Lynne Tillman: Men and Apparitions
by Jacquelyn Ross
When I try to picture a New Man, I think immediately of textured hair products, of conceptual photography, of the sipping of espressos in gallery-white cafés with baby-shaped lumps on chests. Of guys on bikes with just-filled growlers in their panniers zooming between start-up offices and estate garage sales. In my mind, the New Man is a man who is “enlightened” and lives in a city; someone who has “good politics” but who is also well-off enough to have the luxury of observing most injustices from a distance—that is, aesthetically. Who self-identifies as an “ally”; who has a mom and a sister who are feminists. Good people, good men, with good intentions. And yet, in the age of #metoo and innocuous predators masquerading as writing professors, I’ve learned to be both grateful for and wary of these men.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the irony of all of this. What is it about the male condition that makes it so inherently prone to conflict? What does it mean to be a “decent guy” if your identity is still categorically tied to so much physical and sexual violence, brutality and war? What can be done, if anything? The New Man, with his hapless mix of historical guilt and wanting-to-do-right entitlement, feels like a remarkably good topic for a novel. Unfortunately, in the case of Lynne Tillman’s latest book, Men and Apparitions, what seems like a good idea in theory sadly fails to deliver in practice.
In large part, the book’s failure lies in the unbelievability of its narrator, 38-year-old Ezekiel (“Zeke”) Stark, a cultural anthropologist specializing in family photographs whose latest field study, cheekily titled “men in quotes,” attempts to take up the topic of contemporary masculinity from an ethnographic angle. The novel, which unfolds in pseudo-essayistic fashion, under fragmented headings like “anon family album throwaway pix” and “the glut of images, boring,” follows Zeke’s mundane musings as he stumbles through albums of family photos and reminisces about his pale, middle-class upbringing. Even putting aside the feelings of boredom and alienation I experienced trying to relate to Zeke’s earnest but ultimately petty descriptions of fighting with siblings in a Modernist glass house in the suburbs, I found myself faltering most of all on his voice. Rather than endear us to him, Zeke’s incessant “just kidding”s and “haha”s have a stilted effect, and are made worse by his robotic use of oddly uncolloquial shorthand like “pix” and “gen” and “POV,” calling into question his very contemporaneity. Far from the symbol of the sophisticated, espresso-sipping man of culture, Zeke comes across as socially and technologically disconnected—more akin to a retired scholar than a savvy, self-aware thirtysomething born under the “sign of feminism.”1
Presumably, Tillman is trying to poke fun at precisely this kind of man: the anachronistic “theorist of the contemporary,” intellectually rigorous on the one hand but emotionally stunted on the other. The problem is that the way she chooses to embody this character on the page is so unlike any man I know (or can even imagine) that I actually fail to recognize him as such. Who is this alien that I am following, and what is the value of his point of view? Absent of the book’s hefty conceptual framework, I’m left very simply without a clear impression of the person I’ve just met, or why. And while I can try to convince myself that this confusion is just what the author intended, I suspect that Tillman is just genuinely out of touch herself. “All ‘portraits’ are also self-portraits,”2 Zeke tells us in one rare moment of self-reflection early on in the novel, frustratingly never returning to the subject. Not even ironically.
The book is saved, in part, by its final section, Zeke’s long-awaited field report, “men in quotes.” Here, he poses questions to a small sample of male subjects, surveying them on topics ranging from male aggression, power and restraint to the role of fathers, male friendships, consent and care. “What do New Men want?”3 he asks. “How did our feminist mothers and sisters and aunts and the women and girls affect us?”4 The ethnographer’s subjects stumble thoughtfully through their answers, thinking out loud about Richard Gere, Michael Cera and James Dean. “Masculinity is as complex and nuanced and confusing for thoughtful men as I imagine femininity is for thinking women,”5 one subject remarks, in one of the section’s more poignant moments. Zeke’s voice is buoyed by these voices, lending his inquiry the contemporary context it was missing all along.
Lynne Tillman is widely regarded as one of the great writers working at the intersection of fiction and criticism, having published numerous novels, short story collections and essays in and around contemporary art. These days, this overlap between literature and criticism is regarded as novel: a show of breadth and interdisciplinarity, a refusal to be tied down by genre. But there remains at least one fundamental difference between art criticism and literary fiction: while the former champions “concepts” and journalistic “telling,” fiction (conventionally, at least) employs methods of “showing” and requires much more than ideas alone to work. Men and Apparitions, like so much of Tillman’s fiction, leans too heavily on the strength of its conceptual idea to solve what are fundamental craft problems, and ones that could be better addressed through good, old-fashioned character development, or even just a simple scene change. Instead, this book is crammed cover to cover with everything you never wanted to know about family trees, fragile male egos, breakups, soul mates, 19th-century relatives (and their estates), ethnography, self-loathing, sibling rivalries, the convention of marriage, small insects, college darkrooms and backpacking in London. I’ll keep waiting for the novel that will take down the (New) Man; Men and Apparitions should have been an essay.