Lynne Tillman‘s “Love Sentence,” a story included in her new collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, is a small masterpiece of repetition, taking a single line and prodding it, testing it, circling around it, studying it, finding humor and pathos alike in it. It helps that the sentence in question is “I love you”—a line that gives a writer plenty of room for interpretation. But the story’s central mood is frustration; the narrator is more confused by the line than inspired by it. “Everything Paige thought about love, anything she felt about love, was inadequate and wrong,” Tillman writes in the first sentence, and what follows is an attempt to answer a question about that inadequacy: Is it possible to write about love honestly, in a way that avoids both sentiment and cynicism?
Tillman’s plainspoken style comes in handy for abstractions like this. The stories in Someday are usually built on only the merest skeletons of plot, so the emphasis shifts to individual words; her tone is philosophical, though rarely distant. In “Love Sentence,” the plot is really just a setup for Paige’s musings: She’s thinking about old lovers, using scissors to cut hearts out of paper towels. (It’s a hokey arrangement only if plot were the point; when you’re sorting out the metaphorical power of “love,” might as well behave like a metaphor yourself. Besides, the describes the hearts beautifully, stacked “like honeyed pancakes.”) As she scissors, she falls into a rhythmic kind of thinking. She imagines love letters that are effusive with a kind of desperate desire (“In my dreams I cleave to you, I hold you, your body bent to mine…”), which press up against quotes from writers and musicians that celebrate and diminish love, from Freud to Andrew Marvell to the Troggs. She lays out the various ways she can love somebody: “Oblivously, I love you”; “Awkwardly”; “Commonly”; “Blindly.” Sometimes love is the cute stuff of paper hearts (“Sweetly, I love you”), but usually it’s more frustrating; nobody wants to live full-time in the spaces those adverbs represent.
But why bother writing about a subject that’s been written about forever? That’s the question Tillman wants to play with, and part of Paige’s frustration is that she knows that her emotions are nothing new even when she very much wants them to be. “[S]ensation maintained that her love was unique,” she writes, but she knows love isn’t sensation alone. To indulge in that sensation is to be willfully ignorant; to distance herself from it is to be cold-hearted. “[L]ove wouldn’t leave her alone,” she writes.
That kind of push and pull between thought and emotion, particularly in the midst of relationships, is a hallmark of the stories in the collection. The relationships in “The Substitute” and “Chartreuse” thrive, in a sickly way, on their instability. The woman in “More Sex” considers the old saw about men thinking about sex every seven minutes and considers the TV and film stars she might want to have sex with—not to any real erotic purpose, but as a kind of resignation. “[W]anting to have sex with men she couldn’t have…was also all right, because she could easily have sex with men she didn’t necessarily want.” “Love Sentence” appears toward the end of the book, as if it were a last-ditch attempt to settle the matter, even though it can’t possibly be settled.
None of this makes for high drama in Tillman’s stories, at least not overtly. As Jessica Winter nicely put it in a review of Tillman’s 2006 novel, American Genius, “She ignites conflict and crisis not with the usual powder of incident and dialogue, but with the twists and sharp U-turns of internal thought.” This may play out more routinely in her other work (reissues through Red Lemonade are forthcoming), but I’m struck at how capably she addresses the emotional contradictions in “Love Sentence” without being willfully opaque or sentimental. By the time she’s done, the line “I love you” has been tested and analyzed plenty, but she ends by stressing the point that it’s nearly impossible to strip it of its power.
It’s interesting to learn that a story so careful and so affecting was initially something of a gag. She recently explained to Artforum how the original version, published in 1994, came together:
At the time, I thought it would be best to start by dissecting the sentence “I love you,” which led to my thinking about death sentence, the death sentence, and several other puns. In the 1980s and the early ’90s, there was a particular emphasis on writing with puns and other language games. Usually I let something stay as it was written, but in this case, the amount of punning unsettled me a bit. I thought that I went overboard, in unnecessary ways. Perhaps I was just being a little too tongue in cheek—I guess my tongue was outside my cheek, too.
So, she continues, she rewrote. As a writer gets older, Tillman writes, “You have more of a sense of what the problems and possibilities are.” I’m sure the original “Love Sentence” isn’t awful, but I’m glad she cared to apply her increasing sense of problem and possibility to it.