December 2011

Lorian Long

fiction

Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman

Skin. I'm obsessed with it. I Google images of various skin disorders, I daydream of becoming a dermatologist, I like to look at pictures of celebrities without makeup. I like the pickers, the puckers, the eaters, the freaks who consume what is already dead. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A good friend of mine has suffered from trichotillomania for years, pulling and plucking most of the hairs from his body in a state of bliss. He eventually had to shave his head because the plucking left bald spots. He asked me if I had read Lynne Tillman's American Genius. "It's a book about skin." I read it. I loved it. I read it again, drunk on the language and the soothing created by such rambling, sentences like water, a warm pool-voice, a "mother voice," as one friend pointed out. In American Genius, Tillman is a Mother of Fucked History, tossing events, names, and dates at you like packages of snacks. It's a book you can go back to over and over again and still feel hungry.

Someday This Will Be Funny is a collection of stories written like patches of skin you peel off from a sunburn, some bigger than others, some more delicate, all revealing the pink self you didn't know you were until you walked out under the sun and fried. Parts diary, part essay, part poetry. It's pointless to try and frame Tillman within some sort of genre or experiment; she is beyond the gimmick of narrative stunt, preferring to service the story without any special effects: "I'm working with narrative. And compared with more mainstream writers, I am experimental. I am doing something that's odd. But I don't write toward any of that. I just tell the story. I think everything's a story."

It's unconventional and beautiful in moments you wouldn't expect. Tillman's sentences burn slowly, creating small fires with each paragraph, like the one in the opening story, "That's How Wrong My Love Is," where Tillman talks of feeding window-side doves and her feelings toward animals: 

I love animals, I am an animal, I'm a mammal, a human being, I like most people, love many, despise one person, though I don't want to hate anyone. I am also selfish and want what I want. My greatest and most enduring problems in life are ethical, but living ethically is necessarily a conscious endeavor, the unconscious is not ethical, and questions and riddles about correct behavior are endless in variation, new issues coming along all the time -- stalking on the Internet, for example. Not feeding the mourning doves regularly is wrong, but I generally give myself a pass. My not feeding the pigeons because I find them big and ugly is unethical. A self-named animal lover should feed all creatures alike. Worse, I am not a vegetarian. I love animals but discriminate among them and eat some. I eat less meat than I once did. I like steak, but usually resist it -- for my health more than for the cow's; I rarely resist roast chicken. I don't eat bacon, I eat fish, crustaceans, but I would never eat horse, cat, or dog. 

Tillman writes with threads or yarn that start out singular, simple, and become a quilt of neuroses, ugly truths, a tapestry you're not sure whether or not you want to show anyone because of the way it reflects your own grotesque interior. But there is always a beginning and an end, a design to which Tillman remains faithful, like any skilled quilter. Or one could say she's suffers from a kind of graceful attention deficit disorder. Reading her is like channel surfing through every great episode of every great television show you've ever wanted to watch. 

Famous historical figures, family members, and nobodies are all hurdling toward the void in these stories. John Lennon and Marvin Gaye sit down to play "Imagine" on the piano, snorting coke and getting high; a woman fucks a younger man because he terrifies her; a woman gets a job in social services because she can't take herself seriously as an artist; Clarence Thomas remembers the hearings in 1991; and everyone seems to be looking at, or taking, pictures of themselves. They look for purpose or redemption in their actions, some kind of tunneling out through the dirt, the pollution we breathe in every day and don't even know. They study their reflections, intensely, waiting for a revelation to occur that will explain why they do what they do and why won't some things just work. Some try to love. Some realize love is just another void in a world where scientists have discovered a black hole the size of six billion suns. What is love but an endless swallowing of light, who are we but each other's pallbearers. Tillman treats love with both suspicion and fascination, as it is a word, a weight, but any and all definitions of the thing itself fall short. To Tillman, love is a tragic, funny thing, a taxidermied animal. In the collection's best story, "Love Sentence," everyone from Lou Reed to Kafka to Warhol to Derrida is scrutinized for his own quotable "love sentences." 

"When people used to learn about sex and die at thirty-five, they were obviously going to have fewer problems than people today who learn about sex at eight or so, I guess, and live to be eighty. That's a long time to play around with the same concept. The same boring concept." (Andy Warhol)

Quotes from public figures interrupt the story of Paige, a woman either writing to or receiving love letters from an undisclosed person. She wonders if the sentence "I love you" will soon disappear into the memory of computers, the bright screen deleting and eliminating whole sentences, "the form dictating the terms," emoticons used in place of the three words. "Even so, I love you," she decides. 

In the last story, "Save Me from the Pious and the Vengeful," Tillman wonders, "What separates me from the world? Secret thoughts?" I consider a good friend who told me how inside closed eyelids the world is orange and outside opened eyelids the world is blue, like reality is divided into two separate worlds, the one inside of you and the one outside of you, as if our inner worlds were just tiny heartbeats left unknown in the vast blueness of waking life. But these secret thoughts become the language map we use to find ourselves on the page, in the supermarket, in the bedroom, in the woods. So much of Tillman's writing comes from the brain speak, the leakage, the runoff of thoughts refusing to organize, a secret zone that sometimes feels delicious in its privacy and vulnerability such as the feeling my friend gets when he's alone, plucking each magnificent strand of hair and studying its bulbous root in the bathroom light. 

Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman
Red Lemonade
ISBN: 978-1935869009
160 pages