Lucy Ives

On Literature
Lynne Tillman and the Illusion of Realism


Realism disturbs me.

For indeed fiction, if realistic, is a manufactured veil through which we train our gaze in order to obtain a pattern that organizes dots and squiggles into something legible, “an image of a pork chop which looks exactly like a pork chop,” as Terry Eagleton writes in the London Review of Books. Realism is paradoxical: a lie that reads true. We take two pet rocks, name one “Reality,” the other “My (Mimetic) Attempts to Write About It,” and smash them enthusiastically together. What survives is combed into a neat pile, carefully labeled, set out as a sort of snack.

(see fig. 1)

Mimesis is imitation, and when Aristotle talks about it in his Poetics, he means for it to do one thing: Imitation isn’t a faculty poets deploy to represent the world solely for the sake of skillfully representing the world. Imitation is deployed with the specific aim of inspiring recognition—of evoking, in a somewhat distant audience, a feeling of pity. (Aristotle: “Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ ”) We are brought to tears when someone on stage pokes out his eyes; safe in our chairs, we’ve confused him with ourselves. We’re deceived, yet in awe. Perhaps we resolve not to kill or have sex with our parents (or, failing this, not to get married—regarding which topic, more later).

Ideas about imitating reality have spiraled up through Western civilization with different, though perhaps related, political ends. The realists of nineteenth-century France weren’t exactly Aristotelian in their outlook, but they definitely had ambitions re: mimesis. They wanted to understand the structure of society and, along with the Russians, took great pains to offer precise depictions of things and persons. Balzac may be the paradigmatic example, but I find myself unable to stop thinking about a certain bottle of oil to which a feather has become affixed in a scene in Madame Bovary: “In the corner behind the door, shining hobnailed shoes stood in a row under the slab of the washstand, near a bottle of oil with a feather stuck in its mouth.” (This old translation by Ferdinand Brunetière and Robert Arnot is interesting for the way in which it names old-fashioned things, e.g., hobnails. More recent translations tend to replace outmoded words with more familiar, if less specific, ones.) It’s less the elaboration of a world or a social system that fascinates me here than the skill in representing an item that seems purposeless, if classed. I do occasionally cling to this kind of seemingly pointless vivid materiality in prose. It produces not recognition, foremost—though that, too—but surprise. It makes me think for a moment, pace Aristotle, that it might be possible to have a world without psychology, maybe even, pace Hugo, without fate. (In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Greek term ananke, meaning “fate,” is, bizarrely, carved on the side of the cathedral. There seems to be no reason for this, other than that Hugo wanted to imply that fate is an indelible feature of human history. As you see, I find him to be an extremely annoying writer.)

But, of course, we don’t have that world, though Herman Melville’s head is famously turned by the enumerative ecstasy of whale facts. We have a pretty different world, despite materialist trends in certain nineteenth-century novels—and despite their resistance to wanton psychologizing. Although the behemoth twentieth-century psychological realist John Updike may have worshiped at the altar of Flaubert’s scrupulous style, he seems to have taken le réalisme’s lesson only in part, ever subordinating acts of description to the fluid angsts of his American subjects.


Lynne Tillman is a novelist who seems to me to have thought a lot about the above—and in a uniquely deliberate way. In certain of her stories, there is a character named Madame Realism who goes around living a fairly normal New York City life and who is always contemplating art and illusion everywhere she goes because, well, art and illusion are everywhere in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and in Manhattan, in particular. Madame Realism does not shrink from the scene. In the story “Madame Realism’s Imitation of Life,” spotted by fans in a women’s restroom, Madame Realism overhears one say, “I think that is Madame Realism, but do you think a fictional statement can ever be true?” Paradox abounds—for, in reading the story, one has flattered oneself that one is engaged in an intimate experience with a veiled version of Lynne Tillman, with Tillman’s very thoughts. Yet this is because of the presence of a character, a confection in the close third. Thus, there is Tillman IFF (“if and only if ”), the wry disguise of Madame Realism, at least for the purposes of this story, which in fact reads less like a story than a work of art criticism, which would seem to be part of the point. Normally, I suppose, we’d have the entailment the other way around: character IFF author. But Madame Realism doesn’t work that way. She is not here to imitate reality; she’s here to explain to us how the related fictional affordances of narrative and point of view function. That’s how real she is. (The reader is also advised that Madame Realism is playfully distinct from “Sir Realism,” a.k.a. surrealism, that twentieth-century movement in the visual arts and poetry famous for its modernist mystification of femininity.)

