Book Blitz

American Ingenious

The sly brilliance of experimental novelist Lynne Tillman.

Click here to read more from Slate’s Fall Fiction Week.

For those understandably concerned about whether experimental literary fiction can have a place in mainstream American culture, take heart that Lynne Tillman is now at your local Target. One of the standout entries in the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit, currently a fast-selling “Breakout Book” at the retail behemoth, is “The Recipe,” a story that exemplifies Tillman’s brand of pensive, self-interrogating fiction, and one that provides a fine introduction to an underappreciated body of work—which now includes her latest novel, American Genius, a Comedy.

The winking bravado of that title, worthy of a literary titan the size of Roth or DeLillo, is both a spot of mischief and a declaration of intent. More than 20 years into her fiction-writing career, Tillman has produced a book that grapples with Puritanism, manifest destiny, the Manson family, and other American legacies, not to mention the Zulu alphabet, maladaptive feline behavior, chair and textile design, and myriad skin disorders and diseases. In other words, American Genius has all the trappings of a jam-packed Great American Novel. But it might not read like one, since the book unfolds largely within the astute, neurotic mind of a middle-aged woman, Helen, in an unidentified institution full of colorful characters; it could be an artists’ colony or a psych ward. (Insert your own what’s-the-difference joke here.)

Staking out a middle ground between Realism and Postmodern experimentation, and between public and personal history, Tillman carves out a private space for the social novel with American Genius. It shares certain traits with a millennial brand of big, boisterous contemporary novel, the kind that James Wood famously derided as “hysterical realism”: bursting with chewy trivia, vigorous about making historical and sociological connections across space and time. But Tillman is more truly a daughter of Mrs. Dalloway than a peer of, say, David Foster Wallace. She ignites conflict and crisis not with the usual powder of incident and dialogue, but with the twists and sharp U-turns of internal thought. Consider this sidewinding, self-negating sentence from American Genius: “People need to be protected from others, who may hurt them, as I need to be protected, but I don’t listen to everyone, though I’m a good listener, and I’m curious, though curiosity killed the cat, my mother would say, but she had the cat killed.”

American Genius creates what the author calls “a connective tissue” of ideas and personalities: Helen’s thoughts on shopping for socks lead her to musings on Calvinism and Jerry Lewis; rustling among the sheets of disquisition on the textile industry are the ghosts of the American slave trade. Though Helen is surrounded by interesting people—a Turkish poet, an eccentric playwright, a magician who urges that they conduct a séance—her default mode is isolation, with only her mind for company. She makes declarations, then questions and revises them, only for doubts and amendments to take on lives of their own, which in turn require dismantling and reassembly. American Genius doesn’t produce a stream of consciousness so much as a whirlpool, like much of Tillman’s fiction.

Tillman emerged from the downtown New York arts scene of the late 1970s and ‘80s; her friends and peers included writers Dennis Cooper and Patrick McGrath and artists Barbara Kruger and Kiki Smith. (This cultural moment is captured in the new anthology Up Is Up but So Is Down, edited by Brandon Stosuy.) After the publication of her first novel, Haunted Houses (1987), a female coming-of-age tale told in three alternating strands, Tillman was briefly grouped with Cooper and Kathy Acker as part of the “New Narrative” movement, a loose coinage for writers working with narrative form in an avant-garde context that was allergic to narrative conventions. New Narrative often mimicked or absorbed elements of autobiography, frustrated or undid readers’ expectations (the trio of young protagonists in Haunted Houses never meet each other), and called attention to the act of writing itself—as does American Genius with its long, sometimes paragraph-sized sentences.

So far, so quintessentially Postmodern. But Tillman illuminates her ostensibly cerebral attitude toward storytelling and its devices with thelightof experience. Hertheory-tested approach to making and understanding fiction appears inextricably linked to making and understanding your own life: your ethics, tastes, loves, friendships, fantasies. Take, for example, the revelation in the story “Come and Go”: “Maggie is a handy composite of some people I’ve loved whose narcissism was once irresistible. When you fall out of love with a narcissist, life is emptier. … If she opened any of my notebooks and saw how I see her, she would be displeased—but also glumly appreciative … The notebooks I mentioned don’t exist.” Tillmanfavors past over present tense and treats memory as a battered manuscript under constant revision. Narrative Realism would be hard-pressed to capture a reality that changes so readily according to the moment. In Tillman’s second novel, Motion Sickness (1991), about a young American woman adrift in Europe, the narrator observes, “You relive memories, you develop them, you make them bigger and better and add a touch here and there, like a dab of perfume behind the ear of a memory … one remembers even the recent past so imperfectly and so much in relation to oneself that every object is skewered upon one’s own identity,like a kind of shish kebob.”

Tillman’s work is additionally distinctive for taking unpredictable cues from contemporary visual art. As an undergraduate at Hunter College, Tillman studied painting, which, she has written, “trained me to think about art differently, and writing fiction as an analogue to art seemed an outgrowth of practicing it.” The result was Tillman’s growing corpus of “critical fiction” (gathered in the collection This Is Not It) written for art journals, artists’ monographs, and gallery catalogs.This trajectory began with her short story “Madame Realism,” occasioned by a Kiki Smith exhibition in 1984, wherein a few ordinary events in the title character’s day—she smokes, watches TV, reads the paper, gets a nosebleed—cohere as an oblique conversation with Smith’s work. Tillman’s latest piece of critical fiction is the above-mentioned “The Recipe,” whichresponds to an exhibition by the video and installation artist Orit Raff, and details a schoolteacher going about his day-to-day life while composing a poem about torture.

The recurring character Madame Realism epitomizes Tillman’s typical fusion of fiction and (self-) criticism: She functions as a faintly gothic figment of the author’s imagination, but also one who frequently comments upon her own construction. In “Madame Realism: A Fairy Tale” (1988), a riff on “The Metamorphosis,” she wakes up having been transformed into an art catalog. (“Many would throw her out. Some would save her. … As a reference she was undeniably self-referential.”) In “Madame Realism Lies Here,” a story accompanying Jeff Koons’ porcelain monument to Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles, the heroine dreams that her friends mistake her for a sculpture depicting her, then she shape-shifts again, into a grotesque caricature of herself. In the Madame Realism stories, making art (or writing it, or about it) becomes a confusing, dangerous prospect that distorts the lines between work and self, and between mimicry and the real thing—as if realism were a kind of mitosis, in which a copying error could lead to scary mutations.

The frequent recurrence of actual people and events across Tillman’s fiction and nonfiction alike raises the question of how deeply—how “realistically”—her stories penetrate her biography (or vice versa). Tillman’s late father, or a version of him, is a strong presence in several of her books; the East Village apartment where she has lived since 1982 provided the inspiration for the rent-stabilized purgatory of No Lease on Life (1998); the cat that savagely attacks the narrator of American Genius seems a reincarnation of the disturbed pet that Tillman eulogized in the essay “Boots and Remorse.” Tillman’s work at once entices and foils autobiographical readings, but what’s stirring about her fiction is less the presence of (seemingly) confessional flourishes than the possibility of transference between text and reader.

To unravel the mordant skeins and associative daisy chains of American Genius is, quite often, to feel oneself gently possessed by the mind and memories of another. Tillman’s work infers that such a transmission is an ideal for fiction—that narrative isn’t just a means of organizing experience, but the stuff of consciousness itself. As she once wrote, “Stories, in fact, are contained within thought. It’s only a story really should read, it’s a way to think.”