The Lonely, Horny Prophecies of Lynne Tillman’s ‘Weird Fucks’

Sam Moore / November 18, 2021

When an older piece of art comes back into the world, one of the first impulses is to scan through it and look for the ways in which it has aged: outworn ideas and attitudes, characters who might be seen as quote-unquote bad representation. Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks — originally published in 1982 and recently reissued by Peninsula Press — is instead striking for how prophetic it is. And while it might be easier to simply assume that a novella about relatively anonymous sex with a revolving door of partners would mostly speak to the ways in which cruising and hooking up have gone digital, the truth of the matter is much more complex than that. 

Each one of the novella’s chapters centers on a different relationship that the nameless protagonist has. Even as she moves from one partner to another, the supporting cast — friends, discarded boyfriends — float around in her orbit. Early on, she catches the eye of an ex, and when their eyes meet, she thinks, “George looks guilty and embarrassed. I feel wanton and he is history.” The idea of history floats as aimlessly through Weird Fucks as its cast of characters; it’s only in the latter half of the book, when the 1972 Olympics are mentioned, that the story/ies are rooted in a specific moment in time. What’s fascinating is that, rather than taking the personal and writing it large, Weird Fucks takes the macro — the relationship between power and desire; the deliberately vague references to “murders, ‘the political situation,’ as it was called” — and draws it deeply into individuals, making these people pieces on a chessboard too vast for them to comprehend, and the center of the universe all at once. 

As she moves between men and around the world, what’s interesting isn’t just the way in which this kind of shuttling between partners — while old ones still exist in the background of your life — prefigured the ways in which technology changed the way we look at, and for, desire, but also the things that have stayed the same. The tension that exists in a contemporary (re)consideration of Weird Fucks is both how much the world has changed, and how little it has. One of the narrative cores of the novella  — which informs so much of its (mis)communication about sex and desire  — is the double standard existing between men and women when it comes to sexual agency and freedom. Tillman writes: “It was difficult, very difficult, for men to understand and appreciate how someone could fling herself around sexually and not know the terms, the ground, on which she lay,” a line that could be repeated ad nauseum decades after first appearing in print and still capture something true about the ways in which men expect women to behave. The language of “the terms” here captures something that runs through much of the book  — that these relationships are microcosms of a kind of conflict, that the terms in question are really rules of engagement. 

It’s easy to oversimplify any story about the relationships between men and women as being a “battle of the sexes.” The term is most frequently applied to romantic sitcoms that have the genders of their casts divided down the middle; shows like Friends in the US and Coupling in the UK draw a line between man and woman, trying to understand what it is that keeps them apart, even when they’re endlessly getting together. But in Weird Fucks, the word “battle” feels most emphatic and important; less a battle of the sexes than a battle of sex. So much of what defines the relationships in Tillman’s novella is power — as it relates to BDSM, consent, gender. All of this is rooted in the experience of the protagonist; there’s something liberating about diving this deeply into the experience and feelings of an individual, rather than using sexual tastes and dynamics exclusively as a way to make a broader, more abstract statement. As much as these things all work across multiple levels, TiIllman never simply leaves something as merely an intellectual idea; everything is felt deeply, and that’s what gives the book the power to speak both for and beyond the experiences of the characters. 

The protagonist is full of contradictions: narcissistic enough to see herself as the center of the universe, and naïve enough to make her deeply uncertain about why her relationships go the way they do. As a lot of contemporary fiction struggles to grapple with the ins-and-outs (so to speak) of sexuality that’s informed explicitly by ideas of power and violence, there’s something striking about the acknowledgement of how these dynamics work, and the way people struggle to understand their own place in them, all packed into this one line: “I couldn’t understand why a man would want a woman in pain. I wasn’t sophisticated about sadomasochism.” In a way that’s both liberating and surprisingly naive, carrying with it an air of innocence. She often seems uncertain of how the games around her need to be played, existing outside of expectations for better or worse.

This lack of understanding goes both ways, and underscores the melancholy that runs throughout Weird Fucks. It isn’t that the novella’s protagonist is sad because of the fleeting nature of her relationships. The thing that makes the book work so well as a kind of dispatch from the frontlines on power, masculinity, and desire as something performed, is the fact that these relationships are brief but vivid — seemingly through a shared lack of the ability to communicate and understand one another. That gulf between man and woman is a dangerous space to try and move between. The other women in the book are seen as backup performers in one way or another by the protagonist, who says of one of them: “I felt she had some sympathy for me, and had watched, from her position in the chorus, other, similar young women.” If men and women can’t understand each other, the protagonist of Weird Fucks is insistent, desperate, to understand herself. In a small moment of revelation near the end of the novella, prompted by the idea that not being attracted to a certain type of a man is a personal failing, she says, “I tend towards men who aren’t as nice.” 

And it’s fair to say that the men in Weird Fucks aren’t as nice; they seem more than willing to use the women around them, and have a fuzzy understanding of how consent works: “he thought, because I hadn’t resisted, that I liked it.” This lack of understanding, and the stripped back brutality of its consequences, capture the loss of innocence, and the price of knowledge, that defines the protagonist’s journey through these strange relationships. Early on, she’s more than willing to describe herself in ways that are performative, saying “I was a slum queen and in college” in an early story, before saying, at the beginning of the end of the book: “I should have known better.” These five words echo through a lot of Weird Fucks: what she should have known, what her partners should have known; it speaks to a lack of knowledge, obviously, but also an inability to learn about one another. Knowledge doesn’t come easily or freely in Weird Fucks. Across so many of these stories, knowledge is power, and the characters are constantly trying to work out if it’s a price worth paying.

The men of Weird Fucks, as much as they simply strut and fret their hour upon the stage, are all vividly drawn through Tillman’s eye for minute details. It’s this ability to create specifics for the men that move in and out of the orbit of the protagonist — one “looked something like Richard Burton,” another is simply “blond and weak” — that makes them explicitly different, but also magnifies their similarities. The specter of violence goes beyond those not understanding consent when the protagonist has a strange entanglement with a married man: “his enthusiasm grew as I retreated inside, and as if to draw me out, reach me, he whispered bloodlessly, “‘I’d like to kill you with my cock.’” What’s prescient about Weird Fucks is how everything both is and isn’t a matter of life and death; violence is an undercurrent, and every breakup may or may not be the end of the world. The world is ending and being remade seemingly every moment, from the nameless political tension to the endlessly changing ways that people define themselves and their relationships to each other. The surface of the world changes, but all the things that lurk beneath the surface stay the same. Weird Fucks captures the world that Tillman was writing in, the world the book is set in, and a new world — that isn’t that new — all at once.


Sam Moore‘s writing on queerness, politics, and genre fiction in art has been published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, Little White Lies, Hyperallergic, and other places. Their poetry and experimental essays have been published in print and online, most recently in the Brixton Review of Books. If their writing didn’t already give it away, they’re into weird stuff.

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