At a book launch I attended last spring, I witnessed Lynne Tillman, who was seated in the audience, start an argument with one of the speakers. If it hadn’t been Lynne Tillman, I would have been covering my face with my hair and looking for escape routes, my usual reaction when an audience member says, “this is more of a comment than a question.” But it was Lynne Tillman, so the entire audience was rapt and engaged in the impromptu battle.
It’s a theme common to Tillman’s work: you’re not sure who else could get away with it, but thank god Tillman is up to the challenge. In the past few years I’ve found myself less and less engaged in books whose primary function is plot, I’m sick of watching the gears turn and summoning the ability to guess exactly where the narrative is going. For this affliction, Tillman’s work is the perfect cure: placing plot in the background, she foregrounds critical thought and observation for a brilliant hybrid of cultural anthropology and fiction. The protagonist, Ezekiel Stark, describes himself making field notes about his own persona: “Study yourself.” The phrase I came up with to describe this unique style: “self narration.”
Tillman invites all our favorite theory pals into the romp: Susan Sontag and Marguerite Duras and Walter Benjamin and John Cage. Her protagonist develops his own theories of image and the family while grappling with his place as a modern man and the contradictions of male feminists.
The tone alternates between challenging and colloquial, with such casual asides as “It’s hard, even when you hate people, to deface their pix.” Though I wrote, “Is it???” in the margins, I loved getting to know the giddy narrator as his thoughts oscillated from Kant to Kim Kardashian.
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