IMAGINE AN ESSAYIST who is herself a fictional character, and you’ll have one toe invested in the sand of Lynne Tillman’s world. Is she the author of these essays, or are Madame Realism and her other doppelgängers — Paige Turner and the Translation Artist — the actual creators? And what does this single step away from direct authorship bring to work that examines, from a personal and reflective stance, the meaning of art, the experience of art, and the art of experience? If you have up till now missed Tillman’s delicious assaults on the way our expectations of narrative, art, public space, and love itself pre-inform our reactions to what we see, watch, and read, prepare to have your mind blown.
Writing in the characters of Madame Realism, Paige Turner, or the Translation Artist, Tillman meditates on love, on Cindy Sherman, on the nature of presidential power, on a visit to Ellis Island, as well as many other subjects. At first consideration, these 24 essays are straightforward, clean, and can be read quickly with great intellectual satisfaction. But, in truth, Lynne Tillman has created worms that burrow inside the reader’s brain to alter what is seen and believed forever after. Every time the reader steps back from the page to muse about the fact that these essays are written by fictional narrators, that they combine history and literature and philosophy with experience and the invented, that they are, by that measure, short stories: well, it’s enough to rework the chemistry of the brain.
Not that this sort of strategy is entirely new. Perusing The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories, it is impossible not to be reminded of the collection of Extracts that a “sub-sub librarian” supplies before the first chapter of Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Therefore you must not, in every case at least, take the higgledy-piggledy whale statements, however authentic, in these extracts, for veritable gospel cetology. Far from it.” Back in 1851, Melville’s invented researcher combined quotes from the Bible and Shakespeare with quotes from obscure and perhaps invented sources, and then warned the reader that he was not to be believed. Except when he was. And Lynne Tillman plays at the very same game.
Take one of the cleverest of all the clever stories, “Madame Realism: A Fairy Tale”: “Ordinarily, Madame Realism existed as, or in, a story or essay,” writes the author. “No matter, she soothed herself by thinking — I am always fiction.” She has awakened to discover that she herself has been transformed, à la Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, into a museum catalog. This is in some way the fulfillment of a desire — to be clear but concrete, helpful and ordinary. But at the same time it is precisely the opposite that Madame Realism really wants: to be the voice of artistic concerns, part of the continuing interpretation of ideas, the evolution of thought. The struggle between these warring intentions is at the root of what is most engaging and seductive in the stories and the way they scrutinize our world.
As for the blurring of genre, how marvelous when the Translation Artist smartly raps the reader’s knuckles for imagining that because Cindy Sherman is in her own photographs, the photographs are about Sherman’s own identity. “If Sherman were a novelist, I’d propose: she has incorporated the reader into every text, by allowing for a subjective space for every reader/viewer.” Like Sherman’s subjects, Tillman’s stories/essays are also about us, about all the selves we might become; they open us up, create both recognition and re-cognition. In fact, it is impossible to read Tillman without wanting to become her — to be able to think like her both intellectually and creatively. What artist working in any medium would not wish to do this to the audience?
The last of the essays in the collection focuses on power — why people want it and want proximity to it — and why anyone would want to be president. “With power, you get your way all the time,” Madame Realism posits. Although this is not true, of course, it seems particularly ironic in our current political situation. Madame Realism, or Tillman (for how does one actually choose which writer to honor with authorship?), cross-cuts her musings here with a selection of quotations about power and image, and, brilliantly, with jokes told about and by powerful public figures: “To her, the jokes also zeroed in on powerlessness; and Madame Realism trusted in their uneven and topsy-turvy honesty. To defame, derogate, offend, satirize, parody or exaggerate was not to lie, because in humor’s province, other truths govern.”
It’s hard to pick a favorite of these stories: with subsequent readings they seem to shimmer and shift, so that what is most intriguing this time might be skimmed over the next; while an essay that previously seemed less provocative is suddenly the most mind-opening of the bunch. But the one piece that remains most compelling for this reader is one from the Translation Artist, an essay on what it means to draw inspiration from the past: “I’m slippery categorically,” she tells us. “The way words are, since they are my medium, my art […] because I believe every thing, object, or person, is a translation from something or someone else […] Nothing is denied by me as an effect or influence.”
And further on she writes, “I (and you) start somewhere, lean on or draw from art and life, draw meaning from others’ lives and work.” For example, she explains that she cannot write the words “in recent years,” without feeling the resonance and reverberation of Kafka’s story “A Hunger Artist,” which begins with precisely this clause. She adds: “Artists for re-creation monitor present-day comprehension through new iterations. Things don’t mean the same thing forever. Most things disappear.”
It is my belief that it is the translation artists among us — the Lin-Manuel Mirandas, the Frederic Tutens, the Lynne Tillmans — who are best positioned to save what otherwise would certainly be lost. Moreover, such responsiveness to, and appreciation of the reverberation of the voices of others in our own work is one of the heightening aspects of moments when one experiences pure flow — when all the elements work together and the artist is fully absorbed in a moment of creation. We stand on the shoulders, pens, and pages of our forebears in those moments, honoring, imitating, and expanding.
Symbolic gestures repeat throughout these stories as well, opening up the connections between them, whether they belong to Madame Realism or Paige Turner or the Translation Artist. For example, Tillman’s narrators are deeply influenced by their dream states. Often, at the end of an adventure — to an exhibit of art and antiquities collected by Freud, or to the renovated Ellis Island Museum, or to a show of Renoir’s paintings — the narrator returns home to her apartment, where her day’s experience is somehow capped by the return to the familiar and safe. She often falls asleep at the end of a story, sometimes waking again from a dream, but just as frequently slipping into a blank state. One has to appreciate how necessary the slumbering brain must be to a consciousness as active and vivid as those of Tillman’s narrators. “Madame Realism fell asleep smiling.” In each case, we too welcome the regenerative pause between adventures.
Susan Scarf Merrell is most recently the author of the novel Shirley, a literary thriller about the novelist Shirley Jackson. She teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook Southampton and is director of the Southampton Writers Conference.