25 years, and which appeared in publications like BOMB Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, and Tin House.

Also, Warhol is nowhere near as broad in his subject matter, obsessed as he is with navel gazing and name-dropping, while Tillman looks both inward and outward, and beyond that she sometimes looks at the ways in which she’s looking at things and how that self-awareness affects how she looks at things.

I regularly question my preferences. Why I like or dislike writing, a photograph. I don’t trust experience, even if it has shaped me; I don’t fervently trust what I think or believe, while I believe it still. A pox on absolutes! I could trace a genealogy of what I think and like, which is, to some extent, what I was exposed to, taught, made conscious of, and decided not to be or accept. Tendrils of difference and objections sprouting rebellions and self-discoveries—I could list them. But I couldn’t create an order for my character, and hold it/me to a neat line. (When I learned to write, I wrote fast, not on the lines, only below or above.)

In fact, perhaps I’m making a hollow comparison, one that only comes to mind because Warhol appears like a white haired ghost in several of Tillman’s essays—she’s primed my pump, so to speak, though that’s really a hideous way to put it, entendre-wise, which is exactly the kind of self-conscious examination Tillman can inspire in a reader. And here we have another answer to the title’s question! Lynne Tillman would stop and think a bit, before reacting. And then she’d consider her reaction, too.

Perhaps a better model for What Would Lynne Tillman Do? might be Roland Barthes and the lovely short sections of The Pleasure of the Text, also arranged alphabetically, but Barthes is so slippery with his language, I’ve come to think that he’s pulled this big trick on us by not saying much of anything in a lot of words. Tillman does just the opposite, using a few precise words to get across her ideas. “Any writer knows that what’s left out is as essential, if not more so, than what’s there,” she writes.

Barthes tends toward poetry, while Tillman, like the comedian Louis C.K., mixes a cocktail equal parts anthropology, psychology, and personal confession, spiked with a rascally wit and delivered in a beautiful, crystal clear glass of prose. She is interesting and interested, restless, and funny, the kind of person you’d want to find yourself sitting next to at a wedding reception. “At parties I observe people acting much like dogs,” she tells us, “except for sniffing rear ends, which is generally done in private.”

Why comparisons even need to be made are beyond me; I’m not an online algorithm, suggesting what other titles you might enjoy and then purchase. I’m putting Tillman’s work next to Warhol’s and Barthes’s for contrast, in order to demonstrate the strength and singularity of Tillman’s writing. This urge to stand alone comes from the work’s point of origin, the author herself and her inspiration, her intention. In an interview for Slice Magazine, Tillman told me, “I write a lot in opposition.” The attempt to replicate consciousness on the page in her novel American Genius, a Comedy came from a rejection of stream-of-consciousness writing, a sense that this form—like, she writes in What Would Lynne Tillman Do? so-called experimental fiction—has become fixed and therefore stagnant over time, not really a representation of thought on the page but just another type of container, a genre of sorts. “Inexorably, all writing fits into genres, like the genre-bending novel, which has itself become a genre.”

Tillman writes that she writes from a position of “What isn’t there now?” She questions everything—especially literary taste—and might play devil’s advocate, championing an unpopular or unusual stance. As all toddlers know, saying no yields a bigger response than saying yes. To oppose authority, to glance askance at accepted notions, to be an active creator and not a passive recipient, to refuse to follow the leader—all are means of exerting one’s will upon the world, of shouting “I’m here! I’m alive!” even if only to yourself.

And isn’t each writer his or her most important reader? After her first novel, Haunted Houses, was published and Tillman had trouble finding it in bookstores, she realized that “writing before publication was sweeter. Then I could think about my work the way I wanted: It didn’t exist for others, and nothing about it could be disputed, including its presence.” The author’s relationship to the work and experience when writing it are paramount, Tillman suggests, because that feeling makes its way into the work itself, the reader can pick up on it. Therefore, Lynne Tillman would not write if she wasn’t feeling excited or interested about her work. She wouldn’t barrel through unengaged.

