I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Lynne Tillman’s new novel, her fifth, feels epic even though much of its “action” takes place inside the protagonist’s head. American Genius, A Comedy is about someone establishing the limits of her world, her freedom, thought by thought—and for Tillman thinking is the most active of states. Battles are waged here between one sentence and the next; major events like having breakfast or getting a facial treatment (not to mention reliving a painful childhood, trying to make sense of American territorial expansion, or revisiting the history of the Manson Family) crop up and work themselves out with the insistence of a twenty-first-century fugue. It’s a work of singular ambition that is not afraid to make demands on the reader, whose own thinking is yanked into the book’s process at every turn.
In her novels, stories, and essays—although with Tillman the limits of genre and category are breached in unexpected ways—she has been a vital force for two decades. Books like Haunted Houses (1987), Absence Makes the Heart (1990), Motion Sickness (1991), Cast in Doubt (1992), No Lease on Life (1998), and This Is Not It (2002) are experimental writing in the truest sense. In language that is direct and devoid of ornament, Tillman explores different possibilities of point of view and narrative structure, reconfiguring the world with the turn of a sentence. Her many stories written in response to works of art are only one aspect of her continual invention of forms. A sense of humor that is pure New York provides a constant pulse in her writing.
I met with Lynne in her East Village apartment in July to discuss American Genius, A Comedy. We’ve talked many times over the years, ever since we both wrote for the Village Voice back in the ’80s, but this was the first time we had discussed her writing and its aims at such length. American Genius, A Comedy is out from Soft Skull Press this fall.
Geoffrey O’Brien It’s hard to know where to begin with American Genius, A Comedy because it can be described as a book about everything, and especially about the boundaries between things. The fundamental role that skin plays in it constantly underlines that sense of boundaries—skin, and fabric as well. Was that something you arrived at, or something that you started with?
Lynne Tillman An idea that became urgent to me was “sensitivity.” We’re all becoming so sensitive, our environment’s more poisonous, but also our reaction to being able to live in the world has become extremely sensitive. Things are bothering us more. And yet sensitive people aren’t any less cruel, and can be as cruel or crueler and very insensitive to other people. That paradox, which may not be one, really interested me. Also, for a long time, I’ve thought about skin, because it’s an illusory border between so-called inner and outer, body and world, and on it so much can be seen.
GO The physical condition that is essential to the book is translated as “skin writing,” and this could almost have been the title—
LT In skin writing, or dermatographia, when you scratch the skin, a raised white line appears. Skin writing’s beautiful, but wasn’t as inclusive as I wanted, though skin itself is inclusive, it stretches and contracts, stretches. I did want that sensation in the book. I should’ve put in the kitchen sink, too.
GO Should we enumerate some of the elements? I’ve tried to compile a partial list: dogs, cats, the Tarot, breakfast, religion, chairs, Kafka, Leslie Van Houten and the Manson Family, bleeding, many aspects of American history, and then there’s a Zulu phrasebook that comes up periodically. What’s striking is the casual insistence of the way these things recur, without following any obvious rule or system. I’m curious as to what extent you were playing it by ear in allowing these repetitions to find their shape.
LT The rhythms helped shape the recurrences. I often use rhythm to carry a story, and it does determine so much. There was something about the ear and associations, about hearing, listening, to how we remember. I used more repetition than I ever have, to make pathways by which the protagonist/narrator’s thoughts move. It struck me that, when we remember, we usually do it in the same way, with the same words. When memories recur, they come back attached to specific triggers, maybe through rhythms, associations, and they go to the same place again and again—that river.
GO We’re not necessarily changing the memory at all.
LT No, that’s right.
GO And certainly not changing the outcome. We’re simply taking notice of the same memory once again.
LT Hopefully, a reader’s memory comes into play, and is affected by the various ways in which things return.
GO On page 17 the narrator says, “I try not to repeat myself,” a resolution that is not quite carried through because certain things insist on coming back—
LT But she’s also making a distinction about how she talks to other people.
GO As against what she writes to—whom exactly? It’s interesting that there is no “you” in the book. The one passage where “you” is suddenly used in a powerful way is a series of questions: “Can you tell a difficult truth? Where does your most persistent hope lie? And do you have many secrets; has something happened that you’d never tell anyone? Have you ever done something too horrible to mention?” Here I imagine the “you” might well be herself: the questions are addressed to herself rather than to the reader.
