What Would Lynne Tillman Do? by Lynne Tillman | Paperback | Barnes & Noble
What Would Lynne Tillman Do?

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?

by Lynne Tillman

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Here is an American mind contemplating contemporary society and culture with wit, imagination, and a brave intelligence. Tillman upends expectations, shifts tone, introduces characters, breaches limits of genre and category, reconfiguring the world with the turn of a sentence. Like other unique thinkers, Tillman sees the world differently—she is not a


Here is an American mind contemplating contemporary society and culture with wit, imagination, and a brave intelligence. Tillman upends expectations, shifts tone, introduces characters, breaches limits of genre and category, reconfiguring the world with the turn of a sentence. Like other unique thinkers, Tillman sees the world differently—she is not a malcontent, but she is discontented. Her responses to art and literature, to social and political questions change the reader's mind, startling it with new angles. Which is why so many of us who know her work often wonder: what would Lynne Tillman do? A long-time resident of New York, Tillman's sharp humor is like her city's, tough and hilarious. There are distinct streams of concern coursing through the seeming eclecticism of topics—Hillary Clinton, Jane Bowles, O.J. Simpson, art and artists, Harry Mathews, the state of fiction, film, the state of her mind, the State of the Nation. There is a great variety, but what remains consistent is how differently she writes about them, how well she understands, how passionate and bold her writing is.

What does Lynne Tillman do? Everything. Anything. You name it. She has a conversation with you, and you're a better, smarter person for it.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“The art of underexplanation” characterizes this eclectic assortment of essays, anecdotes, interviews, reviews, and vignettes from novelist and critic Tillman (Someday This Will Be Funny). In a flexible, wise, and wryly funny voice, she studies subjects as varied as President Obama, art, language, literature, film, and music (from Chet Baker to the Rolling Stones). Consciousness, time, and desire, as well as problems of authenticity, ideology, and taste emerge as leitmotifs, though Tillman’s real subject is the making of art, particularly the ways in which the meaning of an object “is re-made by passing generations of readers and viewers.” Though some selections lend the book an elegiac note, the prevailing chord is Tillman’s relentlessly ironic self-awareness, as the title suggests. She is too experienced to indulge in nostalgia, too informed to take sides—nothing is sacred, nothing is taboo, and she aims to “trample complacency of all types”—but she proves an excellent reader: perceptive, generous, insightful, and knowing, especially when writing about Edith Wharton, Charles Henri Ford, and Gertrude Stein. This compulsively readable collection is like eavesdropping on the polished chatter of an exceptionally clever and well-read party guest, one who understands that elaboration is the antithesis of wit. Agent: Joy Harris, Joy Harris Literary Agency. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

Praise for Lynne Tillman

"Lynne Tillman has always been a hero of mine — not because I 'admire' her writing, (although I do, very, very much), but because I feel it. Imagine driving alone at night. You turn on the radio and hear a song that seems to say it all. That's how I feel...:" — Jonathan Safran Foer

"Lynne Tillman's writing is bracing, absurd, argumentative, and luminous. She never fails to exhibit her unique capacities for watchfulness and astonishment." — Jonathan Lethem

"Like an acupuncturist, Lynne Tillman knows the precise points in which to sink her delicate probes. One of the biggest problems in composing fiction is understanding what to leave out; no one is more severe, more elegant, more shocking in her reticences than Tillman." — Edmund White

“Anything I’ve read by Tillman I’ve devoured.” — Anne K. Yoder, The Millions

Praise for American Genius, A Comedy

“Tillman’s prose builds to poetic brilliance.” — Entertainment Weekly

“What emerges here is a bold showcase of a novel, a cabinet of curiosity, a proposal for what fiction could be.” — New York Times Book Review

“To read Tillman’s tightly woven novel, which meshes inner and outer realms as well as past and present, is to enter into an intense relationship, a communion with another spirit, perhaps with some sort of genius. An involvement that, like all forms of heightened attention, be it friendship, love, hate, or pursuits intellectual or creative, is demanding and bewitching, harrowing and bemusing, revelatory and transforming.” — Donna Seaman, Bookforum

“Reading the novel is like entering a room crowded with peculiar portraits, all brilliantly drawn. The book is a consummate work, one that levels Western history with family dynamics, pet deaths, Manson family references, the Zulu alphabet, skin disorders, and the loss of memory that afflicts us both personally and as a nation. Tillman once again proves herself a rare master of both elegant and associative writing, urging us to enter the moment, which is all we have and simultaneously cannot keep.” — San Francisco Bay Guardian

"If I needed to name a book that is maybe the most overlooked important piece of fiction in not only the 00s, but in the last 50 years, [American Genius, A Comedy] might be the one. I could read this back to back to back for years." — Blake Butler, HTML Giant

Praise for No Lease on Life

"Confirms and enhances her reputation as one of America's most challenging and adventurous writers." — Guardian

“ … should be awarded a special Pulitzer for the most perfect use of the word “moron” in the history of the American novel." — Fran Lebowitz

“[Elizabeth] neither recoils nor romanticizes … She’s a character who stays with you after you put the book down—a creature of occasional dark impulses, intermittent grumpiness and perennial willingness to pull up her socks and deal.” — David Gates, The New York Times Book Review

