by Lynne Tillman
Coming of Age, and Variations
A review by Jill Owens
Even working at Powell's, surrounded by books, every once in a while I'll be blown away by an incredible author that I've somehow just missed, despite years of glowing reviews and critical praise. If I'm lucky, that author will have multiple books, giving me a new vein of backlist to mine. Such was the case this week with Lynne Tillman and her 1987 novel Haunted Houses, which I would have continued to overlook if Richard Nash's new publishing company, Red Lemonade, hadn't recently republished it. (I'd argue that you should take a good look at any book Red Lemonade puts out; their other title I've read, Vanessa Veselka's Zazen, wowed several of our staff and is currently one of our New Favorites.)
Told in alternating chapters in the voices of three girls whose lives never intersect but who nevertheless struggle with the same problems -- sexuality, art, money, culture, self-invention -- Haunted Houses is three variations on a coming-of-age story. Friendships, particularly intense and overwhelming ones, feature prominently in the novel. So do family ties and the kinds of early, fierce bonds a person makes when they're very young. Tillman's subject is essentially the ways we form our identities, and she is most interested in those spaces where the self blurs into or onto someone else.
Tillman's writing is astonishing. There's no other word for it. You could classify her along with writers like Joy Williams and Lorrie Moore, or perhaps even some of Joyce Carol Oates's early, best short fiction. But, her voice is singular and remarkable and honest, precise and metaphorical without being in the least showy or clever. I couldn't put the book down and was carried along as much by the language as the characters. One example that perfectly encapsulates awkward boredom:
"Let's go see a movie at the museum." Felix was looking at his foot and muttering to himself. "This is boring," Jane protested. "It's raining, you're looking at your foot, I have to read some stuff I don't want to... " "And... ?" Felix asked. "And nothing."
Here's another wonderful sample of Tillman's not-quite stream-of-consciousness prose:
There were a few, maybe twenty more minutes of this kind of nothing that occurs between people who spend a great deal of time together and probably shouldn't.
She hated the way people's faces looked as they cried. Faces contort, crumple. They compress as if protecting themselves, pulling themselves in. The eyes shut tight. What we take as the person's personality seems to recede. People look as if they're being hit even when they're not being touched.
The epigraph Tillman chose goes some way towards explaining the title and encapsulating her subject: "We are all haunted houses," which the poet H. D. wrote in Tribute to Freud. Character, not plot -- or rather, character as plot -- is the backbone of Haunted Houses (even though at one point, Grace ironically complains, "why...do people write stories about people who don't do anything?"). Tillman's created a remarkable piece of art. I am thrilled that I get to read more of her work, now that I've found her.