“A is for Andy,” begins Lynne Tillman’s new book of collected essays. It continues: “B is for the Bowleses, C is for Character, and D is for Dictionary . . .” all the way down to “Z for Jonze.” Why arrange these essays as an abecedary? One suspects that it is the only clear or logical way to order this assortment of reviews, interviews, riffs, and autobiographical sketches. Anything more taxonomic would imply a purpose or trajectory to these essays that is contrary to their workings, and, one imagines, the workings of Tillman’s capacious mind.
From the global to the local: Tillman’s essays are just as whimsical as their arrangement—how else does she get from organ thieves to Marx to the Jewish Golem to the American Gothic, all in the space of three pages? She makes it work. In part this freewheeling is an essential aspect of how she encounters culture, and, it’s counterbalanced by a sentence-level steadiness that has rightly earned her plaudits as one of our leading stylists.
For instance, Tillman’s essay on Andy Warhol’s novel a is formatted as “a shopping list in paragraphs” for the perfectly arbitrary reason that “Warhol liked to shop. I don’t but I like lists.” And into this kitchen sink Tillman tosses some very worthy observations of her idol. A is Warhol’s “realist” novel, which he made by transcribing audio recordings from 24 hours in his subject’s life. So it’s smart that Tillman starts this meditation by destroying Stendhal’s mirror—long the metaphor par excellence for realist writing—and thrusts into Warhol’s hands a tape recorder, the perfect metaphorical embodiment of his understanding of realism.
Warhol dropped the mirror, let it crack into pieces, and instead held a tape recorder up to life. He saw a god in the machine and used as many as he could—a notes the arrival of video, a new toy, to the Factory—and Warhol didn’t fear the loss of authorship to machines, when his hand, literally, wasn’t in or on it; he constructed another kind of artist, who directs machines, people, uses technology, whose imprint was virtual.
But though she’s just traded a mirror’s allure for a clunky chunk of plastic, she’s very quick to explain that in the right hands such machines carry mysteries (there are gods in there, after all). This is all moving toward the new artist/reality relationship she’s positing for Warhol, an artist “whose imprint was virtual.” This lovely paradox implies how he could share control with his co-conspirators while still managing to maintain his artistic authority. Tillman suceeds here, as she often does, by narrating her experience with this challenging work.
Whether by accident or by design, Warhol gets the coveted top spot in this book, and it’s the right place for him. As one of Tillman’s favorite thinkers, he becomes a frequent reference point throughout, and he also offers a key to her aesthetic, for she, too writes with tape recorder in hand. Her most recent novel, for instance, 2006’s American Genius, A Comedy, sounds downright Warholian when described in The Guardian as “292 pages of almost pure digression,” a “virtual stream of consciousness from the narrator.” Similarly, the book preceding What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, a story collection called Someday This Will be Funny, frequently blended in quotations, news clips, celebrities, and snippets of Tillman’s real-life encounters in 22 difficult-to-categorize pieces. My favorite is probably “Love Sentences,” a series of epistles written by one Paige Turner and inter-mixed in with third-person narration and statements about love from various luminaries (from Prince to Derrida). It’s less a story than a miscellany to which Tillman brings some fictional connective tissue, building it into a profound meditation on the nature of love and the role our own utterances play in its perpetuation.
Tillman, who is 68, debuted in 1987 with the novel Haunted Houses and has since quietly built one of the stranger and more compelling bodies of work among her generation. She has published five novels, collected three volumes of short stories (though “fictions” is probably a better word for them), written cultural studies on Andy Warhol and Jeannette Watson, and scattered enough essays to easily fill two volumes. She is often called “experimental” even though she bristles at the term—her work is her own strange contrivance, one that doesn’t play ostentatious games with typography or punctuation. Tillman always tells stories, but (as in the collage format of “Love Sentences” or in her ongoing “Madame Realism” series) in a way that only she can. Perhaps “original” is the better term for what she does.
In her latest book Tillman is again jamming together various writing genres and models of realism to produce essays that feel immediate and personal. Their common strength is that they retain the heat of her encounters with art. “For Sensitive People” is typical: it starts by tossing us right into the author’s life as she announces “it’s Independence Day,” and, fittingly, she’s “pondering that tortuous coupling, ‘art and politics.’“ Before we know it we’re knee-deep in a recollection from 1972: Tillman in Amsterdam, attempting to organize a showing of a documentary about Black Panthers. The club distributing the celluloid will only rent it to her if she pairs the screening with a protest march (she declines). From here the thread moves to the performance artist Bob Flanagan, whom our author once watched hammer a nail through his penis; she explains that he was born with cystic fibrosis and used such extreme performances as a way to protest “his genetic identity.” Flanagan’s art, which includes him being “installed as a piece” in a hospital room built into a museum, bewilders Tillman for its “conflation of art, body, and disease,” but this is precisely the kind of dislocation she longs for as a viewer. She seems to admire Flanagan because he implicates political questions without ever making a political point. It’s this sort of hermetic stuff that engrosses her but annoys others: she concludes that same essay with a question-and-answer session that follows the screening of a film made by the experimental artist Trinh T. Minh-ha. When an audience member challenges the director’s work as inaccessible, Minh-ha elegantly elides the issue, and Tillman approvingly concludes: “Minh-ha allowed for the contemplation of positions, by escaping the usual discursive traps.” Whether or not she found the movie any more accessible is never revealed, but it doesn’t matter: she won’t question the film’s right to exist, even if it leaves her cold; such matters should remain on art’s turf, and nothing would kill that faster than turning the screening of an experimental film into another tired pro-or-con debate.
