In the April–May 2017 issue of Bookforum, Prudence Peiffer reviews The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories by Lynn Tillman, newly published by Semiotext(e). The book collects art reviews and literary pieces written by Tillman over the years in which the fictional Madame Realism appears, sometimes as a character, sometimes as the reviewer herself. Tillman uses Madame Realism as a brilliant and hilarious device for skewering the masculine hubris of the literary and art worlds. Here's an excerpt from the review:
At the center of this book, as with so much autobiographical fiction (from Paul Auster to Tillman's Semiotext(e) compatriot Chris Kraus to Ben Lerner), is the life of the artist-writer. Tillman's fashioning of that life is unique and unpretentious, even when she slips into the persona of a middle-aged man (in "Drawing from a Translation Artist"). In one story, we find Madame Realism musing, "As I walk to the subway I'm struck again by other people's epiphanies. I've read about them over the years in biographies of artists and writers. These people know and see clearly, and their lives are set out in front of them in one brilliant flash of insight. Will that ever happen to me, I ask myself, searching for a subway token." Many Madame Realism essays conclude long after her return home from the show she is ostensibly reviewing, with her staring out a window of her apartment at night, collapsing into bed, snuggling with her cats, turning off the TV and the light. There's a refusal to shape a true, victorious "ending"; the writing slouches off into a vague digression before the passive denouement of sleep. There is no summation, no struggle or anxiety or heroics. Madame Realism dissembles, shrugging off her potential authority and any emotional attachment to her observations.
When the fourth wall is broken, as it often is, it is usually to prick a fantasy before it balloons into anything too self-serious; and to stop us short as readers, too, preventing us from romanticizing a writer's room and its hissing radiator. So, we have moments like this: "Madame Realism walked over to her window and looked up at the dark sky, the kind that in the country would be full of stars. But here just a few were visible, positioned economically, almost like asterisks or reminders." And then, lest we get too lost in this arresting, lofty image of a New York in which even the cityscape is efficient, bulleted: "Madame Realism left the next day." Before we can really place her, she has moved on to the next story.
Image of Lynn Tillman via The Creative Independent.