The Maddening Genius of Lynne Tillman

Lost in Thought

It’s Lynne Tillman’s mind, and we’re just living in it.


Since none of us choose to be born, all the choices that follow have a quality of relative freedom. We can leave a small town for a big city, or vice versa. We can be raised to believe in God and then learn what atheism means. We can dye our hair or get a tattoo. Yet much remains out of our hands, and it is hard to know—let alone control—how we feel and think. Genetics, geography, and the other incidental yet permanent inheritances of nature and nurture all play their part. In Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, A Comedy, first published in 2006 and reissued earlier this year, we meet Helen, a historian preoccupied with such concerns and more while on some kind of retreat. Bathtubs, for one example. The afterlife, for another.

Genius is the anchor for Tillman’s entire catalog, providing a crucial link between her other novels and her nonfiction. Tillman, throughout her writing, comes back to the same people, places, quotes, jokes, and ideas without losing the feeling of discovery. Her repetitions, when noticed, can feel like a reward for memory. Some of her characters have a father who works in the textile industry, as Tillman’s father did; a dead family cat keeps the score between mothers and daughters. There’s a woman named Helen in one book, and then a second; other shared elements include postcards, untrustworthy and nominally percipient scammers, and eerie references to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Tillman’s characters frequently experience nostalgia like a seasickness; it comes in waves. She has a cast of characters waiting in the wings until she requires them to say or show what she thinks and means. American Genius’s Helen is perhaps Tillman’s most exquisite invention—representing the purest distillation of her obsessive and maddening prose.

“The food here is bad,” Helen begins, “but every day there is something I can eat and even like, and there’s a bathtub, which I don’t have at home.” She’s not staying at a summer camp or a jail or a hospital, though at various points the setting reminds Helen of all of the above options. In the compound’s cafeteria, some residents gossip over breakfast; others, we are told, are working on vaguely described projects. Some people have names (a woman introduces herself as Rita, after “the saint of lost causes”), and others have titles (the place where Helen is staying employs a cook and a kitchen helper; another man is called “the Magician” because he is one). She calls this cast, more or less collectively, “the community.”

The claustrophobic circumstances of her surroundings are a curiosity without the urgency of mystery. There is a brief foray into the satanic and the supernatural with a third-act séance, though true to its name, American Genius is more a situational comedy than a “hell is other people” existential drama. Others may be there with her, but Helen remains alone with her thoughts: Decisions, memories, and infatuations echo endlessly through her mind, often prompted by her setting or casual reminders, but the resulting opinions, ideas, or impressions are mostly outside her control. Her inner monologue has the tone of a letter being written to herself—postcards sent from the present.

A few of Helen’s recurrent mental wanderings act as lampposts‚ illuminations on a journey to nowhere. The whole universe we are introduced to is in her head. She remembers the facials that she gets at a spa and how the Polish aesthetician tells her on every visit that she has very sensitive skin. She thinks about vegetarians, ornithologists, Christian Scientists, and the two young women who wander around always looking disconsolate. Sometimes she goes to the library to read the definitions of arcane paraphilias. She thinks about cures and placebos, the history of chairs, how everyone loves their own dogs and their own farts. She thinks about her father’s textile business and her mother’s declining mental health, about Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten and the Zulu language. She thinks about her own skin and skin care, perhaps more than anything else. Every so often, she receives an actual postcard and, though she recognizes the handwriting, she can’t read the signature. This conundrum preoccupies her, but seemingly not more than what is for lunch.

Helen’s consciousness appears to us as free association, which as a reading experience can feel like the opposite of freedom. Tillman’s prose has a precision beyond measure—neither random nor opaque, it is overwhelming to read and recognize what is both delirious and normal. All the fluidly chronic boredoms and petty digressions in Helen’s mind keep bumping up against the occasional insightful rumination. As I read the book, I was reminded of when I found out the word “solipsism” exists and thought, “Wow, they really have a word for everything.” In remembering that epiphany, I mostly wonder: “Who did I think they was?”

Afew years ago, I read a short essay that Tillman contributed to an anthology called The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974–1984, and I have never forgotten this passage about memory:

If we study the past we might not repeat it, we’re told, so history’s important—though we do repeat it, because the compulsion to repeat is not just an individual matter and mostly not voluntary. We return and return to familiar places, ideas, and beliefs, with enthusiasm, naïveté, and in paroxysms.

It’s not just that Tillman needs to return to what is familiar; she is also fixated on the way these patterns emerge. In her essays, she keeps her sentences short and to the point. In her fiction, the sentences run on and on, giving the impression of an unceasing stream. Then there are the works in which the two genres converge, which are my favorite. Her characters, whether fictional or not, are almost always lost in—or perhaps we should more accurately say lost to—thought.

The Helen of American Genius is a little perturbed by the concept of other people, but this aloofness is treated as a paradoxical luxury afforded by her unusual circumstances. Having the time to turn over every memory, to follow it as it moves between what’s been learned and what’s been felt, could be a paradise, or it could be a prison. This dichotomy between solitude and loneliness is another periodic theme of her work.