Tillman keeps the reader aware of her authorship. Her hand is clear, the act of writing becomes a part of the work itself, especially so in these essays, but often in her fiction as well, which often hews tight to the point-of-view of the protagonist. I know I mentioned the Talking Heads before, but the band again comes to mind—in Stop Making Sense the mechanics of the concert are laid bare so that you can’t forget you’re not seeing a rock show (or is it a “rock show”?) and so too Tillman never lets us forget in these essays that she’s there, and she’s only human. Other points-of-view are possible, perhaps even preferable, to the ones that she offers us.

Actually, the lumping together of Tillman and the Talking Heads makes some sense, as both were part of a “downtown scene” in New York City, though of course this categorization of a “scene” is a type of fiction. It may be geographic fact that Tillman mostly lived in New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s, as did the members of the Talking Heads, and all might have had some interest and participation in the cultural and artistic life of the city, but any further connection in theme or approach to their work—and any theories as to the influence Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground had upon all parties involved—are inventions of my own. In an essay about her inclusion in this downtown scene, Tillman writes:

Whatever facts support their findings, biographies and histories are also inventions that rely upon human imagination and fascination. [...] It’s implacably odd to know that lives function for others in uncontrollable ways. Historians can agree about an event’s occurrence and importance and dispute its interpretations forever. […] We are all unreliable narrators.

Facts won’t do what we want them to, or, they do, but stop being quite so objectively factual. “Facts are not the same as truths,” Tillman tells us. Lynne Tillman would not reject the effect that history has upon the present, both at large in culture and upon the human psyche in particular, but she wouldn’t find it determinable. There is free will, and we can write our own stories. Isn’t that what each life is? A creative act in real time?

Along with Tillman’s humor, there is trauma, a sense of pain. Not from any specific horror other than the experience of being a human being who observes, thinks, and also feels. “All attitudes and positions—positive, negative, neutral, informed, uninformed—betray us. ‘My education,‘ Franz Kafka wrote, ‘has damaged me in ways I do not even know.’ I agree, and here want to substitute the word ‘culture.’ It, too, damages in ways we don’t know.”

When reading Tillman there can be a sense that the world is a tsunami of sensations and thoughts, a potentially overwhelming behemoth that one must fortify oneself against. Silence plays a part in this defense. Books and art become comrades-in-arms. The works of Harry Matthews, or Paula Bowles, or John Waters, fortify her. In what feels like true New York spirit, sharing a moment with a crackpot stranger before the start of a film provides a laugh and also a deep contented sigh with humanity—there is interesting life around the edges of our stale popular culture, and Tillman stalks about with her microscope, bringing our attention to it. Lynne Tillman would not lose hope, though she might need a good nap to face the world.

I will leave it for others to draw a map of Tillman’s subject matter, the authors and artists who move her, the books she’s read and films she’s seen. The Tillmanverse (as The Millions put it) is a big place, fitting an author who, she told me, enjoys encyclopedias and “odd bits of information.” The specific information feels less important than the overall sensation that reading her work leaves me with, and that’s a rare power for an author to achieve in any book, let alone many of them. I put down What Would Lynne Tillman Do? as I did all of Tillman’s books: thinking differently about the world, noticing more, hyper aware of the texture of my thoughts, their contradictions and profound ridiculousness. Lynne Tillman is a catalyst for consciousness. I could tell you to be careful when reading her, but what would Lynne Tillman do? As I stated at the top, she’d read, widely and thoughtfully.

And Lynne Tillman wouldn’t ask what other people would do. Like other Tillman titles, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? presents itself, in part, as a joke, poking fun at both Tillman’s role in the cultural life of New York City, and in the significance of the text itself, which does not provide easy answers. Rather, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? encourages the reader to keep asking tough questions, and to giggle in the face of absolutes.


Brian Gresko

Brian Gresko is the editor of the anthology When I First Held You: Great Writers Reflect on Fatherhood, forthcoming from Berkley Books/Penguin in spring 2014. He has contributed to The Huffington PostThe, SalonThe Daily BeastThe Paris Review Daily, and The Rumpus. He keeps a daily column on parenting for Babble. Keep up with him at


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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