Lynne Tillman’s fictions read like essays, until they don’t — when they take inward facing, memoiristic turns. Although Lynne writes in third-person with a character called Madame Realism, her writing is at times so intimate, so seemingly “personal” that you forget there’s a fiction going. This kind of raw take is refreshing, characteristic of some art and poetry of our milieu. But still, with Madame Realism, it’s not all melodrama or the histrionics that you might get with your average confessional tome or memoir. As Tillman’s work is motivated and animated by the mind, occupied by a strange fictive voice, it comes with a canny wink that says well, we may be smiling but we’re on our last smiles.
American history is wrought with imbalanced power structures and lampooned civil rights, gross appropriations, personal embarrassments and projections of all kinds. In her writing, Tillman finds a way into all of it, with intervening correspondences between art and life — knock-offs and real-deals commingling in problematized institutions. In 1986, Lynne Tillman wrote that “there isn’t one history, there are at least two,” which rings just as truly now as ever. That story, “Dynasty Reruns,” first appeared in Art in America and is now part of a collection of fiction and essays titled The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories newly published by Semiotext(e). We’ll never be rid of the blind-leading-the-blind scenario. As divided as society tends to be, we’re left only to scrutinize; reading Tillman’s work, critical thinking is back in style.
Lynne came up in the Downtown New York scene, among writers like Eileen Myles, Susie Timmons, Lydia Lunch, Penny Arcade — all coming after a long tradition of men who asserted and held their majordomo status in the arts, too. Tillman’s work is, to my mind, a sendup of belles lettres, dealing in perception and its resultant perspectives — how one point of view can be such a (sometimes ridiculous) departure from the other. This seems a good way into her fiction.
This collection is arranged chronologically, beginning with “The Complete Madame Realism Stories,” and a series of tenuously connected paragraphs that first appeared as an artist book in 1984, flanked by Kiki Smith drawings. Although the paragraphs read as such, every line is necessary. This is also the mark of good poetry (and I’d guess Tillman knows this well, being known to write poetry, too). The book’s opening is memoiresque, but a pleasantly disjointed read, rather like a series of aphorisms — all of it the kind of stuff one hastens to underline or Tweet. Here are a few such lines removed from their paragraphs, worthy of, or even an update to someone like Diogenes or Heraclitus:
“All ideas are married.”
“Power has always determined right.”
“But who can understand men, or more, what they really wanted.”
“We are like current events to each other. One doesn’t have to know people well to be appropriate.”
“The source of supposed fictions is the desire to never feel guilty.”
“Isn’t it funny how something can have meaning and no meaning at the same time.”
It’s worth examining why Tillman uses this very peculiar fictional character with a play on surrealism for a name (maybe Madame’s partner was once Sir Realism?). I wonder — while certain of her fictive scenes are just believable enough, or when conclusions that arise are just as plausibly “Tillman’s” — why use the device of fiction at all? Through the Madame Realism lens, and behind a casual but scrutinizing voice of scholarly acumen, Tillman interrogates what has become convention, from the point of view of this brazen, introspective, self-conscious, socially aware character, from the inside-out. This is done by virtue of a deceptive tone of dailiness that flows inexorably in and out of total surprise — and because of this, deeper realizations stand revealed.
The reappearance of Madame Realism is welcomed in an era that necessitates shrewd examination; after all, as Tillman observes, “one does not want to seem disturbed even in disturbing times.” There’s a deadpan — cool but not cold — by which Tillman invokes a strange, hyper-aware narration that is absorbing, discomfiting, and very funny. This narration illuminates the awkwardness and banality of settings like the American museum, and Madame Realism offers hilarious institutional critique. A good example is Madame Realism putting a cigarette out on the museum floor, “because there were no ashtrays.” This is a reminder the fact that, without having to put on the scholar’s hat, western art has become so corporatized that even the art museum isn’t the creative haven that we wish it could be.
Some of these stories read like Tillman’s own description of Andy Warhol’s “project of — and an exercise in — consciousness and self-consciousness” when describing his novel in What Would Lynne Tillman Do? It’s Tillman’s perceptive ruminations of herself in relation to the outside world that allow for understanding, in lieu of the grave delusions that might otherwise be entertained. And still, Madame Realism functions like the mask — to look at culture, history, or each passing moment as the case tends to be , and perceive the ways in which one thing follows another, and also how it doesn’t.
The mask usually permits the writer a distance to make things happen that otherwise wouldn’t. However, ordinary Realism today, through Madame Realism’s lenses, is pretty surreal. The simple mention of various U.S. figures and events in juxtaposition, relative by modernity and the so-called west, and it’s laughable at best. Tillman looks at everything from the ancient world to our embarrassing US presidents. “To defame, derogate, offend, satirize, parody, or exaggerate was not to lie, because in humor’s province, other truths govern” Madame Realism muses in “Madame Realism’s Conscience.”
Cultural insights aren’t in Tillman’s work aren’t limited to the vernacular of art critics or art history; her personal reflections aren’t tied to memoir; the ideas here are compelling because of their various formal occasions. By way of diversely chosen styles, Tillman lampoons the old masters — writing in an imaginatively associative manner that proves useful in confounding times. This collection is an example of how an intellectual might do well to trust the subconscious. Some of the work here meanders in the way of a journal, or how a soliloquy might lead to a speech; what emerges is a salient, entertaining critique of contemporary life. Tillman said in a recent interview with T. Cole Rachel: “You’re living in a moment, you’re responding to it in some way. It’s conscious and unconscious. But if you try to very hard to respond directly, you will most likely not be successful.” Tillman has realized and put into effect the fact that you have to talk around something in order to get to it; you’ve got to play to be serious.
Nietzsche states that “we have art in order not to die from the truth.” The dictum feels contemporaneous to our nightmarish sociopolitical circumstances, but it isn’t. In the afterword to The Complete Madame Realism, Andrew Durbin draws the connection that “Madame Realism distrusts the notion of contemporaneity: history and the present are far too complexly arranged to suggest that one simply follows another.” Because of Tillman’s clarity of context, her stories from the ’80s seem totally prescient. And there’s that oft repeated Picasso aphorism about the lie-truth of art; Tillman’s version is that maybe “art can’t tell the truth” at all. To me, Tillman’s stories are just to the left of the truth (or what’s at least kind of believable). Not being bound to the world of so-called facts, Lynne takes certain liberties, with subjects and their settings still rooted in life — e.g. the huge chasm between the rich and poor in America. It’s because of these lifelike dichotomies : one point of view and its other hand — “after all,” Madame Realism admits, “there is always another hand” — that her stories are engaging, supremely worth returns.