Chloe Aridjis and Lynne Tillman in Conversation

[Writer] [Writer]

“I like magic acts, they raise the question of distraction and attention—paying attention, but to what?”

Optical instruments can:
Amplify or magnify
Get in the way of seeing something clearly
Induce and include spectacles

Every now and then I’m reminded that transmissions between London and New York can be volatile and erratic, and any signal fault may result in important elements of the literary conversation not making it overseas. And so it was that I came to Lynne Tillman not via her books but through our close mutual friend the English writer and artist Stewart Home. He would mention her often, thought I’d really like her writing, and reckoned we would have a lot to talk about were we ever to meet. Lynne Tillman. Her name began to resurface, courtesy of other friends too, and my curiosity grew. I read her miniature essays in frieze and ordered her books at the library, immediately struck by the tremendous control over the prose, the captivating experiments with form, the way in which a certain downtown jauntiness was melded with high erudition. I’ve always resisted the contemporary but wondered whether through her eyes I would finally come to embrace it. Then last autumn Tank magazine asked whether I’d accept to be in dialogue with her here in London, she was about to arrive, they said, to discuss her new novel, Men and Apparitions, and before long we found ourselves—Lynne, Stewart and I—sitting in a row facing a room full of people. Our first dialogue was public, and then moved into quieter spheres.

This year sees the much deserved reissue of Lynne’s 2006 novel, her fifth, American Genius, A Comedy, a dystopian monologue delivered by a female former American historian, doing time at (perhaps) a mental institution, the narrative as densely woven and patterned as the textiles that fascinate her. The essayistic digressions are like runaway threads but nothing unravels, nothing unspools, on the contrary, it all feeds back into the greater whole, and from the mass of observations and the loops and routes of an obsessive mind emerges an intricate and enthralling weave.

—Chloe Aridjis

CHLOE ARIDJIS: What is your favorite optical instrument and why?

LYNNE TILLMAN: First, I’d have to say my glasses. I can see without them, so, if there were a war in NYC, say, and if they broke, I could get by. (But what about my antidepressant?) The zoom lens on a camera draws me. Its artificiality also disturbs me. To get close up and yet be far off appeals to my voyeurism, and ever since seeing Antonioni’s Blow Up, which affected photography, I believe, the idea of enlarging and enlarging an image but not really seeing more has claimed my attention. Or not seeing enough. Looking at a photograph under a magnifying glass is similar. It gets larger but really nothing more is revealed. The paradox of it.

CA: I was going to say magic lanterns, but I suppose my first choice too would have to be my glasses, and then perhaps my sleeping pills, which help zoom out better than any instrument. But third would be the magic lantern, an obsession of mine since the mid 90s: its handsome construction, relatively uncomplicated, and the ease with which it could be operated by social activists and fantasists alike, and its vast potential for metaphor. (The phantasmagoria lantern was mounted on rails so it could be slid backwards and forwards—one of the first instances ever, actually, of the zooming technique). It is strange to consider how amplifying or magnifying something too much can actually get in the way of seeing it more clearly. That could apply to so much in life. Speaking of different kinds of vision, what is your relationship to night (and has it evolved over the years)?

LT: I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it. Night—I imagine seeing many stars in a black sky and stillness, say, in the country.  There’s a difference between night and evening. One seems related to nature, day and night, the other, culture. Artifice. I’m more comfortable in the city, with artifice. I can thrill to a vast night-time sky, the way I did recently in Kenya, in Maasai country, where, so close to the equator, without pollutants in the air, the stars look thick, even fat, and closer together, splatters of light merging, and they appeared much closer. “Night” took on meaning when I began hanging out in the city, after a day in college, going to classes. Then night came, and it was so different. Darkness meant a secret life, and dangerous exploits, sex.

The day was so different from the night, when I became an adult. Night was for adults, is for adults. Children don’t go out at night. At night, your parents went out, and, you learned that when you grow up, you can, too. Maybe that’s my relationship to night—it’s what you are allowed, it’s your playhouse and playground, when you grow up.

In your novel Sea Monsters, the shift from day to night is significant. The natural world becomes more dramatic: “At night the waves of the Pacific would grow enormous….” And usually Luisa would go to a bar, with its special glamour and drama.