LT Funny, I didn’t think about her writing to anyone. Usually I don’t use “you,” but in this case she’s conceiving of a more universal way to question people and herself about guilt, lying and truth-telling. I thought “you” would work, and be unsettling or startling. Each of my novels is pretty different from the others, but I pushed some things. I wanted this novel to feel like an experience, finally, and not just the protagonist’s.
GO I think it’s unavoidable in reading the book that you engage in a silent dialogue with it. It’s a constant process of comparing one’s own experiences with these. Because it replicates so many familiar situations, above all one that’s deeply familiar to anyone, of a basic solitude in the midst of other people. In the same situation you have both an acute awareness of solitariness and also a constant sense of the difficulty of being with people and dealing with their sensitivity, as you said before. There are recurrent transitions between the state of being alone in the room and of being in the communal dining room for the meals that are the big punctuation marks in the book: a trilogy consisting of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You never do specify just exactly where these people are or what the nature of their pursuit is. At the outset the reader tends to think that this is an art colony of some sort, and then at a certain moment begins to think that perhaps it’s some kind of sanitarium! If there is a difference between those institutions.
LT I wanted to keep that wide open. There’s a kind of discomfort in not knowing exactly where she is. You can impose or project what you want on it but still you don’t know, it’s your imposition—you have to live with that. There’s familiar stuff, but still we don’t know where she is. I hadn’t put this together before, but once in London, I went to a party in Kingsley Hall, R.D. Laing’s and David Cooper’s home for schizophrenics. All the supposedly “normal people” were so tense, they hung around the perimeter of the room, while the so-called “crazy people” danced uninhibitedly. The straight people were terrified of being considered one of “them.” To me, in part, that relates to not knowing where you are in the book, where she is, and wanting to impose borders around the unknowable.
GO I think that you have brilliantly described a sort of thing that happens in a certain kind of residence, and it doesn’t have to be an art colony, it could be school or summer camp or any institution at all where people have come together in a more or less organized way, with all the discomforts attendant on that mode of life, even if the purpose of the institution is to help people or to give them a scope for exploring what they want to explore, to offer them personal freedom, personal space. Late in the book there is a line: “I can’t take a step that isn’t blocked or threatened by others’ opinions or irrational responses.” Here’s this somewhat abstract place that is in some sense away from it all, and there’s no escape. Somehow this is connected to the image of skin, the sense that there’s always something on the other side. There is no place that you can go to get rid of that.
LT This continues on from No Lease on Life. In that novel, I was also thinking about the division of “inner” and “outer.” Elizabeth’s mostly looking out her Lower East Side window, but the TV brings O.J. Simpson’s Bronco ride over the LA freeways into her apartment, so the street and inside are permeable. There’s an idea about privacy—not solitude—that’s about being able to escape from the world, which is of course an illusion. Ironically, you can’t escape illusions, but it is one nonetheless. That’s also in American Genius, A Comedy.
GO No Lease on Life seems to have more to do with social realism than this one; it’s a really beautiful description of the East Village as a place, as a syndrome, and what it is to be in the middle of that. Whereas American Genius seems in many ways more abstract simply because this place is not the East Village, it’s at a remove from all that—
LT We don’t know where it is, it’s a community; it could be any kind of community where someone is solitary and also with others, which is the condition of life really.
GO So there are surroundings but they’re kind of strange. In No Lease on Life the surroundings, for better or worse, have a tactile exactness, whereas the setting of American Genius is always threatening to turn into a kind of dream space. Which is what happens when you find yourself in a place that is not home and is not where you live, that is just a place.
LT The jokes in No Lease on Life also set place, they make it specific to New York. I guess all jokes are local.
GO American Genius, A Comedy might be read as a continuous comic monologue and at the same time it sustains a mood of dead seriousness. The coexistence of those states makes for an extraordinary tension.
LT But I don’t think of No Lease on Life as a realist book.
GO That’s probably not the right way to put it, I simply meant that the milieu is specific and palpable—
LT That’s true. American Genius, A Comedy is purposefully more abstract. I also wanted to write about America now. I have an intense interest in American history, which pops up in a number of my books, but in this I wanted to go for it, fully write about who and where we are—or, even, how to think about being an American now.
GO How did we get to this place, to this moment?
LT Many of us are just miserable and scared about what’s happening now. There’s a sense we’re trapped in something out of control or out of our control.
GO The idea of control in fact seems central to the book. To what extent can this person be said to control her life or control any aspect of her life, even though clearly she devotes a lot of energy to doing just that? The image of the frontier, when that comes up in the discussion of Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory of the role of the frontier in American history, seems to fit perfectly with everything else that is going on at this residence. It’s as if the people staying here have reached the end of the frontier.
