REVIEW: Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Someday This Will Be Funny
As with most of the things Lynne Tillman creates, even the title of her new collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, sustains (and even encourages) multiple readings. These are, of course, the words we grimly promise to ourselves in the face of embarrassment, loss and despair — feelings that Tillman’s characters have in spades — in the hope that, one day, our pain will be diminished. But underneath this gloss lurks a deeper recognition of the almost farcical state of the American union of the last ten years. For Someday This Will Be Funny is, in a peculiar sense, a testament to the decade we’ve just exited, a collection undeniably infused with the zeitgeist of an America still reeling from the Bush administration. Tillman’s singular voice and mind induces a certain kind of historical vertigo — if not nostalgic claustrophobia — as it palpably resurrects the malaise of the past decade.
Running the gamut from hope to despair, love to betrayal, the stories in Someday This Will Be Funny share a consistent desire to make sense of a world inundated with media, a world held in thrall to celebrity, power and half-truths. The characters in Tillman’s stories all seem to harbor a suspicion that something terrible is occurring outside elsewhere, somewhere in the periphery of their experiences, but few of them have the strength or the means to translate this ambiguity and innuendo into meaningful action or expression. Instead, the characters turn solipsistic, constantly interrogating themselves, searching for meaning and reassurance amid an unnamable near-existential terror. In a nation inundated by regret and an apathy born of helplessness, these stories are the drowned survivors, floating to the surface full of memory and indiscretion, relics of a fallen civilization remarkably like our own.
All of this makes Someday This Will Be Funny sound epic in scope, but aside from a few brushes with history — Clarence Thomas, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye and the visages of several ex-presidents are among Tillman’s cast of characters — Someday This Will Be Funny focuses in the common, smaller moments. Pathos springs from things as small as parking tickets; a woman caring for the mourning doves that appear outside her window becomes an ethical dilemma about our responsibilities to the world and the complexities of being a create capable of love. But hidden inside these lives are sentences of startling insight:
There was something to fear about just being alive.
A family’s implicit contract is to keep its secrets.
People often move away from cities and towns when reminiscences create profound debt and mortgage the future.
The tenaciousness of memory, it’s viciousness really — witness the desire over history for revenge — has forever been a sign that the brain recovers. But it’s unclear what it recovers.
As the acrobatic sentences accumulate, one comes to realize that Tillman writes from a place where meaning itself has shifted and even language can no longer to be trusted. The places we expect to find meaning are barren: love letters talk themselves into sophistry, the faces of old lovers lose their power, and the inviolability of presidents is reduced to reduced to a crude punch line. But at the same time, meaning turns the common uncanny: the moon becomes pregnant with innuendo and the smallest of gestures — a cruel prank, the flick of a wrist holding a glass of Chartreuse, the offhand remark of the neighborhood baker — inflate themselves through the act of remembering. Tillman’s stories are both acts of fiction and monographic reflections on memory and reality. United under an unerring narrative and structure, Tillman’s myriad concerns become a way of talking through those things we cannot talk about. Someday This Will Be Funny is fiction as a way of life and so it is surely no coincidence that this collection concludes:
Out of nothing comes language and out language comes nothing and everything. I know there will be stories. Certainly, there will always be stories.
— Stephen Aubrey can be found here.