Two innovative contemporary writers discuss the relationship between encyclopedic narrative and notions of gender and writing, the body as the physical embodiment of memory, and the unique syntax of Tillman’s American Genius, a Comedy. The novel’s prose depicts the way “thought, when you’re not thinking, happens.”
Lydia Davis Interviews Lynne Tillman
Lydia Davis Interviews Lynne Tillman
With additional questions from Eric Dean Rasmussen and Rone Shavers, the editors, representing Electronic Book Review.
Lydia Davis: Some writers I know are very unhappy writing, and some fly high. On a scale of one to ten, from agonized to elated, what were your feelings in the midst of working on American Genius, A Comedy?
Lynne Tillman: I ran the gamut, from one to ten. One was my not being able to find the voice that moved it all, told it. A ten was, for instance, when I was writing the séance scene, which was so wacky I couldn’t believe I was doing it. I mostly enjoyed writing the book, when I was writing it. Finding ways to interpolate all that curious information was fun, like making and solving the puzzle. As number one, I’d also include the interruption of teaching. I couldn’t just pick the writing up and put it down. Those very long sentences required a certain cadence and mindfulness I had to get back to each time. Finally, I quit one job and wrote much of it in eight months, though the whole took about five years.
LD: I’d like to go on talking about American Genius, but first I want to pursue this question: do you think there’s any correlation between work that goes well or easily, and how it turns out? I mean, does work that goes well and is enjoyable to write turn out better than work that is difficult almost all the way through? What has been your experience of this?
LT: I’m not sure about that correlation in my work. A reader might feel it, which would bother me, because I want to make the writing seem effortless, at least not labored. I don’t want readers to get bogged down in unnecessary language or linguistic frills. If they need to go back to the beginning of a sentence, I don’t want it to be because it’s cluttered with verbiage that doesn’t ultimately augment and elaborate clearly even contradictory or irrational sets of thoughts. As a reader, and writer, I dislike overwrought sentences.
Electronic Book Review: Can you speak a bit about the syntax used in the novel? Specifically, what aims were you trying to achieve by engaging in the use of very long and circular sentences? What were you hoping to create or evoke through syntax alone?
LT: First, I wanted to play with sentence structure, for my pleasure, and to see what I could do with it. At the same time, I wanted to establish her voice and find the way her mind might work, as unique to her, her ambivalence, her humor, her limits. The circularity and repetition of her thinking seemed to me the way thought, when you’re not thinking, happens. Also, if you’re an analysand, you hear your voice and watch your mind wander, stop and start, you censor it, see inhibitions, you take strange turns, words get scrambled, lead to events and incidents you couldn’t predict, and you contradict yourself often. Unlike “stream of consciousness,” which American Genius is not, the mind returns to themes and incidents again and again in different contexts, but there are fixed points, “blocks.” It’s not all about the free play of language - that’s about writing as writing - but when attached to the unconscious, written thought will represent memories and events you can’t avoid and keep going back to. Everything you know and don’t know.
LD: I love the form of American Genius - what you have just described, the monologue that circles back on itself and picks up where it left off over and over again. The obsessive monologue. I’m not sure the following writers use exactly the same technique, but they are certainly cousins of yours in this: I’m thinking of Thomas Bernhard, but also, W.G. Sebald. Can you say something about how you feel about those two, and are there perhaps other writers working in a similar form that you feel even closer to?
LT: I’ve read Sebald’s The Emigrants, and some Bernhard novels. I didn’t feel close to The Emigrants, which is weird, because he’s a philosophical writer with history on his mind. Maybe this seems strange, but I thought an earlier novel of mine, Motion Sickness, which came out in 1991, had common ground with it. Bernhard is a different case. I feel closer to what he was doing. His sentences, their single-mindedness and fury, have a very different energy and speed from those in American Genius, I think. With Bernhard, you can hardly breathe when you read him. I wanted American Genius’s sentences to make room for breathing, to shift the speed at which one reads. His are always vehement, more directed, like a political tract, in the Viennese tradition of Karl Kraus or Otto Muehl. Henry James, with his bending of sentences to produce diverse, qualifying, tricky, subtle reservations, was important to American Genius, but again, I wanted something different. More contrariness, more disjunction and odd change ups - the writer as pitcher!