LT I wanted to, as you say, indicate boundarylessness. Things drift and flow—how do you write consciousness, get it on the page; how do you mark events, objects, merging into each other? When you’re thinking, there are thoughts you’re not thinking, too; you’re making connections you’re unaware of. You have emotions that are intertwined.
GO The syntax seems the basis for the whole book. There is a syntactic movement that is established right at the outset and that determines everything that happens, a playing out of lines of thought. Obviously many people have tried to transcribe the cadences of thought and the way thought works, but I felt that what you were doing here was quite distinct. For example, the periods really mean something: one wave of thought emerges and plays itself out, and at the end of that you have a period; and then here comes another one. Sometimes the linkage between these sentences is quite tight, and sometimes we’re making extraordinary leaps just from one comma to the next. But a controlling element is always there, it’s never simply a free-associative run. There’s a line in the book about everything having meaning: “Socks can also scratch but I have no worry about how they look or what they mean though I accept they have some meaning since nothing has no meaning.” A powerful effort is being made at every point to sustain the sense that everything has some meaning, even when randomness is constantly emerging just from the act of observing reality.
LT Again, that’s something about which we have no choice. She talks about the body into which she was born, the religion, family, and she insists “about which I had no choice.” Similarly, we can’t control meaning. I can’t determine when I cut my hair this way or write a line that way that the meaning or effect will be what I want. But it will affect something in some way. You just shaved your head, you have no hair at all. You can say that it was a meaningless act, I just felt like doing it. But now you appear with a shaved head, which has meanings in society and culture, like about AIDS, premature hair loss, hipness, or does she or he have cancer. There’s meaning, or consequences, even when it seems like nothing. We can’t help but be spinning out stuff, signifying all the time, yet we want to control our image, our behavior. But even our rebellions have similar shapes. It’s why, in part, I also included style and design in American Genius. Design appears positive sometimes in relation to history, because we can control design more than we can history.
GO There’s a different way of finding the meaning in things in the various mealtime scenes particularly, in everything that has to with interaction with the other residents: the cataloging of varieties of social awkwardness, varieties of gesture, varieties of posture, of dress. Everything is being read by the narrator as a clue to something, although not with any certainty of having the right answer. She moves back and forth between this kind of intensely critical gaze, this dissecting people’s characters on the basis of very small clues, and the sense that she too is going to be read in this fashion. Perhaps she does not want to be but nevertheless she is going to be. I was struck, especially in the earlier part of the book, by these passages that evoke a fundamental social unease: “I blush furiously when I’ve done something wrong exposing me to threat, derision or disgust.” The intensity of the emotions playing out in supposedly innocuous situations involving sensitive people who are supposedly not the kind to behave horribly or be terribly judgmental.
LT In part, that’s why I bring in Leslie Van Houten of the Manson Family. I’d once wanted to write her autobiography, because of my interest in questions of guilt, the law, and justice, and it’s said Van Houten was the least culpable of all the Family. So, I pose her and her crimes against the sometimes farcical crimes of some of the residents, as well as the narrator’s subtleties of feeling, which make her blush, the weight of her guilt, or the disturbance of the anorectic woman with psoriasis. Leslie Van Houten isn’t her objective correlative, but she’s thinking about her. She’s living with the disturbing recognition that her sadnesses and losses could be worse, more like Van Houten’s. What if she’d been a party to murder? Or, how do we Americans consider our privilege in this wretched world? But, this may or may not be a contradiction, I don’t believe anyone should dismiss their own problems, or sadness, because, for one thing, everyone has a right to happiness, and also those people who don’t address their problems create huge problems for others.
GO This runs through it, the inescapability of basic childhood suffering, like the cat that gets killed, the dog that is given away, events that are established right at the beginning and keep coming back. There’s no changing them and there’s no denying the emotional wound, no matter how trivial that may be in a larger sense.
LT It’s your wound, that memory will stay. It will probably be with you forever, certainly those early memories.
GO The book is on a certain level abstract but it is also fantastically corporeal. The sense of being in one’s skin and unable to get out is fundamental to the mood, and that sense has a ripple effect through the whole book. No matter how far afield the trains of thought may go, whether recapitulating American history or exploring the history of fabric, it always comes back to the body. There’s no abstraction possible finally.