This is perhaps why Tillman’s essays, including one on the Internet written in the now-ancient year of 1995, continue to feel relevant. Reviewing Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld, she says that he has found a way to “compete with, or at least challenge, the big, nightly news.” Tillman is doing a similar thing. She’ll pair her observations on Warhol’s novel a with an essay that collects various ways of defining normal human behavior: scientific examinations of social life, descriptions of how people act at parties, the Average Joe as represented in movies, and excrement, which takes us back to our uncivilized roots. This juxtaposition of Warhol’s ironically naive picture of “reality”—just record everything that happens and transcribe it—with numerous other ways one might reasonably define it suggests how a book that’s very much of the sixties can nonetheless be relevant to ways of understanding reality from other decades. It’s an interest squarely in line with DeLillo—indeed there’s something very DeLillo-esque in watching Tillman continuously work so hard to get at everyday life, a thing that should be readily available but actually isn’t. The big, nightly news may insist that it holds a monopoly on representing reality, but Tillman writes from a place that exposes just how fearful the screen really is that it doesn’t have the least idea what’s going on, and how much art has invested in figuring that out for itself.
Which is not to say that Tillman has the answer, or any answer: she’s upfront about this, and she responds to it by always trying to further complicate matters. This is particularly apparent in her constant, generous shining of the spotlight on fellow writers, artists, and filmmakers, seeking not to interpret or critique them but simply to understand what they are doing. She inhabits her experience of their work, and this is key to producing thoughts of enduring interest. As Harry Mathews puts it in Tillman’s outstanding interview with him, “writers should go with what subject matter appeals to them, with what tickles them because that probably will be the kind of subject matter that will give them most access to the process of discovery: of what they are, or the world is, or language is.” These essays are enmeshed in just that process, giving them vitality and letting Tillman focus more on following her passions than trying to say anything in particular.
“All attitudes and positions,” writes Tillman, “betray us.” Her stance often changes, our essayist embracing her inevitable contradictions as part of an authentic encounter with culture. As a thinker she’s not an analyst or a philosopher; she moves with a storyteller’s preference for describing what she sees as precisely and concisely as possible and narrating her way through it. Feeling at liberty to take leaps of intuition whenever appropriate, perhaps, in part, to hop away from a perspective before it is capable of committing the violation that she knows will come, Tillman’s conclusions, and occasional arguments, do not proceed by logic so much as emerge from her digressing, backtracking, positing, recanting, questioning, trying, and erring. As a reader you simply attempt to maintain your grip on her explosive sentences as they pile up gerunds and clauses at high velocity—and then, every so often, she’ll derail a good train of thought right when it’s picked up a good head of steam. This tends to work in its own strange and mordant way, like here, when she recounts how a very young version of herself deliberated over the right way to invite Paul Bowles to contribute to an anthology she was editing:
Writing a letter to Paul Bowles was alarming, and I worked on it for a week. After deliberating, in a circuitous and paranoid way, I decided not to reveal that I was a female. It was the era of William Burroughs’s vicious or satiric retort to feminism, The Job. Burroughs and Bowles were friends; I considered, in a convoluted way, that even though Paul Bowles was married to Jane Bowles, if he was in any way like some of his friends, or affected by their mean-spiritedness, he might now hate women and not want to be in a book edited by one. This might not be true at all—and if it were, why would I want him in the book? But I was in Amsterdam, smoking hash.
This perfectly satisfying explanation suits the purposes of the essay far better than would lengthy fulminations on youth and gender. It’s the sort of thing that says, “but all you really need to know is that I was dumb and young—now let’s move on.”
Tillman is a writer with the uncommon confidence to embrace her own voice and trust that her obsessions are worth following. She wants to treat life as life, nothing more and nothing less, because therein lies enough to occupy us. Her catholic eye’s only criterion is quality (however defined), and this combines quite well with her willingness to accept and enjoy the fact that sometimes art will be a confusing two hours in a cinema, or maybe a pure spectacle whose meaning one hasn’t the first idea of. Which is absolutely fine. There’s more then enough art out there, and if she doesn’t like the film, maybe it at least contains an incandescent image that will stick in her mind for years until that unforeseen moment when it’s the exact thing she needs. If nothing else, it was a better two hours than she would have spent on Facebook, or waiting in line at the DMV. After all, as Tillman remarks about Underworld, art “doesn’t immediately announce its value.” Knowing that, I would venture, is the secret that makes her eye gaze with curiosity, instead of trying to absorb whatever it’s looking at.
Scott Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? His writing has recently appeared in The White Review, Southerly, and Tin House.