LD: To get back to those long sentences you were talking about - they certainly are mesmerizing as one reads them or hears you read them aloud. There is an amazing connectivity through the whole book - one sentence seems absolutely to lead to the next. When you had to pick up the writing after being away from it for a while, how did you get back into that rhythm? Did you have any special tricks or techniques?
LT: All I could do was keep re-reading what I’d already written, to find that voice and rhythm again. It’s another mind I was trying to re-inhabit, with its own peculiarities and turns and changes. I usually go back in order to go forward, but with American Genius, I did it again and again, like listening to a song over and over and being in its spell. When that happened, I felt I could continue.
EBR: The book does not follow many of the “traditional” techniques novelists use to establish setting, plot, characterization, etc. Why did you choose to write American Genius this way? What do you think your choices say about the purpose and relevance of contemporary fiction, since most contemporary novels are written in a more “traditional” conventional fashion?
LT: I’m thinking about how to write my next novel, so these questions are on my mind. I can give reasons for why I wrote American Genius as I did, but that doesn’t mean I know why I didn’t and don’t write more conventional or traditional narratives, generally. In American Genius, everything spins out from the narrator’s position, her relationship to places and characters. The plot accrues or derives from the way in which the narrator develops, her conscious and unconscious needs and hopes. At the beginning, I set up the notion that there was an “obstacle” she might overcome. What the obstacle is is the plot, confounding as that sounds; readers can perceive different obstacles, different turning points for her. There are various obstacles and responses to chew on, including meetings with Moira and the Magician; her understanding of the triumph of the wish; participating in the séance and wanting to speak to the dead; her expectations of home and mother; the facialist. Of course, what’s the cause, what’s the effect? A plot usually proceeds and builds from causality, but American Genius’s plot questions causality. In a sense, it plots against one plot! Let’s say Helen’s fate is over-determined and how she behaves resembles human activity and behavior. People are usually and mostly unaware of how the present will affect the future, small and large, and a so-called turning point for them will be discernible only later, if ever, as when people say, “If I had only known that then.”
LD: Yes, think of all the possible “turning points” that we don’t recognize as such. That’s why I appreciate the skill of the teller of anecdotes, who is able to shape a story out of material that to most of us appears to be an endless continuum. And yet you manage to do both in American Genius: give us the continuum and also embed stories in it. Can I ask you to address one part of EBR’s question in particular, and that is, how do you react to the more conventional or traditional form of storytelling, as practiced these days? Do you find it to be exhausted? Or does it depend on the one employing it, the writer?
LT: I wish there were a way to avoid categories like traditional, innovative, experimental. They don’t seem helpful at all, for writers or readers. They aren’t for me. It seems to me it’s how we read, rather than what we read. This begs your question, though. Dull is dull, turgid turgid, boring boring. Much contemporary writing is formulaic, following codes of one kind or another. There’s the well-made novel, the fragmented story. I like complexity in stories, or different possibilities for interpretations, for experiencing language in all its variations. I don’t mean complexity only because of a book’s intellectual content, but also emotionally, psychologically, philosophically, stylistically. I’m thinking of Jean Rhys, for instance. If I read with excitement, do I care if it’s traditional or innovative? Roth’s The Radetzky March? Henry Adams’ Esther? Virginia Woolf. Henry James. Edith Wharton. George Saunders. You. But what is innovative? Is it style and/or the way a thought is thought, or both: what the idea is, how it gets on the page? Ultimately, it’s what your expectations are as a reader, what you want to find there, which decides whether a form is exhausted. So, yes, I think it’s the writer who employs it.
EBR: Why did you turn to the encyclopedic narrative for the form of this novel? What possibilities does it offer? Additionally, do you see the encyclopedic form as gendered? That is, why do critics of the encyclopedic genre (such as Edward Mendelson, Franco Moretti, et. al.), only seem to be able to find and/or identify male writers working in the genre?
