In 2018, Lynne Tillman spoke alongside Stephanie LaCava and Ben Eastham, at London’s Tate on “Art Writing Now.” They discussed the currency of visual art in contemporary fiction and nonfiction.
Since meeting, Tillman and LaCava have had many conversations about writing, art, politics, and everything else, while hanging out in the East Village. Here, the two writers discuss LaCava’s latest novel, The Superrationals, out from Semiotext(e) next month.
THE BELIEVER: I wonder if you’d talk about your motivations in writing The Superrationals. Writers often want to reckon with what hasn’t been there. What’s been missing in contemporary novels that you wanted to address?
STEPHANIE LA CAVA: If I look deeper into my motivations, I wanted to write a book where the woman is barreling through her life recounting it as objectively as she can. I am very emotional, but I wanted to write my way out of that. The title betrays this.
This may have been my attempt to counter the classic story of a woman making choices that don’t match up with the mores of the time and then meeting a dark end. In other interviews, I’ve mentioned Joseph Kessel’s novel Belle de Jour, which Buñuel’s film was based on. Severine, a bourgeois doctor’s wife meets a man while she’s working as a prostitute who ends up shooting and paralyzing her husband. I know there are so many other examples and this is a story from the late 60s, but it feels significant in making my point. There is a long tradition of storytelling in which the wayward female character is punished, never in control.
BLVR: It seems there is punishment galore for your characters. Maybe I’m wrong.
Your novel is a contemporary mystery, in part because the choices your characters make seem unmotivated or often changing. Each character has their own sections, and the novel isn’t told from a point of viefw; the story is what’s centrifugal. Each character—Mathilde, Robert, Gretchen, Girls—has a part to play, and their parts may intersect, like Mathilde’s and Gretchen’s. Usually they coincide in time. Like a film script, scenes happen simultaneously, and events happen at cross purpose.
SLC: Maybe these choices are counter to the title. I love that you call it a contemporary mystery. There is the big question of what is “proof?” Can you collect data surrounding someone else’s feelings or intentions? Or can you find proof of action in the form of photographs or writing? The question occurs in regards to actual physical objects and also the ability to know what someone is, what they will do, even. Can you ever know this? The idea of superrationality in game theory involves whether or not one can be privy to the strategy of others. I did the book to be outside-in, cinematic.
BLVR: Do you mean by “outside-in” that we glean the characters through their actions alone? Because there is introspection, especially from Mathilde.
SLC: Mathilde bulldozes her way through many things and tells them as they happen. Robert is introspective but not self aware. It might be seen as disconcerting for a writer. When I was young, I was upset when I heard bad stories about a writer I admired, somehow expecting talent was equal to “goodness” of character. This is a question that’s tackled obliquely in the book. All the creative people have to traffic in bringing their work to market, which brings us to the second part of your question.
BLVR: I’m interested in your treatment of fashion and art. You scrupulously describe what your main characters wear, and what is going to be worn for an event, a rendez-vous, and sometimes why. That made me think of Bret Easton Ellis, oddly enough. Mathilde is also involved in selling art, agenting an artist’s work. Commerce causes much of the action in the story, so capitalism enters through the front door, and there’s some cynicism about the art market. But also there are longish quotes and stories about artists and writers, not explicitly part of the narrative, that suggest art’s function outside a market.
SLC: It makes sense that you mention Easton Ellis, and capitalism dressed up, going through the front door. I read an essay recently that talked about how American Psycho (the movie) presented the first Trumpian horror story. Also, there’s the issue of the interchangeable nature of certain sets of characters But I don’t use brand names in the way Elis did. The descriptions are signifiers, without naming a designer. It was a very conscious decision.
As for art’s function outside the market: there is something else, and Mathilde is grappling with it in her poorly formed thesis running throughout the story. She’s taking quotes and ideas from sources that suggest this other art-making—that it is possible, that art can have another function than its exchange value. She’s trying to sort it out, much in the same way the book is dealing with that question. In the end, it may seem that we are left with more satire and cynicism, but there is an idealism beneath it, rising.
BLVR: You bring up the exchange of characters, or their interchangeability, characters as commodities, for one thing, as marketable objects. The question of people using people to advance themselves. Sex as a commodity. That’s significant. These characters want and desire—do they love, can they? They make moves to protect themselves, then they defeat themselves. They are alienated, they float. They want something, which is undefined, and also seem resigned never to get it.
