What happens to criticism when it’s quartered within a work of fiction? What becomes of fiction when it’s put in service to criticism? It’s impossible to come to general answers to these questions, but they’re hard to avoid when considering Lynne Tillman’s new book The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories, which collects three decades of work fusing the two modes of writing. You could think of the form as fiction and the content as criticism, but a simple conceptual split doesn’t account for the effects the two modes have on each other. Think of a centaur, a satyr, or a mermaid. Simple exchanges of anatomy don’t account for the hybrid creatures’ strangeness.
Tillman is the author of five novels, four books of nonfiction, among them a volume on Andy Warhol and the Factory, and three previous collections of stories (some of which reappear in the new book), and is a familiar and beloved figure on the downtown art and literary scene. Her 2014 essay collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do was accompanied by a poster campaign. I remember coming across the posters one day on the Lower East Side without being aware of the book. I happened to be in a state of some personal dismay. I’d been reading Tillman for years, and I thought, What the hell would Lynne Tillman do? Perhaps invent a fictional character, give the character some despairing ambivalent thoughts, then make a piercing self-deprecating joke. It calmed me down.
Madame Realism has been appearing as a character in Tillman’s work since 1984, at first as the title character in a book of paragraph-length fragments accompanied by drawings by Kiki Smith. Since then she’s surfaced several times in the pages of Art in America as well as in various artists’ catalogues and anthologies. I can’t help taking the name as a goof on the name of the first heroine of modern literary realism. But aside from their gender and their presentation in the free indirect third person (one piece in the first person blurs the line between Tillman and her character), Madames Bovary and Realism have little in common. Madame Realism is, it seems, single and stays out of trouble. (Whether she’s entirely immune to the sort of romanticism that afflicts Emma Bovary is hard to tell, but she can see it in others.) She goes to museums and she travels, though her resources don’t exactly allow for jet-setting. She watches television and thinks about history. She likes to go to bars and what company she keeps consists of fellow bohemians. She’s more or less a loner, like most of us at one time or another. She’s a collector, or perhaps a hoarder — either way her closet is a mess. She reads less like a Tillman alter ego than a sort of Downtown Everywoman. In this case, “Realism” might have less to do with an artistic style than the practical necessity of “being realistic.” What’s interesting about her isn’t what happens to her so much as what she sees, what she thinks about what she sees, and the ways she otherwise responds to it. The response could be an aphoristic line, as of Renoir, “Women are home to him, she thought, big comfortable houses,” or a sleepless night in bed, or the spontaneous impulse to start dancing.
Fictional presentation has a liberating effect on the critical material in the Madame Realism stories. Tillman need not commit to a single line of argument, or any argument at all, since what she’s putting on paper belongs to her character more than it does to her. There’s room for the personal and the accidental. A visit to the museum can be inflected by the fact that Frank Sinatra is about to turn 70, that the other visitors are preoccupied by whether women really were that fat in the 1970s, that Madame Realism has been reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando or watching reruns of Dynasty. Some of the pieces have obvious subjects — an exhibit of “Treasure Houses of Great Britain,” Freud, the museum at Ellis Island — but in others she simply thinks about the nature of self-presentation (“Madame Realism feared seeming au courant in a desperate and hungry way, yet wanted to be of her time, not to deny its marks on her, something not true of persons called mentally ill, their faces and bodies stamped with their troubles, their clothes thrown together, signifying distress”), New Year’s Eve and the future (“The future was in articulate, inarticulable, dumb. Unspeakable desire longed for a wanton night, an urgent night to end it all — the century, the millennium. A night to remember, and one to forget”), or what it’s like to be president of the United States (“Those who ran for president, presumably, hungered for power, like others might want sex, a Jaguar, or a baby”). In one story she dreams she undergoes a Samsa-like overnight transformation and wakes up as a museum catalogue. Sometimes her thoughts arrive unwanted, as at the site of the D-Day landing:
She reached Omaha beach and the enormous U.S. cemetery. The rows and rows of gravestones were rebukes to the living. That’s precisely what entered her mind—rebukes to the living. She shook her head to dislodge the idea. Now, instead of a rebuke, a substitute image, sense or sensation—all the graves were reassurances, and the cemetery was a gigantic savings bank with thousands of tombstonelike savings cards. Everyone who died had paid in to the system and those who visited were assured they’d received their money’s worth. That’s really crazy, she chastised herself. Over seven thousand U.S. soldiers were buried in this cemetery, and Madame Realism knew not a soul. But what if the tombstones were debts, claims against the living?
This strikes me as the sort of idea, provisional, resisted, elaborate, and a little weird, that’s hardly possible to put to paper in a work of conventional criticism, but one that seems right at home in fiction or poetry. The discursive narratives of the Madame Realism stories mimic the experiences of museumgoing and sightseeing and have a disjunctive quality that resembles the fragmentary novels of Renata Adler and the essayistic miniatures of Lydia Davis. They are mood pieces, there are no plots, no drama, just the turnings of Madame Realism’s mind as she sees what’s in front of her and listens to the voices around her. As criticism they’re freed of the burdens of polemic, conscientious exposition, even the illusion of coherence. It’s remarkable that Tillman has created her own genre. It doesn’t seem to me a genre many could profitably duplicate.
The second half of The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories consists of three stories featuring a character called Paige Turner, and another set of texts in a section called “The Translation Artist and Other Stories.” The Paige Turner stories seem to be an extension of the Madame Realism project, different in tone but similar in method. They are longer and linger at greater length on their subject matter — broad themes rather than discrete scenes. “Love Sentence” is a sort of essay — I started thinking of it as a voice-over for an abstract film nobody would dare to make — in memories, anecdotes, love letters, brief monologues, and epigraphs on the subject of romantic love. There’s a “you” being addressed throughout but one that’s hard to glimpse as a reader, perhaps because of the overwhelming obscuring nature of love letters. But we see more of Paige Turner, more of her emotional past, more of her in states of vulnerability, even pain. In “To Find Words,” which takes up hysteria in similar fashion, Tillman manages a trick I haven’t seen done before, separating the narrative voice from the narrator: “It’s terrible that I am her voice because she depends on me,” says Paige’s somehow-not-Paige voice. The fun-house narrative “Thrilled to Death” is the only story in the collection with a plot — perhaps better to call it a parody of a plot.
The book’s final section includes a few pieces that aren’t stories at all but conventional critical essays, among them a very good one on Cindy Sherman. I knew these were coming from M.G. Lord’s introduction, and I thought the move was too cute by half. But it did have the virtue of breaking the spell cast by Madame Realism and Paige Turner, and it was only in the breaking that I realized what a strong spell it was.