LT: I wanted to do it because of all of the above, writing thought, what you know and don’t, and Helen’s particular knowledge and ignorance, her world. I was and am aware of the ways in which women are expected to be women, as writers, too; there are internal and external pressures, most not articulated by or to women. Here’s a recent example: a “good” editor, female, rejected American Genius, and, after two paragraphs of praise, the way all “good” rejection letters start, she wrote why she didn’t want to publish it and stated, “I don’t know what Lynne is trying to teach me.” Women aren’t supposed to know, they’re supposed to feel. That’s crudely put, but there are reasons women who are intellectuals, geniuses, are seen as miscreants and monsters. So I really did want to write a female character who talks about the world, science, history, design, skin, mothers, animals, friends, ethics. In college, I wrote a paper about Margaret Fuller, the transcendentalist, and read that she’d said: “I accept the world.” That’s stayed with me ever since, her having said that expanded my world instantly. By the way, she was the great-great-great aunt (I may be leaving out a “great”) of Buckminster Fuller.
LD: Another one of your encyclopedic facts! I never wondered, as I read American Genius, “What is Lynne trying to teach me?” I relish the information that is integrated into the novel. I think that some of us hunger after the factual material of the world outside the imagination - it’s part of the richness of history, and science.
LT: You put that beautifully, Lydia. I never thought I was teaching anything. What I strove for was to incorporate information with imagination, how we bring what we have learned into what we imagine and fantasize, how something else happens from that amalgam. It’s all in our minds, wherever the mind is. That’s why I likened artists to scientists, quoting Einstein about his valuing the imagination. Flashes of insight are similar to writers and physicists. They come from everything we know that suddenly shifts into a working concept or formula. I wanted to enmesh so-called knowledge and facts with creativity, for lack of a better word.
EBR: The term postmodernism has acquired largely negative connotations (e.g., “the cultural logic of late capitalism”), at least in the academy. At the same time, critics and teachers haven’t come up with another term to refer to innovative contemporary fiction. As trivial as they may sound, these taxonomic terms matter when curricula are created, and grants and publishing contracts are awarded. Any suggestions for naming literary writing in the present?
LT: We think in categories, then rethink them, especially if prodded. The ones about writing are used up, boring, even unhelpful to writers and critics; they’re prescriptive and proscriptive. The terms are problems, so they need to be discussed as an aspect of the entire literary project. Theorists and critics are hampered by musty terminologies that lack vitality and themselves produce uninteresting thoughts, they need to be scrutinized and revised. I’d like to see some tough criticism of these critical terms, within academia, and see where that leads.
EBR: In “Like Rockets and Television,” you suggest that Andy Warhol was an exemplary postmodernist in that he broke with the avant-garde imperative of being ahead of one’s time. You remark, “It’s harder to live in and think the present than be ahead of it; there’s no exit” (43). Could you elaborate on your notion of what’s involved, for a writer of contemporary fiction, in thinking the present? What challenges (both general and specific) are involved in thinking the present now, in the early 21st century, and what strategies do you deploy to meet these challenges?
LT: In that way, Warhol wasn’t different from Gertrude Stein. She wrote in “Composition as Explanation,” “No one is ahead of his time” (514). This may sound simpleminded, but “thinking the present” is what we think, necessarily inflected by the past. We think about the future in the present. There are visionaries who imagine futures which somehow come into existence - airplanes, machines - but the futures that fascinate me aren’t about technology. People have the sense now, since the computer and Internet revolution, that the world will be entirely altered by machines once thought unthinkable. I think about: How to narrate change; what happens to consciousness, how can change be demonstrated emotionally, psychologically; why are some of us silent; what is traumatic and why; it’s endless. In the abstract I don’t know what fiction’s challenges are, they may be the same as any time before. Staying awake and concerned may be the biggest challenge.
EBR: Helen, the main character and narrator, is not named until page 200, about two-thirds of the way into the book. Would you liken the novel, in the way that it rambles and details numerous topics, especially that of skin and fabric, as a sort of “covering” of Helen’s consciousness; one that readers must then strive to “uncover” through a close reading of the work?