SLC: There is a very clear lack of connection among all the characters, even as they keep making connections, so to speak. The question of desire seems separate from that of sex itself. The act is dissociative, as Mathilde says, despite her wanting to feel something from it. There is a numbness that comes with these relationships. Mathilde is speeding herself up to float, to not have to stop and realize the impossibility of what she’s looking for. She doesn’t moralize or talk about how she feels, never explicitly saying what she wants. It may be because she doesn’t know the answer to how she feels or what she wants. Still, she’s not a victim. She acknowledges that she’s chosen this path, to play in this system, and is considering getting out. It’s very passive at first. She starts acting up in the hopes of choices being made for her.
BLVR: The friendship between Mathilde and Gretchen is intense and complicated. Mathilde tries to save Gretchen from love and other disasters. They travel together, they are inseparable, and also, maybe, interchangeable. They can wear each other’s clothes, too. Close in so many ways. Doppelgängers. But also you are saying something about female friendships. The “girls” seem to hate Mathilde, or she feels they do. What are you saying about women? and when do they stop being “girls?” This diminutive has meanings, no?
SLC: It’s true: it was a conscious decision to call them “girls” when, in fact, they are “women.” A woman will quickly be called a girl in a narrative and no one thinks twice. You would never have a young man be referred to as a “boy.” This “young girl,” is a cipher. She’s whatever you want her to be, fill her up with projection. The jeune fille.
BLVR: If you could, would you say just a bit more about Mathilde and Gretchen? what is their bond? Mathilde trusts her, yes? But no other women, yes?
SLC: I made Mathilde very guarded. The first page of the book talks about her mother’s acute aloofness in contrast to a younger woman’s naivete. I wanted this out front as a kind of goal for Mathilde: to be protective of one’s emotions and thoughts at the outset of a journey. It’s something I wish my own mother had taught me early in life.
BLVR: One mystery, another mysterious relationship in The Superrationals, is Mathilde’s with her mother, how Mathilde feels about her. Mathilde refers to her mother from time to time, remembering her mother and herself as a child, and these entries in the narrative seem to be random, they don’t necessarily connect with what is happening in action of the story per se.
SLC: Yes, it’s like her unconscious coming up and making her pay attention. She is angry at her mother for choices she made, but on the way to making the same choices herself. There is also the point at which the two narratives come together in the same temporality. This is the greatest mystery of the book, the thing lurking under the surface.
Mathilde’s mother is gone when the story begins and, yes, the only woman she really trusts is Gretchen. She’s aware of Gretchen’s faults, but feels a connection to her that is more like family, unconditional. They yell at each other but also hold each other accountable. They are both surrounded by “friendships” that refuse to go under the surface, that are based in “fun” translating into sales, on not disturbing status quo rather than challenging or growing together.
BLVR: I’m curious about the visual artists you mentioned in the novel, the stuffed animal work of Mike Kelley, Carolee Schneemann’s Vaginal Scroll, and Baldessari’s “Prima Facie: From Aloof to Vapid.” They are specific pieces that refer to the female body, face, and with stuffed animals, vulnerability and childhood, and fetishes. They are presented as commentaries. I wondered if you’d talk about your inclusion of these artworks.
SLC: All the things you mention nod back to the book beginning in my readings about Freud’s Uncanny, such as ETA Hoffman’s The Sandman. This is where Olympia’s name comes from, for example. In Hoffman’s story, she is the robotic doll. Mike Kelley comes into play in multiple ways: his idea of the return of the repressed, tapping into the horrors of childhood. The show that he curated in the 90s surrounding the Uncanny is also important to the faux thesis Mathilde is wrestling with throughout the book. There are allusions to works from this show throughout. Gretchen works as an assistant to an artist, someone like Robert Gober, placing hairs on wax limbs. It alludes to Gober’s work, but my character is in no way like Gober.
BLVR: Toward the end of the novel, you cite Barthes’s quote about Robbe Grillet’s writing about “those that paint still life with sheen, who “‘an attempt to endow its object with adjectival skin.'” Do you think your use of descriptions, whether of clothes or the rooms people live and work in, as “endow[ing] an object with adjectival skin?”
SLC: The quote is from an essay introduction to two of Robbe-Grillet’s novels. I think it means you can present an object or scene and channel something beyond the superficial. Visual artists do this all the time, why can’t you do it in text? Objects can stand in for plot.
BLVR: Do you want to elaborate on Mathilde’s thesis?
SLC: It’s intended to be a pretty bad sample of writing, an undeveloped thesis, a half-baked paper. It function to hint at larger themes in the narrative. Acknowledging its lack of cohesion and of a clearly thought out argument highlights Mathilde’s own questions. One of these is whether or not she should pursue writing and leave behind sales. As you said, it’s the section of the book in which art appears as a political or psychic force, not only a slippery commodity.