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  • Recognition as a Depleted Source in Lynne Tillman’s Motion Sickness
  • Sue-Im Lee (bio)

Recognition is the fuel that runs the engine of the realist novel. Unwitting Isabel Archer requires years of heartache—and many hundreds of pages of narration—to realize that she had been made “a convenience” (528) by those she trusted the most, and upon arriving at the proper recognition of the base nature of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, completes her portrait of a lady. Poor Dorothea Brooke enters a marriage on an entirely mistaken idealization of her suitor Causabon of Middlemarch, spending her marriage in misery and mistreatment at his hands until she accepts the implications of her misrecognition. In Dickens’s and Hardy’s novels, too, mistaken identities and mysterious lineage provide crucial pivot points of tension, until proper recognition of respective identities—the mysterious stranger that Pip meets in the marshlands, the true parentage of Oliver Twist, the repentant vagrant who returns to become the mayor of Casterbridge—settles the score, and completes the drama at the novels’ conclusion.1

In fact, it may be more accurate to say that misrecognition is the fuel that runs the engine of the realist novel. How many unhappy romances and friendships, disastrous marriages, failed businesses, and faltering careers rest on individuals exercising acts of misrecognition? And what can solve the dilemma of misrecognition except the eventual promise of proper recognition, a promise delivered at the end of the novel? As the initial misrecognition gives rise to misunderstandings, dashed hopes, and irreversible life decisions, the protagonist’s movement towards the final port of arrival—towards proper recognition—parallels the development of the plot. More significantly, the foundational convention of the novel—the developmental character—requires the [End Page 139] epistemological boundaries set forth by the initial misrecognition and the eventual, proper recognition, for we map her “progress” by her increasing proximity to attaining proper recognition.

The novel’s logic of developmental character, hence, takes place in a unique epistemological condition—one in which misrecognition is ultimately a correctable phenomenon and proper recognition is an acquirable skill, a fruit of experiential labor. This essay argues that one of the fundamental challenges to the novel comes from contemporary fiction that explicitly questions the novel’s epistemological condition. That is, a mark of fiction’s present is its treatment of recognition as a depleted resource, a resource that once delivered the promise of proper recognition, but which no longer can. Recognition becomes the subject of ambivalence and distrust, and concomitantly, the epistemological condition of the novel becomes the subject of nostalgia and scrutiny. I offer an analysis of Lynne Tillman’s novel, Motion Sickness (1991), as exemplifying the treatment of recognition as a depleted resource in contemporary fiction, and suggest that the unique combination of desire and distrust for recognition articulates a particular moment in fiction’s present—a moment when the memory of the novel rings strong, whilest being countered by poststructuralist and postmodern suspicion of recognition.2

This conflict that marks fiction’s present can be mapped within the very definition of the word “recognition.” “To recognize” can mean: 1) “To know again; to perceive to be identical with something previously known” and “To know by means of some distinctive feature; to identify from knowledge of appearance or character”; 2) “To perceive clearly, realize” (Oxford English Dictionary online). The first set of definitions denote “recognition” (the act of recognizing) as the act of knowing by knowing again—to know in reference to what one already knows, to know by association. The second definition, however, denotes something entirely different; one knows (perceives, realizes) without [End Page 140] recourse to knowing again (the exemplar quotations for this definition are: “Linnell has made us recognise a new beauty in the heather”; “Kepler first recognized the fact that the eye is a camera” (OED online). Hence within its definition, “recognition” carries the seeds of the paradox that constitutes one of the key philosophical and theoretical challenges of late-twentieth-century: how can knowing be at once a “knowing again” and “knowing afresh”? After poststructuralism mapped “knowing” as fundamentally an operation bound within preexisting codes and systems, how can recognition claim...

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pp. 139-151
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