LT: That’s a great interpretation, fabric and skin covering Helen’s consciousness, but I didn’t have it in mind when I was writing. I felt that learning Helen’s name should be earned in a sense, and shouldn’t be given to the reader. It’s such an internal novel, why would she name herself? And also she herself names people, chooses names she likes for them, her secret world of characters. She’s controlling the story, she thinks, until dinnertime, when she enters the main house. The reader sees her name along with her, on her mailbox, and from then on, after she’s named, a fact breaking into a fantasy, the reader’s perhaps, because so much is in a name, and then the story really changes.
EBR: Could you explain why you chose the epigraph by William James (“Woe to him whose beliefs play fast and loose with the order which realities follow in his experience; they will lead him nowhere or else make false connexions”)? James’ remark suggests that our beliefs about reality are necessarily shaped by our experiences of it. Yet it also raises questions about the gap between the singularity of our personal experiences of the world and the universality of true beliefs. What are your thoughts on the relationship between belief and experience, cognition and affect? Are you in agreement with Helen that “belief is important, everything, and also nothing much, an attachment like a skein of froth”?
How can singular experiences inform the universal beliefs that inform collective decisions? In the same vein, what is the role of epistemology and hermeneutics in your work? In American Genius, there seems to be a tension that exists between empirical knowledge (that which can be qualified and quantified; that which can be proven right or wrong), and intuitive knowledge (that which can only be experienced or felt, and therefore cannot be right or wrong). Does the novel represent a distrust or mistrust of organized, rational thought?
LT: I didn’t want to write about the distrust of rationality, but the persistence of irrationality, a very different emphasis. Helen may or may not be rational about or conscious of all of her behavior and motives. She has formulations and ideas about what she sees around her, she’s had experiences, she has learned from people and books, she’s been taught; she has categories for knowledge and experience: these fuse. Life also occurs outside her categories of thought and experience, of her understanding, and defies her (thinking of William James): the magician, the séance, her wanting to speak to her dead father, history’s hold on her, and so on. I don’t know how easily one can separate belief from experience, or know which comes first. We can attempt as writers to explore the gap, if there is one, or investigate the weave. It’s why reading closely, or deconstructing texts of all kinds, is important, to see if it’s possible to know one’s prejudices, biases, and how they create interpretations - to comprehend the existence of matters beyond ourselves. We’re all up against our limits. Helen is in American Genius.
LD: Here’s a question you’ve probably been asked a few times, but I’m curious. If you’re writing in the first person about material some of which is autobiographical, as you do in American Genius, how do you separate the persona of the narrator from your own persona? I mean, I never felt, reading the book, that Lynne was talking personally to me about her own life - I truly felt that an invented character was talking - but how do you achieve that necessary distance, and how do you pick and choose what “real” material to include and what to leave out?
LT: By the time I use something autobiographical, it’s not about me and my life. I see it as material, stuff I can work with and make into forms. Here are some analogies that might be corny. I look at a lot of visual work. I see how artists take what might be considered junk or banal images, but which have deep relevance to them. They use material that’s freighted for them and transform it. Painters use color differently, each color has meanings to them, aesthetic and personal associations. The important thing is, those meanings exist not only for them. Artists use material aware of its importance beyond them.
Everything’s borrowed from a big cauldron of experience, from culture. I can demonstrate that most easily in American Genius by my writing about animals, pets. Most people have them or had them. They’re emotional hot points. It doesn’t really matter that “I” had pets as a child. This was not my material alone, I knew how others felt about their animals. So I took specific events to embroider the reader into the character’s psyche and story. As to leaving out, I leave out most of it, what is too present in me, what I sense is still mostly for and about me. Leaving out is the most necessary and urgent decision when using autobiographical matter.
EBR: A lot of time in American Genius is devoted to memory and the fallibility of memory. Many passages also refer to the body as the last vestige - a literal marker - of memory. How does the body serve as the physical embodiment of memory in a way that makes it truly unique and infallible, unlike the memory of Helen and several other characters in the novel?
Furthermore, you’ve suggested that what makes fiction important is its ability to represent what ordinarily remains unspoken or is only imagined or fantasized. Generally speaking, what tends to remain unspoken or unspeakable today, when ostensibly everything is permitted? What or whom are literary scholars and critics overlooking or failing to address adequately?