LT We’re always in a body no matter how abstract our thinking. It’s impossible to escape the body’s exigencies—and of being alone, finally. Also a body sends signals you can’t stop, which is amazing and horrifying. We’re trying to control our lives so much, yet most things are uncontrollable: one, there’s the unconscious; two, the body, which often reflects it, and three, the historical conditions in which we live.
GO Here there’s a strong continuity with your other writing. That sense of what could be called the impossibility of escapism. I’m struck by the absence of fantasizing, of escaping through fantasy or simply through aesthetics in one form or another. Even though art in various forms is constantly a topic, it never provides escape but instead brings one back to unavoidable reality. In No Lease on Life, the place—the neighborhood, the street, the building—is unavoidably there, and there is no way to get out of it even by being in your apartment or losing yourself in thought or memory or fantasy.
LT Elizabeth’s dream in No Lease on Life is, as Freud said, filled with the content of the day. So there’s a demystification of a kind of dreaminess or of fantasy. People produce fantasies, they’re facts in our lives, part of our reality, and some are better at maintaining them than others. I sometimes think these people were loved more by their mothers and fathers, who told them that their shit was gold, and they hold on to that fantasy.
GO It may be a blessing. I don’t know where I would be without fantasy.
LT In each of my novels, I try to leave out something I did before, structurally change something. In Haunted Houses, the three characters never meet. They’re contiguous characters and share the space of the novel. I wanted to foster that idea about the novel. In Motion Sickness, there’s constant coincidence, characters keep bumping into the main character. Psychology is always important, but in American Genius I pushed at my limits to build a character in a psychoanalytic way; it’s not a psychological reading of a character. The narrator/protagonist tells us about herself and the world, and the writing’s circular, repetitive … .
GO But we’re learning more about her, perhaps, than in some of the earlier writing. In some of your stories there is an elusiveness about the subject or subjects, who become someone else in the act of writing. In “Come and Go,” the first story in This Is Not It, we move among different people in a rather disturbing way that constantly undermines any sense of attachment to a particular consciousness.
LT Finally, the authorial voice takes over. But then “the author” wants the reader to have the fantasy and provides it in the last few lines of the story. I don’t ever want to deny fantasy and pleasure, I like them. Our fantasies are a part of who we are, and also who we don’t know we are. The narrator in American Genius, A Comedy has views of other people. Obviously, she’s an unreliable narrator, but hopefully it goes beyond that tired concept, and questions those terms, unreliable and reliable. I mean, it’s not the point. Is there another form of validity to characters than whether they are reliable or unreliable?
GO Reliable or unreliable, she’s undeniably real. I do think of it as some kind of realistic novel, although I remember once we talked about your mixed feelings about the notion of realism. And of course you are the creator of Madame Realism. (laughter)
LT My funny retort to surrealism. So, voilà, Madame Realism. She’s anything but a realist character. I’ve had her wake up as an art catalog and a Jeff Koons sculpture.
GO Even then there’s always an edge, which I associate with some kind of description, no matter what is being described … .
LT Let me ask you: Is that realism or my attachment to questions about meaning? I’m interested in reality, or realities. And, I’m not saying my novels have meaning, or that a writer can make meanings, but maybe what’s going on points to my belief in the relationship between narrative and justice, to consequences and unintended consequences. I write fiction because it doesn’t make claims to Truth or pronouncements or general statements about life, it narrates them. Also, even breaking things down makes something. In American Genius, A Comedy, she says she’d rather undo things than make them.
GO In all of your writing there is a sustained discourse, sustained no matter what happens—and all kinds of things can happen—right in the midst of sustaining that. But it never falls into gibberish or free association or language events more or less floating in space.
LT You can say, Death makes life meaningful, or death makes life meaningless. Even gibberish, which that may be, is connected to something. People are desiring machines, sure; we’re also meaning machines. We put things together, even though we’re often wrong. I heard a poet say that words had no reality. I thought the person had no idea what language was. Reality may be, as Timothy Leary said, an opinion, but it’s made up of words and images. I think a lot about narratology, and I believe there’s no escape from telling. Everything tells. And, you’re right, I try to write even the most impossible things clearly.
GO In some of the early stories, it’s almost as if the reader can see you constructing this thing, and as the structure is taking form you can be seen doing that; you make your presence palpable, and sometimes the author’s voice comes into the story and interrupts the process. Something analogous to that process seems to be going on in the new book, but in a very different way, because here the narrator is in effect constructing the world with words.
LT I didn’t feel I had to do that again. I’d seen its effects. In No Lease on Life it’s not there either, really.