(see fig. 2)


No matter how many paradoxes, neat rock arrangements, and feathers stuck to bottles of oil I pile into this essay, none of these phantasmal objects comes close to the unreal, gonzo vividness of Tillman’s 2006 novel, her fifth, American Genius, A Comedy. At its most insanely, maddeningly banal and delightfully paratactic moments—the novel takes place, after all, in a vaguely defined asylum, artist residency, or spa, where the style of one’s breakfast eggs and memories of deceased childhood pets become major concerns—it remains, maddeningly and delightfully, a story about the impossibility of escaping illusion, even when one is doing almost nothing.

American Genius, A Comedy is also about the extremity of Americans. It’s about the violent movement westward, which seems, in the mind of the novel’s narrator, to culminate in the Manson slayings, along with the present-day inability to pardon the Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten, who participated in the killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in her last year as a teenager and who was sentenced to death in 1971. Hannah Arendt once said that she was glad that Eichmann had been hanged, because the Israelis had “pushed the thing to its only logical conclusion.” Arendt felt that so-called justice can’t have it both ways; if someone cannot be forgiven, then, well, they cannot be forgiven, and it is another form of violence to leave the charge unmet. Though this line of reasoning seems a bit neat to me, the narrator’s obsession with Van Houten, who repeatedly returns to her thoughts throughout the novel, is related. Van Houten was at one time the youngest woman condemned to die in California; a special death row had to be constructed for her, as no women’s section existed. However, the invalidation of pre-1972 death sentences in 1972’s People v. Anderson (now overruled) meant that her sentence was commuted to life in prison. Though the verdict in a second retrial stressed her eligibility for parole, and though other members of the Manson Family were successful in parole requests, Van Houten’s applications for parole in California have been, as of June 2018, repeatedly denied. Protected, in theory, by her whiteness and physical beauty, like the charismatic Manson himself, Van Houten lives out her days in prison, unforgivable if ambiguously responsible for her crime, given her age and mental state at the time of its commission, as well as her gender, this last point being a qualification that must remain unspoken, as it at once exonerates her and leaves her open to endless fantasies of blame that are beyond the scope of the law, at least on paper, to name or know.

The narrator of American Genius, A Comedy, in limbo in her institutional retreat, latches on to this other, discursive limbo, a blank in which America refuses to know itself—as it seems relevant, if ambiguously, to her own identity. While it is probably, again, too neat to say that she, like Van Houten, is doing time, it’s part of the interest of the book that it doesn’t shy away from these sorts of bad analogies. It’s American, in this respect. And this narrator is a former historian, which may contribute to her reluctance to participate in storylines unfolding in present-day reality, so-called. While she seems to allow that the present, as a distinct moment, exists, she seems none too sure that it is more than a mushy amalgam of past temporalities—the history of chair design, for example—and timeless inevitabilities—the much-touted sensitivity of her own skin—lacking any true newness or uniqueness worth, as it were, writing home about.

But our retreating narrator, though withdrawn, is not alone, and this makes all the difference to the form and tenor of her refusal of plot in the present. As in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, others (“residents”) are interned, for a brief eternity, alongside Tillman’s genius/protagonist. The hope that utopia is to be found in retreat is held out. As readers, we occasionally let ourselves think of it. Indeed, it’s here that the question of the relationship between the novel and so-called realism comes most strongly into play. “Realism,” Terry Eagleton writes in the aforementioned LRB essay, “is calculated contingency.” In other words, realism can be a style of belief in the existence of others—since you need somebody, or somebodies, to whom things are represented, and asylums, artist residencies, and spas are famous for their captive audiences.

In the first chapter of The Blithedale Romance, a fictionalized account of the Brook Farm commune (1841–47), Hawthorne worries about something he calls “the privileges of privacy.” (The narrator is speaking here: “ ‘Zenobia, by the bye, as I suppose you know, is merely her public name; a sort of mask in which she comes before the world, retaining all the privileges of privacy,—a contrivance, in short, like the white drapery of the Veiled Lady, only a little more transparent.’ ”) Hawthorne is a lover of gothic euphemism, not a realist writer, and his cloaked concepts often assume an intimacy between reader and narrator that feels forced, at least to me. So I’m not entirely sure what he means by this phrase, but his tale of intentional community is full of references to privacy, both literal and metaphorical: veils, secrets, false names, confused identity, performative utterances. There’s dissimulation and distancing—and also a fair amount of discussion of the role of women in American society, women who seem to be the origin of all social illusion, at least as far as Hawthorne is concerned. If American Genius, A Comedy (not a romance) is in some sense a rewriting of Hawthorne’s 1852 narrative, by 2006 the commune has become an institution and the narrator a woman (a “nineteenth-century woman in trousers,” as one character has it)—yet the privilege of privacy remains, along with an affection for unusual monikers (we meet the Count, Contesa, and Spike, et al., not their real names). Our narrator and her acquaintances take advantage of their middle-class privilege, in its collective form, to stage a hilariously god-awful dramatization of Kafka’s letters, as well as, in a seriocomic citation of the nineteenth century and its prized illusions, a séance or “ghost theater.” The narrator observes the workings of her own mind during the latter performance, as her tendency to compose speculative lists and bounce from topic to topic—from familial concerns to American history and back again—is overtaken by something more enigmatic and difficult to reconcile: a chilling realization of the possibility of the absence of thought as thought; the nullification of sentience as sentience.

I can’t halt these alien sensations. I place my hands over my eyes and press hard, scrunching my eyes closed again, so that their veins radiate bloody patterns, garishly colored shapes, pale ashes, the papers I burned this afternoon maybe, everything recognizable is ablaze, like my family’s Eames chairs. I can’t hold on to an image, so I tell myself, in a stately manner, Mark this now, fire burns complacent things, and in a flash it occurs to me why I take things apart, and I want to remember the reason but can’t. Another gust of arctic air makes me shiver, there’s nothing to think about, I open my eyes, it’s all gone, I shut them again.

Though what returns in the séance’s transformative and macabre course “with its bizarre seductions” is simple—the fact of death—the effects of this unbelievable fact on those assembled are richly varied, alarming, and enlightening. The narrator has a vision of her deceased father in his distinctive dark brown swimming trunks; others rant about sex addiction and betrayal, the shape of fate, the qualities of evil (“Let me say this about the devil: He exists,” maintains one transfixed party). All in all, it’s quite an event, as well as quite a convincing portrayal of what routinely goes unsaid, even or especially in privileged private. I think, too, that this has to be one of the great scenes of recent American fiction, on par with the unveiling of the P.G.O.A.T. in Infinite Jest, for example, speaking of metaphorically charged drapery. In it, we catch a glimpse of the structure of the contemporary social world, as well as the limitations of realist description. Because you can’t mimetically describe something that is simultaneously there and not there, which is to say, you can’t describe something unspeakable.