LT: There are surfaces, the body is both inside and outside, a surface, seen not seen, overexposed - breasts, butts, graphic sexual behavior on display. Attitudes change about the body’s appearance and presentation. I was on jury duty, and a 40-ish man came to court in shorts and a terry beach jacket open to his navel. Everything’s shown, BUT… Because girls are beating each other up on YouTube, is it the end of civilization? Or, is it the end of the cultural construction of girls as good and nonaggressive, boys as rough and tumble? When boys start having sleepover dates and wear pink bedroom slippers, is that the end of civilization?
The body shows the imprints of psychology and society - we blush, develop psoriasis, we keep parts hidden or don’t. Diseases mutate, appear, and disappear, maybe the body remembers. There’s now an epidemic of anorexia, which was named in the 1870s. There’s even a form of anorexia that describes people who waste away trying to eat “healthily” so that they eat nothing. It’s about a fear of being fat in part, but also about the fear of being poisoned by the environment, and by anything they ingest.
The unspoken and unspeakable, which can also be memory that is not available to us or only available through the body, may be among the most important aspects available to fiction, where fiction can function beautifully. All other fields document what is said, done, what’s already there. A writer can point to silence, an obstacle to society when language appears to fail, can’t communicate. Beckett did it, obviously. The silence is, the ellipses, how people/society paper over the gaps with more nothing. But what happens when being silenced isn’t obvious? Or, when the so-called unspoken is spoken but not heard? Not meaningful. The unspeakable, like a fart, or objectionable hatreds? I once wrote, in a review of The History of Shit, that committing a crime was less unspeakable than farting in public. It’s certainly spoken about less. Was it Burroughs who wrote: “Nothing is permitted, everything is allowed”? I’m not sure if the anything-goes-ness we supposedly live in, our supposed openness, affects basic human fears of sex, sexuality, others, of men of women, women of men, and so on. What interests me more is the counter-phobic life, which could be the title of my next novel.
EBR: Yes, but while expressing wariness about the notion that you write oppositional fiction, you have said that it’s “on [your] agenda - to challenge the complacent, to question national, familial, racial and sexual arrangements, to resist structures and institutions that serve the powerful and perpetuate powerlessness.” Much of the work of New Historicist criticism is devoted to exposing how art becomes complicit with that which it would critique or oppose. Can you elaborate on your thoughts about art’s (in particular, literary fiction’s) ability to act successfully as a force of resistance?
LT: I really take exception to their use of “complicity.” Writers and artists are part of the systems they might in part or wholly oppose. That’s different from complicity, which implies volition and a willingness to participate, which is different from speaking from an inside, even beating your head against the walls of an inside. No one escapes systems. I suppose that’s why the “insane” have been romanticized, they supposedly have. But in NYC, in the 1980s, the “bag ladies” all carried shopping bags and pushed shopping carts. Maybe they were insane, or not, but they employed the same system. So insanity as an end run against being complicit to society is as problematic an idea as that of artists’ complicity, which is not to say that some don’t play to the market. And one can argue that some do in opposition to cultural values. Let’s not forget the significance of contradiction! Their criticism doesn’t comprehend or appreciate what art is or can do, or can’t do, doesn’t understand that art is not the same as direct political action, even as it comments on and exists inside a political body, the world it represents, however diversely and imaginatively.
EBR: Back to the topic of resistance. Was it deliberate on your part that American Genius doesn’t feature a figure like Ernest from No Lease on Life (1998), who has passionate political commitments and takes action? Helen stands up to the “angry mob” that wants to ban the séance; can we view this as a political awakening, however modest?
LT: Helen is thinking about slavery, racism today, she’s thinking about democracy, as American Genius does; she’s in an institution that is a microcosm of democratic society, which includes anti-democratic strains, too, of course. The magician is committed, by the way, to illusion; not all politics takes the usual forms. Also, he asks Helen and others to participate in an experiment. They’re a minority. I don’t know why Helen is perceived as needing to awaken from a political slumber; maybe that’s my naivete. I think of her as a politically minded character. I suppose my sense of political characters isn’t bred necessarily of those who take “political action,” they are not activists in the general use of the word. She’s concerned with ethical questions, with history, with memory. Can we have a reasonably just civil society without memory, an idea of history, or a concern about ethics?