GO But the feel of it is still there; you can take out that explicit gesture and yet it’s still implicit.
LT I don’t know if you ever read Cast in Doubt.
GO I did.
LT It’s tricky. It can be read as a modernist novel, or it can be read as a sneak attack on that, through the relationship between Horace and Helen. She represents what he can’t read or know. Some people told me they had less of a sense that I was in the book, that I had let Horace take over. What did you think?
GO I remember at the time thinking of it as an almost perfect artifact, reflecting a kind of fiction that I love, the kind exemplified by, say, Patricia Highsmith. The narrative seems straightforward and ends up devouring itself, largely because of the consciousness of the person through whom it’s being told. You know The Tremor Of Forgery?
LT Thank you, I love that book. I wrote Cast in Doubt after Motion Sickness, which was in the first person, so then I wanted to write a male character in the first person. Nobody could say Horace, a gay man in his late sixties, was Lynne Tillman—or maybe they could. (laughter) I wanted to have some fun and also play with plot in a way I hadn’t before. By having Horace go in search of Helen, get into his little car and drive to the other side of the island, there was a plot. So simple, and to me that was kind of hilarious. I laughed a lot writing it. But by the end, I found leaving it the hardest of all my novels. I wept, writing the last two pages. Would Horace give Helen’s diary back to her? His wish to find her again is a common wish, and so sad. Things happen in our lives, and we wish we could undo what we did.
GO The texture of the language in this book and in your other books obviously go through many changes. Take Cast in Doubt, which on the surface is preserved with an almost perfect calm—it’s almost a wall. American Genius, A Comedy, by contrast, has a very different and altogether distinct texture, which has to do in part with the construction of the syntax, the patterns of repetition. I think of your books as being intensely literary but not in an obvious way, not by citing or quoting or even particularly imitating the surface of the language in books; yet the idea of literature is everywhere. Certainly the idea of other writers is hovering there—I sometimes think of Henry James, or of Gertrude Stein—I don’t know if they are?
LT Yes, probably they are.
GO And in the new book there is a lot of direct quotation. For example, Thoreau suddenly appears—
LT I thought, there’s no way to write a book about America without mentioning Thoreau.
GO “Dare to live the life you have imagined.” Which is part of the problem here. What is the life that one has imagined?
LT That’s part of her problem, her question. What is that life, what does she imagine for herself?
GO In a way that connects to Tocqueville’s idea, which you also cite, that the American woman, unlike the European woman, is free, and can marry for love. She doesn’t have to simply be a functionary of the social order; she can actually make a choice, a free choice—and that this is a real constraint and perhaps an intolerable burden.
LT When I read Tocqueville, I was fascinated by that idea about America and freedom, about freedom having its own constraints. His theory about American women especially: you’re free to choose, you’re free to be wrong, you’re free—
GO And so you have no excuse!
LT You have no excuse, whereas the European woman can say: It’s a contract, I was forced into this marriage.
GO And a lot of very repressive law and custom came into being precisely around that point— you have no excuse! You have no excuse for committing adultery; you have no excuse for wanting a divorce because you chose it.
LT You made your bed, now you have to lie in it. Quite literally in terms of marriage. That’s the case, and I found it compelling that freedom is also a limit. How you handle your freedom, how you use it …
GO And in this place in your novel in which these people are residents, there is that uneasy uncertainty as to whether they are free or not. They seem to be there to pursue projects in freedom, yet they are hemmed in by all kinds of regulations, either spoken or unspoken. In fact, it starts to feel like a jail even though it’s the place where they have come to in order to be free.
LT They can do anything they want. You know that feeling you had when you left college? You could do whatever you want now.
GO That’s when the trouble starts.
LT Then what? Then how do I live? What is it that I want?
GO Or even what do I write? What do I write about?
LT It’s terrifying. What was the book that was popular in the ‘60s? Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm? You can understand why there’s a countervailing force toward repression. Why there’s a desire for a retraction of civil liberties, and people not knowing what that means, or not caring that it could become a basis for authoritarianism. Céline said that 10 percent of the galley slaves were volunteers!
GO I don’t think it’s that people want their own freedom restricted. It’s usually somebody else’s freedom.
LT Again, that’s about being sensitive to yourself but not to someone else. It’s weird, the lack of awareness that at any moment you could be the other. You’re well, next minute, you’re sick. Duchamp’s tombstone says, “But after all it’s always the other who dies.” But it’s also the other who lives.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee