“I was envious of fair realism,” writes Barbara Guest in her poem “An Emphasis Falls on Reality.” The line expresses a rarely acknowledged trait of avant-garde writing: its nostalgia, its desire to look like normal writing—which is not (how could it be?) a normal longing. The poem may envy the techniques that realism uses to produce the illusion of a complete and fully-extensive world; or the poet herself may envy the worldly success and fame that realist writers enjoy. In any case, “fair realism” means realism personified—hardly a realistic operation—as if it were a person whose career, looks, or intellect one could envy. Life may not be fair, but realism always is.
That could be the subtitle of Lynne Tillman’s new collection of stories, This Is Not It. Tillman specializes in abject, obsessive urban monodramas, such as her 1998 novel No Lease on Life, which is like Erwartung in an apartment. Her stories tend to press on isolated characters until they respond with either intense self-loathing or total indifference. Here, the status of realism is personal: Tillman implicates realism not as a 19th-century artistic school or a medieval philosophical movement, but rather as a fictional character with a body, a voice, a mind—complete with memories, desires, apprehensions, even an unconscious—as well as a career, an apartment, and a name. “Madame Realism” appears in roughly one-fourth of the stories in the collection—counting only those in which she appears by name, and ignoring many that feature unnamed characters who could easily belong to the Realism family. She is thus, in a sense, its protagonist. Her name suggests both a revision of Madame Bovary, a foundational text for literary realism, and a fortuneteller whose crystal ball will provide a trustworthy image of reality.
What does realism do when you put it in a story? First it checks the mirror: “Were she to report that it was cracked, one might conjure it, or be depressed by a weak metaphor. The mirror is not cracked.” In the story “Madame Realism,” there’s apparently some confidence in the mirror’s integrity, recalling both the neoclassical theory of art as a mirror of nature and the realist Stendhal’s definition of a novel as a mirror that walks. But Tillman’s mirror is not fully operational: A woman looks into it, but doesn’t see her reflection, only the flawless surface of the glass. Tillman isn’t even trying very hard to make you see what the character sees; she’s more interested in laying bare the workings of her own prose. Hence the alternate descriptions of the mirror: first the news that it’s “cracked,” then the rejection of that “report” as a “weak metaphor,” followed by the revised report that it’s not cracked. In a sense, this image is a perfect reflection of the story’s process: not what the character sees but the fact that she’s looking, not a transparent representation but the opaque surface of prose.
Another mirror, in “Madame Realism Lies Here”:
She discovered a terrible sight. . . . All her features were exaggerated. Her breasts had disappeared and her chest tripled in size, her ass was so big she could barely sit in a chair.
This is a story about lying, in which every medium for self-expression reverts to its crudest form: Her body becomes a caricature, her voice a transmitter of vulgar jokes. But even in a world that’s a tissue of lies, the mirror doesn’t lie; it merely reflects her monstrous features. The only mirror in the book that isn’t basically trustworthy appears in the title story: “Whenever I see myself in a mirror, I don’t believe the person is me. I believe I’m seeing the wrong person. . . since I am in the wrong place it must be the wrong mirror.” As in Henry James’s “The Real Thing,” portraiture works according to a principle of the ersatz: The real thing is always the wrong thing. “This Is Not It” is the most intense of Tillman’s monodramas, both envying and despising realism.
The further adventures of Madame Realism are uneventful. In many of the stories, she never gets out of the apartment; sometimes she barely manages to get out of bed. She sleeps, dreams, reads, talks, watches TV, gets bored, looks at the fire. Like Emma Bovary, she’s frustrated when she compares her experience with novels that she’s read; unlike her, she’s highly aware of her status as a fiction, and resents having to re-enact scenes from other stories. “You’re tired, you’re a couple of drunken clichés.” “We aren’t clichés. We’re being unfairly caricatured.”
She also spends a lot of time in bars, and here the pressure seems to relax slightly: “She hoped she’d always enjoy walking into one, taking a seat, seeing the shiny surface of the counter, watching a bartender mix a drink, and listening to strangers talk bar talk. It was a relief.”
But the alcohol doesn’t offer an escape from reality; each drink is just another kind of mirror, a surface on which to project one’s self-image: “If people were containers, she wondered what kind of glass she’d be, what kind of drink. A broad-mouthed Martini, a cool, narrow flute of Champagne, an impatient and short shot of Scotch.”
Most of these stories were originally written as texts for artists’ catalogs, and photographic reproductions of art—a word-drawing by Roni Horn, a porcelain Michael Jackson statue by Jeff Koons, a “Think like us” poster by Barbara Kruger—punctuate the collection. The relation between the stories and the art is usually not illustrational, but there are some points of contact: “Dead Sleep,” a story about not being able to sleep and then sleeping too much, is paired with a dimly lit photograph by Dolores Marat that, in this context, seems to depict a pillow, cocoon, or body bag; “Flowers,” paired with Vik Muniz’s image of a freesia, is actually a series of unexceptionable negative statements about flowers (“Flowers are not satan . . . Flowers are not water”).
Nor does the writing critique the art directly, although Madame Realism converses with the Koons figures, and also appears to be the subject of a Kiki Smith portrait. In general, the characters don’t have access to art: Their world includes some forms of culture (television, books), but almost no photography, sculpture, painting, or drawing. (For that matter, there aren’t any reproductions of paintings; Tillman prefers photography and installation.) The art is necessary only because it inspires Tillman to write. But the stories’ concerns are quite distant from those of contemporary art, where realism is a dirty word, if not quite a dead issue.