CA: Yes, at night the drama of nature is enhanced and senses are heightened, the waves build in strength, and the beach dogs retreat. Night also evokes the pitch-black ocean depths where day doesn’t enter, in this case the terra incognita of adolescence. The bar represents artifice, a different sort of stage in which to enact fantasies, under its unreliable electric light. Day tends to bring disenchantment but night reenchants, creating a weird continuum between the fantastical and the banal. I’ve always been interested in doubling, a kind of spectral reality that emerges from a psychological state, and in this novel the early scenes from Mexico City find echoes at the beach. Nights at the Goth club El Nueve, for instance, are somehow reconfigured at Zipolite—a different setting, a different cast of characters, yet I tried to conjure a similar veil of mystery and sexual ambiguity hanging over it all.

In Sea Monsters many of the most important acts of seeing occur at night—the dwarfs (perhaps), the merman—but it’s never clear how much is within Luisa’s head. The only certainty is that after the bar each night she finds it difficult to fall asleep in the hammock in the open air. My narrators have always had a fraught relationship to sleep thanks to the insomnia that’s accompanied me since childhood, and I can’t imagine having a character that sleeps well. So for me night has also been largely about thresholds and interiors, burdened by the question of when and how I’ll fall asleep.

Your character in American Genius seems to have a relatively uncomplicated relationship to sleep. She can nap at any hour, a sleep free of anxiety and expectation, and doesn’t necessarily have need for the sleep manual she comes across in the community library. Yet there in the hothouse atmosphere of the clinic, night too comes with its own soundtrack, specifically the rattling of pipes, conductors of foreign activity.

Throughout the novel there’s an uneasy relationship between inside and outside, interior and exterior—between symptoms and the less manifest—and great attention is paid to surface. This is witnessed above all in the narrator’s own obsession with dermatology and epidermis. Baths are taken often, emollients highly prized. In Madness and Civilization Foucault mentions soap and soap products as weapons of purification of the allegedly mentally ill and quotes a French doctor who says, “Soap dissolves anything that is concrete.” Some patients are more porous than others; your narrator has, in every possible sense, sensitive skin. How would you diagnose her affliction (and what would the Polish beautician who regularly visits the clinic represent within that diagnosis)?

LT: Is my narrator mad? Neurotic, yes. Obsessed with certain ideas, and certainly preoccupied with her skin. She seems a contemporary character. Self-absorbed and hurt. Fearful and in a sense idealistic, and therefore disappointed in other people and in herself. I don’t know how “modern” that notion is: self-disappointment. But it seems to me that, since the Enlightenment and the invention of the “I” and Descartes, it has been with us.

The difference between inside and outside, or interior and exterior worlds and thought, has to be, I believe, minimized. The belief in it, I mean. I don’t think the border exists. We humans allow ourselves to imagine, want to imagine, a great difference. But if one is a subject, and not an individual, that is, one who makes one’s own world, but if one is subjected to it, the inner and the outer are permeable and inseparable.  This is a great wound to us contemporaries, that this inner world we treasure is not in fact separate from the outer world. That interiority is an illusion. it’s one of the reasons Warhol was very important to me, and to culture generally, and often despised. His work fuses both. Now there are no secrets in cyberspace.

The Polish facialist attends to her, her surface, and she’s there at the beginning, and is a trope throughout the novel. When our narrator returns home, she goes for an appointment with her, and there’s a surprise, a change. Change has been hinted at from the beginning of the novel. This is one of the changes. Novels, as well as stories, are almost required or at least encouraged to show transformations. I think it’s a bone to the reader—those dramatic ones. So, I am very interested in the undramatic changes. And that’s one way to read the ending (although AGAC has several endings, I think.)  The way the narrator goes on, that interests me.

CA: I was actually going to ask about the transformation of matter in the novel—silk, eggs, fabric—and this fluidity of form and substance that suggests nothing is ever fixed, everything is subject to change, even (especially?) identity. Undramatic transformations indeed tend to be more interesting and thought-inducing than dramatic ones. In the words of one magician, The fewer the props, the greater the magic.

I admit I’ve always clung to that distinction you speak of between inner and outer worlds, indeed found a great deal of solace in it, and would find it a challenge to dissolve. Porous to the outside world, yes, finding common ground with the other, yes, but I guess I still uphold that modern, rather than contemporary, concept of the individual, regardless of how bound up one’s own psyche may be with the outside. In my novels there’s a constant recalibration of distance between individuals (Asunder for instance is narrated by a female guard at the National Gallery, and her fear of overstepping—whether it concerns people or paintings—is almost pathological. Closing that distance risks destruction or disenchantment).

