A Review of ‘Someday This Will Be Funny’ by Lynne Tillman
The third entry in Lynne Tillman’s new collection Someday This Will Be Funny (Red Lemonade, 2011), called “The Substitute,” is about a woman talking to her analyst, trying to pin down the way her body loves and receives love, in spite of her mind’s attempts at romantic sabotage. An encounter with a mysterious man named Rex crops up again and again until the reader isn’t sure if Rex isn’t just the doppelganger of the analyst. The stories intertwine and the language follows suit; the woman and Rex don’t just have sex or interact, they “thrum on the thrill” of the moment together as they touch on the train for the first time, “ecstatically unsure” saying “everything and nothing” and then “basely have their way with each other.” The characters in Tillman’s writing are raw and emotional, flitting between the exasperating reality of their lives and the safety—or torture—of their daydreams. “Her imagination was her best feature,” the narrator says of the woman in “The Substitute.” And so to it is with Lynne Tillman: the promiscuous reality that clings tenuously to the page of Someday This Will Be Funny, is the cornerstone of a book that meanders authoritatively through any mood or subject, with no remorse.
A great majority of Tillman’s writing reads like a Polaroid as it develops: the image appears slowly, never fully crystallizing into the sharp, fine lines that a fancy DSLR camera would produce; it remains fuzzy around the edges and a little out of focus. This moment captured makes sense when it happens, and the people who share the experience know this as well. Tillman’s unique deciphering of life’s subtlety and most routine moments is thrilling in some instances and inducing of quiet contemplation in others. The paragraphs sound good in one’s head. The reader can hear the narrator speaking, can feel the way the words in the story might spill from a sad or happy mouth.
Take this example, for instance, from “The Substitute”: “Rex’s hands weren’t well-shaped, beautiful. If she concentrated on them… But she wondered: would they stir me, anyway. She shut her eyes. She liked talking with her eyes shut, though she couldn’t see her analyst’s face. Dr. Kaye wore a long tie today. It hung down over his fly and obscured the trouser pouch for his penis.” Tillman’s focus here is cerebral; the details of each debacle are irrelevant, it’s what was felt and feared by the individuals involved that is important.
In “Playing Hurt” Tillman is able to flawlessly capture the beginning middle and end of a high stakes relationship between a self-made investment banker named Abigail and a lost-it-all-in-the-crash-playboy named Nate, who makes the mistake of asking to borrow a million dollars from his rich wife, while refusing to relinquish his little black book of former loves (he hides it in a safety deposit box at the bank where Abigail works). But it is unclear exactly who is wronging who, and who is right, and Tillman likes it that way. The narratives leaves it up to the reader to decide if Abigail actually distrusts Nate, or is just so in love with the emotional security of her solitude as a single woman. When the pair meets for the first time, Nate “whispered words that infuriated [Abigail], but her breath stopped anyway…. He could make her happier, babies, if she wanted, millions of orgasms.” Nate stops drinking and tries to get his life in order but Abigail can’t get past the financial problems of their marriage and one night turns him away from “adding to her orgasm count” telling him to “make money not love.” The phrase hangs in the paragraph like a rusty nail in a clean white wall. It is painful to read. Tillman cuts immediately to the core of the couple’s problems and issues. Nate is hurt, and Abigail finds the little black book that he said he’d thrown away. They split—he goes back to drinking and Abigail goes back to helping animals in shelters as she did in law school, as the last line in the story notes: “When people at the office asked why, she’d explain she trusted cats and dogs, humans domesticated them, so they’re defenseless without us. But people, she occasionally added, people usually deserve what they get.” The slight inversion of the relentlessly overused cliché lingers in the creamy blank space following it in the page, and the reader pauses to discern the difference. Do people get what they deserve, or deserve what they get? The semantic nuance of the question is a delightful microcosm of Tillman’s insightful work.