"A book anyone concerned with urban life, women, or American culture, as it stumbles into the 21st century, must read." — Sapphire

"Exquisite... To encounter a writer of Tillman's acute intelligence writing as well as this is a cause for real celebration." — Independent (UK)

"Tillman describes much of the wearing, wearying routine of the city's daily life — all that garbage, all those druggies and creeps and whores we've met in a million Letterman one-liners jammed into a scrawny crevice of land while the rest of America's so huge and airy and free. But Tillman's book is utopian precisely because it takes those things into account; because its heroine fantasizes about murdering all ‘the morons’ not out of hate, ‘but dignity and a social space, a civil space, actually civilian space.’ … [Tillman] sprinkles the text with dozens and dozens of jokes... Who can't relate? Isn't every public-transportation-riding, rent-paying, law-abiding urban dweller about two or three knock-knock jokes away from homicide?” — Sarah Vowell, Salon

"Richly surreal … yet darkly humorous … Tillman demonstrates her wit, superb observational skill, realism of representation, and verbal eloquence … No Lease on Life is a meditation on the realness and the ridiculousness of daily living. Yet again, Tillman tackles issues on her terms, freshly reshaping traditional literary forms.” — Donna Seaman, Booklist

"We first meet Elizabeth sitting at the window of her East Village apartment at 5 a.m. spinning gruesome revenge fantasies about the noisy hoodlums in the street . . . this novel [is] graced by flashes of bilious wit, a series of funny, inconsequential jokes and an appealingly loopy milieu." — Publishers Weekly

“As energetic and raunchy as a New York street.” — San Francisco Chronicle

“A terribly up-close and personal examination of urban angst and fury. It is also a funny, frightening, and utterly brilliant tour de force.” — Bay Area Reporter

“Darkly humorous . . . [the] New York that one doesn’t see on Seinfeld.” — Library Journal

"In a society that increasingly deals with the unbearable by cleaning ‘it’ up, by sweeping the streets and parks of the homeless and addicted, and/or stashing ‘it’ away (in ghettos, prisons, etc.), No Lease on Life provides a straight-on view and acknowledgment of the unbearable, if not an acceptance. What Elizabeth collects keeps her from sleeping, drives her to thoughts of murder, and yet ‘she [has] to be open ... like a window ... sometimes transparent, usually paradoxical, and always open to tragicomic views of life.’” — Elisabeth Sheffield, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Library Journal
Since the publication of her first novel, Haunted Houses, Tillman has written 11 additional books: fiction, nonfiction, short stories, and essays. This alphabetically arranged collection of essays contains everything from Tillman's author interviews with Paula Fox (One-Eyed Cat) and others to reviews of Spike Jonze movies. The author's comments on the Rolling Stones' 1965 New York City concert describe her disappointment with all that didn't happen at the performance of her favorite "rebel" band that suited her depressed college student persona. In "The Virtual President," she comments on the news media, Hillary Clinton, and President Barack Obama. VERDICT Tillman's essays cover death, Andy Warhol, and a broad spectrum of photography, literature, philosophy, music, and politics. She juxtaposes her personal responses with criticism of the arts in a collection that demonstrates her aptitude for humor, candor, and scholarship.—Joyce Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL
Kirkus Reviews
A miscellany of essays, critiques, narrative explorations and diversions from a literary iconoclast. These are shorter works by Tillman (Someday This Will Be Funny, 2011, etc.), but it's a generous set, allowing one essay for each letter of the alphabet. The collection starts with a return to previous targets, as "The Last Words Are Andy Warhol" examines the little-known 1968 book a: A Novel using a shopping list as context for delving into Tillman's beloved Warhol. "Nothing is Lost or Found: Desperately Seeking Paul and Jane Bowles" is a fond remembrance of the famously besotted writers. A little later, "White Cool" gives a heartbreaking flash of famed jazz musician Chet Baker. Tillman is a fantastic writer in long-form or short, and the exercise of turning that famous intellect on herself seems to make her more abrupt yet more focused. In "Try Again," she discusses the creative process: "No one strong-arms you into becoming an artist or writer—most often you're dissuaded—and volunteers who bemoan their chosen gig seem disingenuous. Visual artists are often called to account for their choices and asked to defend their positions. Few occupations other than finance, politics and crime entail this reckoning. Writers and artists may ask themselves why they make art or write, and many feel the pointlessness of their self-chosen jobs, but all rebuttals and answers to their existential questions rest on faith in Art or Literature. Faith itself will be tested." The collection doesn't even really serve as an introduction to Tillman's work, although it certainly represents her wit. The most weighty piece here is "A Mole in the House of the Modern," a piercing deconstruction of Edith Wharton. In short, it's a nonessential pastiche of book reviews and other miscellaneous writings that reads less as a collage and more like someone handed you one drawer of a great writer's file cabinet. The world's culture dissected, one cunning, bemused essay at a time.

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Read an Excerpt

"Blame It on Andy"

Being human offers homo sapiens variety, or some elasticity, in social life, though sociologists claim that people’s personalities disappear with no one else around. Imagining this evacuation, I see a person alone in a self-chosen shelter, motionless on a chair, like a houseplant with prehensile thumbs.