Perhaps this is why I’m so drawn to pre-cinema optical instruments—they thrive on this distinction precisely by breaking it down via the spectacle of illusion, and in those moments of hesitation and intellectual uncertainty a new reading is born.

Your narrator’s anthropological gaze is especially sharp at mealtimes as she observes the habits, gestures, quirks of others—all the psyches on display. Vegetarianism: your narrator seems to have a real thing about vegetarians, there are at least fifteen mentions in the novel, while my adolescent narrator in Sea Monsters is proudly one! Were you close to a vegetarian at the time of writing the novel or particularly irked by one?

LT: I admire vegetarians, but I don’t appreciate self-preening, self-satisfied, or self-righteous people. In some way I think vegetarians have the “right” to be righteous; nonetheless, when it appears I dislike it and the person. I love cats and dogs, I like animals, and their being hurt or killed is horrible to me; makes me cry. Yet I continue to eat chicken and beef. Some fish, though I wasn’t raised eating much fish, and when my mother did cook it, she kept the bones in, I think to kill her children.

I eat less meat than I did. I have no excuse or rationale for continuing to eat meat. I just do. And I live with this grotesque, maybe, contradiction. But then I wrote a chapbook years and years ago called Living with Contradictions. What I was doing in American Genius, A Comedy was thinking about and reflecting on the intense attention upon Americans’ growing “sensitivities.” To all kinds of things. Now yes, it is and can be the environment; but there’s always a psychological dimension to any new disease. Or, new trend in health. People say they are allergic to gluten. Very few of them have been tested; very few who say they are will be. But people suddenly are “sensitive” in ways they never were. Extreme sensitivity to the environment is not a good thing: it is a problem. But people boast of their sensitivities as if these made them “sensitive” people. I distrust this enormously. In 2003, the US preemptively invaded Iraq, and we’ve all become so sensitive. I see this as a great discordance.

CA: Yes, it does often seem like every step of our lives now comes with a warning label. It’s hard not to wonder whether some allergies are inventions aimed at avoiding psychological repercussions rather than anything physiological, simply the guilt that comes with eating certain things.

To finish with the matter of vegetarianism, since it’s a question I’ve asked myself before after noticing how others react: do you think every ethical decision one firmly stands by is self-righteous or does this decision in particular suggest a certain self-righteousness? Maybe it has to do with setting oneself apart and deciding not to comply with the general diet, publicly denying what others partake in. But yes, it’s one of the paradoxes of our so-called civilized society that it opposes violence and yet this mass slaughter is everywhere so entrenched.

I guess vegetarianism and veganism is to some degree generational; nowadays one grows up with a spectrum of choice weighing down every decision, and it’s much easier to stop and question things that weren’t much questioned before, accompanied by a greater awareness of what we’ve been doing to the planet.

LT: I’ve known vegetarians forever, and some vegans as far back as the 70s. It’s not the “ism” that’s the problem; it’s the “ist.” It’s how one performs one’s vegetarianism, say. That’s the issue. It’s one thing to feel right and do it, it’s another to feel superior and virtuous.

Luisa is seventeen, and I was struck that you wanted to write a girl her age. She’s very unusual, for one, in her analytical ability, and the way she watches every moment she’s in. Also in her ability to run away with her boyfriend, to leave her parents’ home and not let them know anything. She loves them, has great qualms about leaving them, feels guilty, and then goes. She doesn’t try to contact them and let them know she’s safe. She considers it. And doesn’t. In a way she’s heartless. Has that got to do with her being young and not really understanding consequences yet? Like what death is?

CA: I’ve always found it tricky, indeed frequently off-putting, when authors write in the voice of a child or adolescent. Salinger pulled it off and a few others, too, but in general the effect is quite distancing and loudly authorial (it’s hard not to be continually aware of the artifice), so I decided early on simply to have a precocious 17 year-old who read a lot and thought more or less deeply about certain things while continuing to have a blind spot regarding others—it’s that disjunct young people can have between a developed intellect and emotional immaturity. In earlier drafts I tried framing it within the present, an older self looking back on this pivotal moment in her adolescence, but it lost its immediacy and felt too much like a device. There’s one small reference in the novel, however, which hints that it’s all past tense, and that’s when Luisa refers to her father and the troublesome construction site next door: “Years later, my father could still count on one hand the articles he’d written…”

Much of the novel is invented but the main episode of running away to Zipolite with a boy and having a father come look for his daughter is entirely real. (I was actually 16 at the time, so even younger than Luisa, and I did bring along my copy of Lautréamont to the beach, its pages are still crinkled). The fugitive dwarfs—based on a real note in the newspaper—give rise to half-hearted visions of freedom or orphandom. But to this day I am astounded that I didn’t take my parents’ feelings more into account when I decided to go, and was too caught up in my adolescent infatuation.