Tillman’s debut novel was Haunted Houses (1987), in which three young women move through life without meeting one another, though their personalities and histories occasionally converge. This was followed by Motion Sickness (1991), in which an unnamed narrator travels through Europe sending (and scrapping) postcards and observing other people’s relationships coming to an end, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose; Cast in Doubt (1992), about a 65-year-old white gay mystery writer at work on a ripped-from-the-headlines crime story while living in Crete, who becomes strangely obsessed with a beautiful young woman (named Helen) living nearby and would do anything to read her diary; and No Lease on Life (1998), about a woman who just might murder her neighbors if one more night passes without her getting some sleep.

However, it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that this fear never becomes fate, because nothing is quite life-or-death in Tillman’s books. Violence and other extremes do happen, and sometimes her protagonists suffer pain and cruelty or fame and fortune. (Her 2011 short-story collection Someday This Will Be Funny includes characters like John Lennon and Marvin Gaye.) But these intense experiences are not the point. It is the ordinary—the standard or expected emotions as they ebb and flow alongside transcendence or terror—that concerns her most.

In her nonfiction, too, Tillman often focuses on the ordinary, as in her essays or oral histories on Andy Warhol’s Factory years or the photographs of Cindy Sherman. These were both artists, she writes, who were born into extraordinary times but focused first on the mundane. By looking at works like Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, she argues, we can see moments as they were in their context, early enough in accumulating meaning that there was at least one unspoken command: Stop everything—you have to see this!

Tillman’s writing across genres relies on the concept of flashbulb memories, which psychologists define as the memories formed in moments of extreme surprise or crisis and shared generationally. They are the beats we use to keep time in our private recollections—a white Bronco on a highway under the afternoon sun, a disgraced president addressing the nation from the Oval Office—the extreme events that add up to an average life, a timeline of moments and artifacts shared by everyone, no matter who or where they are. For a reason, “Where were you when——?” is an inquiry that starts as many conversations as it saves. Locating our place in a world beyond comprehension is a comfort, shrinking something beyond scale down to human size.

In American Genius, Helen leaves home to be alone, or so it seems, with her thoughts. Away from the distractions of ordinary life, she wonders how she fits into the world; she wonders if she even matters and, if she doesn’t, then who does? “There was a time when I wanted people to like me,” she acknowledges toward the end of her stay at the retreat, “but now I want to like people, once I believed them capable of what they espoused.” Without the caveat, it is compassion; with the disclaimer, it is a challenge. Either way, in Tillman’s writing, her characters are beyond wondering whether thinking makes them real. Their reality is a given. Other people are the question.

Tillman’s status is more certain. Raised in New York’s Long Island, she studied painting, literature, and history at Hunter College and later studied towards a doctorate in sociology. Her work as a novelist, essayist, and critic is celebrated and often cited. Her light and circular sentences have the quality of sounding simple in your head and then spiraling into complexity with every subsequent thought. They are for people who believe reading should involve as much time staring out a window as staring into a book. The winner of a 2006 Guggenheim fellowship and a finalist for a 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award, Tillman is also the favorite writer of many favorite writers, listed as an influence by people like George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Harry Mathews.

Tillman is that rarity, a woman recognized in her own time. Her writing is both rarefied and accessible—an acquired taste, maybe, but one that is easily procured. Even her critics agree. In 2018, Laura Kipnis noted in The New York Review of Books that Tillman’s writing was not really her preferred style: All those “random digressions make me crazy,” Kipnis admitted, and “yet I want to imitate them.” Though she has contemporaries who share her most recognizable characteristics—such as a skill for microscopic detail and for characters with inner lives as exaggerated as they are banal—it is Tillman’s control over her scope that sets her apart.

She is sometimes considered among the New Narrative writers, alongside people like Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker. Dodie Bellamy once wrote that, at its worst, writers working under the auspices of New Narrative can be described with a single sentence: “I have sex and I’m smarter than you.” At its best, New Narrative is an expression of pure need, a literature that allows generosity to fuckups as well as fucking—the inimitable and often indescribable feeling of wanting more than you might be able to get.

The comparison makes the most sense in terms of timing. While the beginnings of New Narrative happened in San Francisco, Tillman and a few other writers working in New York’s downtown art scene during the late 1970s and ’80s are often folded in, and she was published by some of the presses most closely associated with New Narrative. But it’s a little harder to say if the comparison makes sense in terms of style. Tillman’s writing is truly her own, in exactly the same way that all of the New Narrative writers sound like themselves. Though this does raise the most Tillman of questions: What’s the difference? Doesn’t the time you live in become part of the person you are?

