Lynne Tillman's This Is Not It

by Nell McClister

Lynne Tillman introduces the titular story in her new collection with a lament from Wittgenstein: “If I were only somewhere else than in this lousy world!” Always talking to the wrong people in the wrong places, always buying and reading the wrong books and then forgetting and buying them again, the narrator finally observes, “Whatever I have is not what I should have. Whatever makes me happy ultimately makes me sad.” The brief tale, told in stanza-like paragraphs, neatly captures the air of resigned anguish and dark humor that pervades these short stories and novellas, written by Tillman over the past 20 years. As her several novels also attest, Tillman’s greatest talent is for drawing the reader into the permutations of her characters’ fears and frustrations.

What is remarkable about this collection is that the characters’ pain seems to find a form of redemption in the works of art that are reproduced in color throughout the volume. Most of these stories originally appeared in limited-edition artists’ books, having been inspired by particular works of art or series; here each is rejoined by an example of the artwork from the original publication. In these images—works by Jane Dickson, Roni Horn, Juan Muñoz, Barbara Kruger, Peter Dreher, and others—we find a kind of portal from “this lousy world” that Tillman draws with her sharp, ironic pen. Of course, in its original site of publication, it would have been Tillman’s contribution that provided the breathing space for the artwork. Tillman is a pioneer of fiction as art writing; her stories are meant to accompany, not comment on, the art, and as such they exist in tension with it as a kind of collaborative project. When the pairings work—here, for instance, a stark James Welling photograph, all angles and contrasts, with a swirling tale of sex and skiing; and an eerie image by Gary Schneider of his young daughter’s outstretched hand that opens a previously unpublished series of vignettes titled Hold Me—whether the writing is seen to complement the art or vice versa, the transformative respite that the accompaniment provides is something of a primrose path.


—Nell McClister


This Is Not It will be published by D.A.P. in November.

Short stories
Fall 2002
The cover of BOMB 81