LT:  Luisa treasures wonder, and wonderment. Her optimism about what she might find, in part, makes her youthfulness. There’s also a discussion of treasure; it lives at the bottom of the sea, like sunken ships. The treasure from the worlds of those ships, and what lies beneath that we might never see. Were you thinking about this as the unconscious, in the Freudian sense, to the conscious world we know, or think we do? You write: “And it remained the case that ships on the ocean floor were far more interesting than those on the surface.”

CA: Yes, exactly. Something like that. I was thinking about what’s visible on the surface as opposed to what’s buried and less accessible, which in the life of an adolescent is a great deal, and how this less accessible material can be so easily romanticized and transformed into something enigmatic and alluring. I suppose that running away to Zipolite is for Luisa a way of unearthing the shipwreck, and for her the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient feat of technology found in a sunken vessel, becomes a metaphor for romantic disenchantment and the various mechanisms that set it in motion. Many of Freud’s archaeological metaphors could be extended to the excavation of a shipwreck and the micro-organisms that have been eating away at it. Here too there’s an accumulation of strata, an elusive chronology, and the task of reconstructing the relationship between things. Shipwrecks represent illegibility, inscrutability, catastrophe. (And then you have the beachcombers who sift through the debris, all the collective baggage that’s being washed ashore or left behind in the sand).

I’m also interested in compression. Towards the end I mention how history is compressed into a shipwreck, alluding to how personal history is compressed, condensed, into a word or a gesture.

In the final section of American Genius we have “a magician” and shortly afterwards a séance. The magician’s act—like the Kafka play that precedes it—are among the most “comedic” moments in the novel. There are many different kinds of performance in the book, everyone is caught up in their own little theatre, illusion, but here comes the realization that it’s all a conceit. It arrives at the end with this climactic scene of the séance towards which everything has been heading, the trancelike prose winding its way towards the trance itself. Is it actually a dialogue with the beyond or, as you seem to suggest, a revelation of suppressed selves? All along the narrative has been driven by an accretion of detail and gathering patterns, save for a few dialogues it’s almost entirely monologue, until the end, when she’s flung into a more external space, subjected to powers stronger than her own thoughts. In your experience, how quickly can comedy dissolve into metaphysical horror?

LT: I really appreciate your reading of the novel’s movement. I wanted the narrator (whose name a reader learns only toward the end; I won’t disclose it here), to be with other people, to hear what they say, and to have to engage and talk also. Dinner made that possible. We can read her responses, which are different from her thoughts, for one.

I didn’t know that the writing was heading toward a séance, until I brought the Magician into it, and then anything could happen. I like magic acts, they raise the question of distraction and attention—paying attention, but to what? Do we pay attention to the “right things?” what are we missing, because of our own “theaters,” as you put it. Or own predilections, subjectivity. That’s a piece of it. The magician’s “reality” led to the séance. Before it, in a kind of democratic, “town hall” meeting—this is an American comedy —other characters object to its happening, and our narrator is confronted.

The séance can be read as the triumph of the irrational. Of desire. Of need. There are many ways to interpret it, and I like that it’s open. How does one read it, feel about it, it’s very much about feeling. A favorite part for me, after the séance, and very close to the end, is: The Count and the Contessa have run away, and our narrator discovers them in the woods. They all tell stories to each other, over a fire. It’s a mad scene, and entirely possible.

Comedy entails its opposite, always. What’s funny is often sad and awful. Even tragic. Someone who slips on a banana peel could die. But watching it, I might think it’s funny. I think American Genius, A Comedy might be a tragi-comedy. With distance anything can be funny that was tragic. Am I saying that it’s relative? I’m not a relativist. No, it’s about time, how time changes events. That’s why narratives are fascinating: they’re also always about time. That’s why I called a collection of stories, Someday This Will Be Funny. I suppose it’s also a wish on my part.

American Genius, A Comedy and Sea Monsters will both be available later this month.

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