EBR: Yet theorists of postmodernity, most notably Fredric Jameson, characterize the postmodern condition as involving a disappearance of a sense of history and the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents we experience primarily through images. Does Jameson’s account of postmodern ahistoricism, which is now roughly twenty-five years old, strike you as being accurate and true today? If so, how does your work respond (or not) to this condition? Can you perhaps elaborate a bit on Helen’s increasing preference for design over history?
LT: Jameson’s ideas angered me in the 1980s. He trivialized any politics but class - race, feminism, sexuality, and gender - just distractions from class politics. I followed Craig Owens’ theories, and still do. I learned so much from him about postmodernism and feminism, and art. His last essay - he died July 4, 1990 - proposed that we shouldn’t speak “for” others but “to” others. That’s been crucial to me, getting rid of writing “about.” Identity politics, which is now a reductive term, I think, led to some excesses and narrow-mindedness. Stuart Hall, at a lecture I attended in the late 1980s, said, “The time for essentialism is over.” But I had never agreed with essentialism and always thought one could be sympathetic to various identities and not be religious about it, fundamentalist. In fact, I wrote Cast in Doubt (1992) against the notion that only a gay white man could write a gay white male protagonist.
The end of History is different from there are no histories (or writers, after the Death of the Author). Helen prefers design, in part, because she thinks she can play with it, shape it more easily. And design can be beautiful for all the reasons history cannot: histories are very messy while being made and after. Who wins, loses, who counts, who has rights, a state, a home. Our early 21st century looks like a renegotiation of the contours of empires, not unlike what led to WWI. So history is ugly, and how much uglier it will get is anybody’s guess.
LD: Yes, even “history,” traditional narrations of “historical events”, often turn out to be highly distorted. One last question, about your life in the city! You take a deep interest in visual art, and in film, and you have been involved in both for many years, often writing about them or even collaborating with visual artists, as in your 2002 story collection This Is Not It. How do you achieve the amazing balance you seem to have, between your various non-writing activities - seeing art, going to readings and openings, meeting with artists, etc. - and the sort of single-minded focus you bring to bear on your writing, a necessarily lonely art?
LT: I’ve always wanted to do a million things; I never wanted to feel I was one thing or another, limited in any way. I think that’s why I write different kinds of novels, and stories in different styles. I decided to be a writer at eight, but I grew up with movies, TV, was taken to museums, my mother was an amateur painter, my father loved books, had an eye for color and was himself very creative. My older sisters were readers, one wanted to be an actor, the other a ballet dancer. I was influenced by all of it. Also, I’m given to melancholy and depression, so getting out, seeing art and hearing music, forces me from my tiny world into the bigger one. I admire the various ways people think, what they make and want to do to feel good. Visual art represents other kinds of cerebration and approaches to emotion. Listening to a solo by David, my husband, who’s a bass player, I see/hear forms for writing. But he always plays in ensembles of some sort. But all of this affects my writing, how I do it, what I write about. As you said, though, to write you have to be alone. I have that need also, and more than that, I need to write. I wish I didn’t, but I do.
Works Cited and Referenced
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print.
Owens, Craig. “ ‘The Indignity of Speaking for Others’: An Imaginary Interview.” Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. Eds. Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman, and Jane Weinstock. Berkeley, Los Angeles &: University of California Press, 1992. 298-315. Print.
Stein, Gertrude. “Composition as Explanation.” 1926. The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Karl Van Vechten. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.
Tillman, Lynne. American Genius, A Comedy. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2006. Print.
—. The Broad Picture: Essays. New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997. Print.
—. Cast in Doubt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Print.
—. “Like Rockets and Television.” The Broad Picture: Essays. New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997. 3244. Print.
—. No Lease on Life. New York: Harcourt, 1999. Print.
—. This is Not It: Stories. New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2002.
In 2011, Red Lemonade will publish reprints of four Lynne Tillman novels - Haunted Houses, Motion Sickness, Cast in Doubt, and No Lease on Life.