Lynne Tillman, Someday This Will Be Funny

One thing I could do without in this world is the jacket copy that accompanies short story collections. Difficult to get right for any book, it’s an unusually tall order here, since, for the most part, the only thing a pack of stories really has in common is that they’re all penned by the same author.

Too often, though, you wind up with some well-phrased but intentionally vague catch-all—something like, “Collectively, these stories own a conscience shaped by oaths made and broken; by the skeleton silence and secrets of family; by love’s shifting chartreuse.”

Uh-huh. You don’t say. That may sound pretty, but what on earth does it mean? What book couldn’t that be applied to?

The above quote, by the way, is a real claim about Lynne Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny. If I had the power to simplify and re-write that blurb, it’d read something like this: “These stories are all good. Some are great. None are lazy. You should probably read them.”

Then, near the bottom of the page: “Warning: Some assembly required.”

That last bit is necessary, since if you want to draw the maximum amount of pleasure and insight from this collection, Tillman’s fourth, you’re going to have to meet her halfway.

Most of the stories here are happy to hum away on their own peculiar wavelength, a ramshackle combination of female neurosis, prickly wit, and a clear-eyed investigation of why we choose to live the way we do. They slosh around and slide into one another. And they take a particular delight in not holding the reader’s hand. There’s a different kind of narrative seduction at work, one that requires a little extra elbow grease to uncover; you’ll get out of this book only what you put in.

Take a story like “Love Sentence,” an exuberant, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attempt to parse, prod, dismantle, and otherwise set fire to that simplest yet most complicated of sentences: I love you. You can glean some of this from a surface reading—but the deeper you plumb, through cut-and-pasted layers of correspondence, literary quotations, and hidden perspective shifts, the richer the reward.

Sometimes the plot serves as a simple peg on which Tillman hangs her newly minted figures of speech. That’s the case in “The Original Impulse.” For instance: “[N]o one lives in the present except amnesiacs.” And then: “People often move away from cities and towns when reminiscences create profound debt and mortgage the future.” Or how about: “[N]ot everyone has to be an artist.”

And finally, the connective tissue, the one that says it all: “Startling, what gets kept.”

If there’s a similar connective tissue to the collection as a whole, I’d wager it has something to do with the title—a paraphrase of the old adage that comedy equals tragedy plus time. That’s certainly the case with one Great Uncle Charley, who on his wedding night discovers, to his horror, that his bride uses the toilet. This anecdote is passed down through the generations as a classic family joke. It’s a good one, too.

In other places, the march of time isn’t such a clearly redemptive process. A light-hearted scheme about parking tickets, of all things, eventually comes to erode an entire friendship in “A Simple Idea.” Even Great Uncle Charley has a big, ruinous secret. That one is no longer spoken of at all.

The biggest takeaway, though, is Tillman’s narrative voice. She leaps out from unexpected hiding places, and comes at you from unexpected angles. Her prose is bruised, but always resilient. Yes, there is a fair chunk here that didn’t connect with me, but don’t worry about her batting average—Tillman is a slugger.

Red Lemonade, 160 pp, $16.95, paperback

(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, June 19, 2011)

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