As I was beginning to write this essay, wanting to be thorough and a reasonably good historian, I traveled to the Fales Library & Special Collections at New York University, where Tillman’s papers are kept, and went through all the manuscript drafts of American Genius, A Comedy. Because of this adventure of my own into seclusion, I happen to know that the novel had multiple working titles, including American Skin, and that the narrator originally spoke on the first page about writing a novel. (The first sentence of the draft reads: “The food here is bad, but every day there is something I can eat and even like, and there’s a bathtub, which I don’t have at home, so I can have a bath every day if I can get from my studio, where I’m supposed to be writing a novel, to my room, before dinner, which is at 6:30pm.”) That novel, that fictional novel, has since been removed. It’s been replaced, I suppose, by our narrator’s oddball histories and catechisms, and by visits to an aesthetician who palpitates her face, producing emotion. The clarity of that early title and that fake novel has been smudged out, artfully distorted. However, far from ruining the book for me, knowledge of these initial scaffolds deepens its mystery. It’s not that the novel is just better without these tropes; it’s that the novel is about the fact that such tropes are illusory. A certain truism about the reality of novels (i.e., that in their obvious artificiality or autobiography, they presuppose a world in which fact and fiction are stable, easily distinguished categories) is missing here, can’t be reclaimed. This is not a semiautobiographical novel about a novelist, written by a novelist—what we now call autofiction—nor is it purely a work of invention. It’s something else.

(see fig. 3)

Tillman types, in her draft notes, that “the worst thing is that it’s not over yet—everything’s not safe yet—forest fire—desire to be safe—post 9/11.” She also quotes Freud: “One cannot overcome an enemy who is absent or not within range.” I think I’m starting to understand, more and more, what Tillman is getting at, how she is attempting to capture the complex narratological formats of her time, the interrelated and rather too-real chimeras of news, politics, and history. As you may have heard, Aristotle’s chapter on comedy has been lost; it’s mentioned in the Poetics, but no longer extant. I gesture to this fact from ancient literary history because I’d like to be able to say something definitive about the style of recognition American Genius, A Comedy sets up, being a comedy and all—what sort of mimesis Tillman is after, whether it makes sense to say she is an illusionist, an antirealist writer who has moonlighted as a fictional art writer whose last name is (funnily enough!) Realism; who, being fictional, doesn’t like to be recognized wandering at large in reality by her fans; who may be an anachronism, too, a nineteenth-century character in pants prone to fainting spells; who likes wild cats and also dogs, and also chairs, and so on; who may have put her hero, a modern woman, if of a vaguely Victorian stripe, in the awkward position of having to exist inside a postmodern novel. It may be, too, that Tillman is at once ahead of her time and living concertedly in it. She once wrote something similar of Andy Warhol, and I think that, as also for Warhol, one of her ways of being in and with her own time is to describe an imaginary future that infuses all the presents and the pasts enumerated in her fiction. (In this remark, from The Velvet Years, 1965–67: Warhol’s Factory, I’m inspired by Tillman’s description of Warhol’s relationship to time, both historical and not: “One of the mandates of the avant-garde, which Warhol broke from, was to be ahead of one’s time and to know in what way one was. Shifting into the postmodern, one is pressed to learn how to think, live, work, breathe the present—even if it’s inescapable, like inhaling an unrecuperable past. It’s harder to live in and think the present than be ahead of it; there’s no exit. It’s no aesthetic failing to be in time, with it. The imaginary future is always there and not there, to envision or make up, to wonder and worry about, to live into and even for.”) However, in spite of these chrononautical insights, fun though they may be, the only definition related to genre and imitation I seem to be able to muster—a deficiency entirely my own—is rather generic: At the end of a comedy, people are supposed to get married.

This (marriage) is no laughing matter, nor does Tillman’s comedy deal much in that sort of contract and/or denouement, except to note that American women are unfortunate, in that they often marry for love. Rather, American Genius, A Comedy, a sort of hypertext of recollection and ingenious displacement, a sort of postmodern nineteenth-century novel, ends on a Tuesday, with a facial.

(see fig. 4)


Date: February 2, 2019

Publisher: Soft Skull Press, The Paris Review online

Format: Book, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.
This essay appears in a slightly different form and with the title, "Realism and Illusion," as the introduction to the 2019 edition of American Genius: A Comedy, published by Soft Skull Press.


Cover image.


Figure 1.


Figure 2.


Figure 3.


Figure 4.


Lynne Tillman. Photo: Craig Mod.

2.01 MB (3,260 words) - 08:41, 3 April 2020