Diane Sawyer, an unctuous American TV news anchor, once asked a mob assassin: ‘But haven’t you ever thought, “How can I do this? Who am I?”’ The man looked at her with incredulity, then said: ‘I’m a gangster.’ Now, it’s true that people (a.k.a. human beings) named themselves human and also defined humanity, but this tautological affair entails neuroses: do we have a natural state? To say there isn’t one doesn’t quell anxiety, and ‘just act natural’ and ‘be yourself’ remain resilient punch-lines to the shaggy-dog story called existence. There are instincts and drives, the basics from which Sigmund Freud theorized – but, oh, the complex array of acts that might satisfy these!

The bandwidth of human behaviour includes self-image recognition and cerebration, prized differences from other animals (both premises are currently under investigation). With bigger brains, people have concocted notions about self-reflection and self-awareness, which allowed for ‘I think; therefore, I am’. Not ‘I think what; therefore, I am what?’ One would have thought that might matter.

Human beings have, like other animals, sexual and excretory organs that either share the same orifice or sit near enough to confuse identification by children. In evolutionary terms, apparently, there have been no great improvements. Also, shit still stinks, which, given the horrors humans commit, seems appropriate.

Dominique Laporte’s History of Shit (1978) narrated the lengths to which people have gone to cover up the smell. But the body finds its way, discharging ugly odours, keeping humans close to their ‘uncivilized’ ancestors. Human violence keeps people as close, maybe closer; it too has likely never changed, only the tools. But violence can’t be covered up with perfume. In part, theories about essence and construction, nature vs. nurture, address, directly and indirectly, motives for aggression and cruelty, ethical behaviour – or its lack – and the power of the irrational in the human animal.

In the 1950s, American ethnomethodologists Erving Goffman, Harvey Saks and Harold Garfinkel examined tiny units of social life, such as conversation among friends. Seemingly meaningless conventions screamed disaster if not followed: no ‘hello’ back to a friend jeopardizes the relationship. Little miscues caused rips in society’s seams. They studied gender, declaring masculinity and femininity performances in need of consistent routines, since people surveilled others for lapses that endangered identity but worse any hope for a life without torment.

Humans act differently in wars, in crowds; they act differently if they think nobody’s watching. Punishments and limits – prohibitions on murder, incest, cannibalism – mostly keep people in line, otherwise, humans would be no better than animals, humans like to claim. But all mammals teach their kind and follow rules; they form societies often less violent than ours. Apes, chimps, elephants – the mothers commit years to training their offspring. Wolves, male and female, are ecstatic at the birth of a cub; all guard their young. So, that’s no insult: we do behave like animals.

At parties I observe people acting much like dogs, except for sniffing rear ends, which is generally done in private.

‘Acting like a human’ is a matter of opinion, too. ‘Did I do the right thing?’ can translate into ‘did I act right?’ Some people act better than others; even when being honest, some people aren’t convincing. Yet con artists are great at appearing sincere. Being honest or ‘yourself’ isn’t necessarily a ‘natural’ state, since the human capacity to dissimulate must have always had a necessity for species survival.

I admit to wonder and consternation when people bemoan the loss of authenticity in art, in identity, in life. Andy Warhol is regularly blamed for its supposed absence. He’s blamed for everything. I don’t know what pure state, unmediated existence, or moment in history to which people can or should return. Homo sapiens call themselves makers and doers, and they never leave well enough alone.

Some people are actual actors. Theatre has been around a long time, because it serves several purposes. For one, people can watch others being human, portraying emotions and actions, their consequences and vicissitudes. Which brings me to Ryan Gosling in the film Blue Valentine (2010). Gosling embodies an unusually sensitive human to a degree I find unnerving. He plays the husband in this anti-romance romance – a so-called regular American guy, but one I had never seen on screen or stage. Not a rebel like James Dean or Marlon Brando, standard bearers of ‘acting real’. No, Gosling’s character is content to love his wife passionately, to adore and care for their child; he is ambitionless, happy to have a lame job. This life is enough for him, and he believes it should be for his wife.

Gosling’s character might or might not exist off-screen. Still, an artefact, a movie, has proffered a novel image for Americans raised on Horatio Alger and other long-running constructions. In Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling enacts a ‘real human being’ better than most human beings do. I might one day meet such a person. Probably not Mr Gosling, who would, most likely, not live up to my expectations.

Meet the Author

Lynne Tillman is the author of five novels, four collections of short stories, one collection of essays and two other nonfiction books. She has collaborated often with artists and writes regularly on culture. Her novels include American Genius, A Comedy (2006), No Lease on Life (1997), a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Cast in Doubt (1992); Motion Sickness (1991); and Haunted Houses (1987). Someday This Will Be Funny (2012) is her most recent short story collection. Her nonfiction books include The Velvet Years: Warhol's Factory 1965-1967, with photographs by Stephen Shore (1995); Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co. (1999), a cultural history of a literary landmark, and The Broad Picture, an essay collection. Colm Toibin lives in New York City.

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