SOMEDAY THIS WILL BE FUNNY by Lynne Tillman

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Despite the claim of the title, you really wouldn’t want to reach for Lynne Tillman’s new book just for a good howl. In fact, that “Someday” the title promises may never come. Tillman’s stories are too piercing, the obsessions of her characters too connected to their psychic wounds for them to be considered exactly “Funny.” In any case, it isn’t “Someday,” but meantime that counts for readers. And in the meantime, Tillman’s fictions tend to be as “outrageously ineffable, obdurate, and evasive” (126) as the forms of desire they limn. Gorgeously at ease with their technical virtuosities, the stories are ever on point. On point, that is, if the point of your reading has more to do with psychological nuance and bravura performances of language than with conventional story lines.

And even if the book isn’t ha-ha funny, there is still something akin to humor pervading the whole collection. You notice it in the play of such titles as “That’s How Wrong My Love Is,” “Love Sentence” and “The Way We Are.” And it’s there again in a naive deadpan honesty of the sort that is said sometimes to attend the victims of strokes. The speaker of the first story, for instance, is convinced that she has developed an intimate communication with three mourning doves that roost on a windowsill across from her apartment building and, as the season changes, ceremoniously and mutually turn their heads toward her to bobble goodbye. Tillman writes, “I realize this sounds corny, ridiculous, or just another piece of anthropomorphism, or vanity, if feeling appreciated or recognized by birds is vanity. Yet I believe it was their intention, though I have since learned that mourning doves lack cunning and are not bright.” (3)

The speaker of “More Sex,” with similar irony-free, wandery bluntness, reflects on movie actors in love scenes: “She hoped they were really good at sex and not just acting, although actual people do act when having sex, too, though why they do and for what purpose, she wasn’t sure.” (44) Such attention deficit flights and diversionary syntactical adventures typify Tillman’s prose. Her sentences often take pinball trajectories, bouncing through seemingly trivial but revealing associations. Consequently, her stories develop in lateral maneuvers. There are even times, as in the story “Chartreuse,” when particular words take charge of the narrative the way a key signature might shape the tone and direction of a symphony.

The musical metaphor isn’t accidental. Tillman, who teaches at the University of Albany but lives in New York City, the gritty setting for her novel No Lease on Life, has cultivated a long history of interaction with musicians and artists. Her 2002 book of stories, This is Not It, focuses on twenty-two contemporary artists. An earlier nonfiction work, The Velvet Years: Warhol’s Factory 1965-1967 explores Warhol’s art and the narratives of a number of people working at the Factory. Tillman has published five novels, a volume of essays, and three other story collections with both large houses and independent presses—in this case, Red Lemonade, whose website may still be ‘in beta,’ but whose list of titles is already impressive.

The innovations that characterize Someday This Will Be Funny—quasi-characters who communicate in “thought bubbles,” prose that breaks into haiku, ambiguous pronouns, contradictions, and overt formal structures that include serial quotations and repetitions (with variations) of key phrases—are familiar enough to readers who survived the 20th century that there is no reason to qualify Tillman as an “experimental” writer. Emotional subtlety and psychological complexity are at the heart of her stories, some of which, like “Playing Hurt,” about a couple whose deep-seated insecurities pit them against each other, are scrupulously plotted. Tillman is simply a terrific prose stylist whose work should have wide appeal.

If the most notable attribute of her writing is a sentence so unpredictable and generative that it constantly propels the story inward to reveal the rapid associations of its author’s mind—familiar to us and yet unmappable-- what may be most memorable in her stories are those zinger moments when Tillman reveals deep cutaways of character in quick excavational swipes. “Once upon a time a man she loved caught her looking at herself in a mirror and noticed something she didn’t want him to see,” she writes in “Love Sentence.” (120) Elsewhere, a woman regretfully admits “The decisive moment was an indecisive one for her.” (65) And in “The Recipe,” a son tries to remember the mother he had adored: “Her face, for a long time now, rested only against walls or stood upright on tables in framed photographs, and he scarcely remembered a conversation they had, just a sentence or two.” (99) Inevitably, painfully, what Tillman’s characters ask for and pursue has little to do with what they really want.

It’s weird that since her writing style is influenced by poetic impulses, the least successful of the stories in this collection is the one called “Impressions of an Artist, with Haiku.” Nowhere else does Tillman allow herself scholastic abstractions. Nor is she anywhere else as Gothically corny as when (138)

Owls hoot, moonlight unmoors
Lost wolves, frantic prey scurry, as
Night licks voraciously

But such wispy complaints as I have are drowned out in the overriding whoosh of accomplishment. Someday This Will Be Funny has a casual exuberance that leaves the reader atilt, tenderized, and more than a bit awed.