Men and Apparitions is the novel that Tillman published after American Genius, 12 years following its original release. It tells the story of Zeke, a cultural anthropologist who is approaching middle age without much grace. Like Helen, his thoughts are the main things keeping him company and he has chosen to sequester himself within the confines of a profession, though he doesn’t seem particularly pleased to spend a lifetime in academia. He is preoccupied with the question of how people can fashion themselves out of families (both born and made) and how we turn the people and things we love into self-reflection. Zeke is working on a study he calls “Men in Quotes,” about family photographs, and how men should exist in the world after second-wave feminism. As he thinks more about the topic, he reveals that he is really thinking about his marriage, which ended after his wife cheated on him. He appears rote and unremarkable, just another man who wants to tell you about his feminist mom or about how true connection isn’t possible in these modern times because of smartphones—until suddenly he is lucid as hell, recognizing that other people are not merely tools for his self-discovery. Zeke would do well in conversation with Helen.

Then again, all of Tillman’s characters already seem to be talking at one another. For many years, she wrote criticism for the magazine Art in America from the perspective of a character named Madame Realism (a play on the pun “Sir Realism”). For Madame Realism, the fact that she is fiction isn’t a crisis—instead, it’s a relief. Critics are mostly expected to publish once they have finished thinking, the completed essay a ruling or examination for the reader to consider or answer. In fiction, characters are mostly expected to present their interiority in process, to show which thoughts make up the person we’re reading. As Madame Realism, Tillman has a character who doesn’t have to choose. Whatever she considers, in the moment of thinking it, is the most important thing. A flattened vantage point keeps the art in perspective. President Reagan hovers in the periphery of Madame Realism’s thoughts, as does her cigarette in search of an ashtray. Madame Realism, I suspect, would consider Helen and then decide to like her. Helen, if she considered Madame Realism at all, would understand her. The emotions of cognizance are layered into levels. All the feelings are true, even if they belong to people who aren’t real.

American Genius is the novel that established a very Tillmanian principle that can be clearly seen in retrospect: Thinking converts into language first, speech second, and feelings always. Take this run-on aside from Helen about the nature of conversation:

I try not to repeat myself, I attempt to be cognizant, not retell stories, I refrain often, but sometimes, when I’m bored by others’ stories, I tell an old one, or if I feel I must enter the conversation, rather than withdraw from it or betray my impatience or brusqueness, my lack of concern for others, I trot out a tried but not necessarily true tale, sometimes just to entertain myself, and I don’t care which it is. Many people think they are good listeners, many more than who actually listen, since someone has to be doing the talking, and most people will say they’re good listeners before they’ll say they’re good talkers, though most aren’t good talkers or listeners, but persons who tell stories that fill time, and many explain how they were hurt by others, because they are sensitive, but never admit they hurt others.

In these words there’s an element of reflexive recognition, like waking up from a particularly unsubtle dream. Consciousness often demands observations that are as mindlessly obvious as they are punishingly revealing. Sensitivities and sore spots are, in their repetitions, choices as well; in the act of remembering, our thoughts feel gravest until we speak them out loud. Mostly it is that Tillman is funny about this situation. Vanities and appetites of all sizes can be silly in her books because she makes them true comedy. History is no laughing matter, but being a person is, when you really think about it, a hilarious idea.

The past can’t be recovered or changed,” Helen says. As a historian, she is telling us a fact; as a character, it’s an admission. The past is what we agree it is, and memory an unreliable metric for what really happened. People inherit as much as they disavow in the process of becoming themselves. The choice of where to direct their attention in the act of giving credit where credit is due lets her characters believe they are in control of who they are. That’s why Helen is a historian and so many of Tillman’s other characters are writers, academics, photographers, artists, critics, people with undiagnosed generalized anxiety disorders—people for whom the desperate imperative of understanding what makes a human being tick can become a lifelong mission.

Tillman as a chronicler understands the impulse to return, again and again, to the thoughts and ideas and feelings that are perhaps boring or embarrassing or irrelevant but matter still. She once told Lydia Davis that in order to get the voice of American Genius right, she would read and reread what she had written, that it was like listening to the same song over and over again. From where we consider them today, her books can be read similarly: a playlist with all her hits. In the short story “Madame Realism’s Torch Song,” someone asks Madame Realism what kind of ghost she would be. “Everyone dead I’ve ever loved,” she replies. The same is true for Tillman and her readers. There are so many ways to be a person, and yet so many of us are versions of who we were born to, who we’ve met, who we’ve read, and who we’ve lost, friendly ghosts and regretful loves and the other remembrances of half-whole hearts.

While we’re on the subject, death—like Republican presidents and moisturizers—is a concern for Tillman. It is just not the ultimate concern. If we are our thoughts, what happens to everything inside our heads when we can’t think anymore? Well, her characters have other things on their minds. Tillman keeps such empirical threats in their place with another joke she likes to repeat, from Marcel Duchamp’s tombstone: D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent. Besides, it’s always the other person who dies. Someone else has to live to find the words to tell the story. That is to say: It’s all life before it’s death.

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