This inversion of reality in the imagination is also apparent in two witty and interesting pieces about actual people, whom Tillman fictionalizes and perhaps even critiques in a way, with her characteristic nonchalance and forceful voice. These stories lack the depth and feeling of her others, however, and indicate that Tillman might be best when picking her scenarios out of the thin air, or everyday life. “Give Us Some Dirt” takes its title from the hearings regarding Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. Tillman imagines the Justice sitting alone in his office in D.C., contemplating life, laughing at everyone who said he couldn’t make it, the belching noise that is his laugh escaping his mouth like a “runaway slave,” an obvious metaphor that seems out of place in Tillman’s rich repertoire, and ends with Thomas noting that “they’d all pay in the end.” The short piece holds up, but only because of the pillars surrounding it.
Similarly, in “Later,” Tillman creates a moment out of time where Marvin Gaye and John Lennon get together to make music. The story works on the fundamental level, but Tillman’s imitations of the ways that Mr. Gaye and Mr. Lennon speak and interact are problematic. “Hey, Marvin, what’s going on?” Lennon says. Marvin replies: “I’m splitting to London, I’m all played out, this business is killing me… I don’t know about the duets, John. I’m fucked up.” The story reads a little flat, and is certainly a differently shaped link in the otherwise strong emotional chain that Tillman strings along through her book. These two tales lack the raw honesty of a scarred soul that makes the others in the collection such a pleasure to read.
The story “Love Sentence,” located toward the end of the book, begins with quotes from Shakespeare, Wharton, Verdi, and Kafka, all about love in a way, then meanders into a few quick words about a girl named Paige: “Everything Paige thought about love, anything she felt about love, was inadequate and wrong. It didn’t matter to her that in some way, from some point of view, someone couldn’t actually be wrong about an inchoate thing like love. ‘An inchoate thing like love’ is feeble language. If my language is feeble, Paige thought, isn’t my love?”
For Tillman, language is the truest representation of love, and love is only available to human beings through that language. Tillman loves the language she employs, except where she hates it, and the distinction is a wonder to admire. Paige cannot separate her ability to love from her ability to express that love through language, and the disconnect between the emotions of the heart, and the cold reality of the ink on the page creates a chasm within the piece, and another lifetime’s worth of contemplation for the reader. Tillman gives us the history of her love, and what it means to transcribe that love from the physical page to the ephemeral screen: “Once upon a time the impassioned word was scratched into dirt, smeared and slapped onto rough walls, carved into trees, chiseled into stone, impressed onto paper, then printed into books. On paper, in books, the words waited patiently and were handy, always visible, evidence of love. In that vague, formative past, love was written with a flourish and it flourished.” Tillman eulogizes the care, time and effort that first went into the recording and explication of love and all its pain and pleasure; in the past, love was written with the body, in the physical world. But that truly isn’t the case now. She continues: “Is the computer screen an illuminated manuscript, evanescent, impertinent, but with a memory that is no longer mine or yours? Is love a memory that is never mine, never yours?” Unlike a cave wall, where the first inscriptions of love were placed, our Facebook pages evaporate and change with every passing hour. What will become of the memory of our love now? Tillman wonders if we’ll ever be able to record it in the same way.
In the final piece in the collection, “Save Me from the Pious and Vengeful,” a meditation on being remembered and the fear of being forgotten, Tillman speaks of the link between the two and the strength it takes to recognize such a link. “I remember terrible dreams and not just my own,” she writes. “Memory is what everyone talks of these days. Will we remember, and what will we remember, who will be written out, ignored or obliterated. Someone could say: They never existed. It’s a singular terror.” As a writer who has had a successful and long career, the candor in the last moment of Someday This Will be Funny brings the reader fully into the claustrophobic yet oddly comforting folds of the book. Tillman can hear time marching and is aware of the way history can treat a good writer: with disdain and forgetfulness, but also celebration and memorial. Tillman is aware of the pain this might cause and how it can affect one’s life. The repetition of creation and recording, and publishing, and forgetting: “The year changes, the millennium, and from one day to the next, something must have been discarded, or neglected, something was abandoned, left to wither or ruin. You didn’t decide to forget. People make lists, take vitamins, and they exercise. I bend over, over and over.”
But Tillman’s approach to this disheartening idea is utter fearlessness, and she makes sure that the reader understands her own position in the press of the seasons. “I’m not good at being a pawn of history,” she writes, making it clear that she will write her own true history when she’s ready, and not a second sooner.
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