How many times have I checked my Instagram feed since I attempted to start writing this review? I have lurked on the Internet and seen sulking selfies and sultry men posing with plants and a green glow framed in darkness; I have witnessed cats playing with a Ping-Pong ball, a humble brag shot of mail received and photo “memories” of past AWPs. With Wi-Fi always at the ready, we are armed during our waking hours with iPhones and Androids and multitudes of screens; we are inundated in images like no age previously. We are the “Picture People,” “addicted to images, in all their varieties,” declares Ezekiel “Zeke” Hooper Stark, cultural ethnographer, sufferer of indecision, New Man, middle son, and protagonist of Lynne Tillman’s grand and sprawling new novel, Men and Apparitions.
What does it mean to come of age amongst this glut of images, and how does this alter the way we as a culture perceive? This is one of two central questions asked in Tillman’s Men and Apparitions. As a 38-year-old man, Zeke is situated on the cusp of multiple transitions—from the analog to the digital, from dark room to Polaroid to cell phone selfie. In his lifetime a photo has gone from a way of remembering and memorializing to a throwaway—something evanescent. Zeke is old enough to have a childhood immortalized in the family photo album yet young enough to be fully fluent with digital media. New media’s proliferation has brought about a more fluid and abundant display of images, expanding possibilities of self, and notably, with regard to the “Men” in the novel’s title, new tropes of masculinity. We’ve gone from the iconic tough cowboy of a Marlboro Man, then appropriated by Richard Prince, re-appropriated by Brokeback Mountain’s gay lovers, and by now signals of masculinity have morphed somewhat, though not entirely.
Another transition to consider: Zeke is one among a generation of sons of second-wave feminists who have matured into adulthood. The second central question of Men and Apparitions is how has their idea of masculinity expanded, and has it expanded in commensurate ways? The answer is murky. Zeke doesn’t question the way he performs tropes of masculinity, the way he is on autopilot, with his wife and his advancing academic career, until he encounters personal failure and betrayal. His wife leaves him for his best friend, triggering a crisis (he has dissociative amnesia, wanders Europe, tells people he’s Henry Adams). This rending makes real something he already knew intellectually, that identity is fluid not static. And he starts to discover his depths, to discover his true work, doing investigative work to explore and define this new masculinity, what he calls the “New Man.” Photography plays a role in this redefinition too, Tillman implies through Zeke: “To perform gender there must be an image to base it upon: this is who a woman sits, this is how a man walks.” If nothing else in this book is clear, we are performing ideas of ourselves all of the time.
Zeke is obsessed with photographs, especially their role in forming and reifying identity. In his work as a cultural ethnographer, he analyzes relationships in family photographs—birth order, gender relations, and how this is portrayed, i.e. “how does that ‘fact’ become an image for the family?” Through Zeke we learn of his family’s obsessions: of his mother’s intense connection to her ancestry through their images, of his hatred for his insensitive brother Bro Hart (oldest), and the selective mutism of Little Sister (youngest), with whom Zeke feels a quiet and robust solidarity. We learn of their family propensity to depression and suicide through Zeke’s meandering mental cataloging, just as we learn of his ex-wife’s immunity to failure, and of the nearly mythological status of ancestor Clover Hooper Adams, wife of Henry. And yet it’s striking that in this novel so focused on images, filled with images even, we don’t ever “see” Zeke, either through his perceptions of the physical world or through photographs. While I’m inclined to interpret a photomontage before the final section as Zeke’s personal collection, and wish some of these faces to be his, it’s never defined as such. Certainly my desire to “see” Zeke influences my reading, and the novel’s consideration of images and interpretation leads me to question why I want this. That somehow this “fact” of Zeke’s existence would confirm my own intuitions. As if he weren’t a fictional character. As if the photo were evidence. As it is, we only see through him, and rarely if ever glimpse the physical world around him.
Zeke, however, does describe and analyze the expressions and posturing and framing in photos, and some are included in the text. Early on he describes a series of photographs by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, and specifically, one of a child standing in a crib on the lawn of a suburban house: “The picture was shot from the child’s POV, from behind his head, so the shot was low to the ground. The child looked out from his crib, the view was cone-shape, of street, houses, a car. It was a child’s eye-view, a Christina’s world. A new theoretical world, with a new eye wide open.” This description provides a key to understanding the reader’s relationship to Zeke, and Tillman’s as author. I couldn’t help but read this as a nod to Tillman as author/photographer who turns the reader’s gaze toward the world with a Zeke’s eye-view, or rather, to witness through Zeke’s filter of a mind, which is analytic, punny, and always thinking.
It’s an authorial wink, too. Tillman has written male narrators before, though her only novel from a male perspective is an older gay man in Cast in Doubt. Women authors write men all of the time, and vice versa. What’s striking in this instance is the intimacy of voice, and Zeke’s focus on defining masculinity, his intent of reappropriating Henry James’s feminist ideal of the 19th-century’s self-made New Woman (Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer, for example) to define the 21stt century’s New Man. Or rather: Henry James wrote in drag then; Tillman is doing it now, inquiring into the status of the New Man as a second-wave feminist. Gender is performance. Writing it is too. It makes me wonder, too, what nuances Tillman as a woman perceives, what she misses too. The attempt is certainly ambitious.
Much of the book’s first section is a Roland Barthes-like disquisition about the image, all from Zeke’s point of view. It includes a consideration of images and photos scattered throughout the text. Zeke states: “Images don’t mean as words mean, though people (and I) apply words to them.” However, these images are very much a kind of language too: a transmission of postures and facial expressions and gestures and framing; they tell stories, of identities, of the eye behind the camera’s lens, of pasts, of inheritance, of how we are seen and how we wish to be seen. The photograph creates and reinforces mythologies and narratives, about members of a family or a social group and their interrelationships. It makes me think of the four Brown sisters, photographed by Nicholas Nixon every year for more than 40 years. Always standing in the same order, with subtle changes in their gestures and faces and expressions; the most striking changes are in appearances: haircuts or a change in weight. The series captures their relationships over time and forms an intimate story. While the Fox sisters aren’t mentioned by Zeke, he traffics in contemporary photography and culture (riffing on O.J. Simpson, the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, Bernie Madoff, John Cage) and a network of 19th-century Americans associated with Clover Adams (Henry Adams, the James brothers, etc., etc.)
As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “All images appropriate.” Zeke too considers appropriation in many dimensions: how we fall in love with projections, our aspirational branding and signification. He doesn’t state this directly, but this fantasy of transformation is the foundation of the American Dream: “Portraits of selves reside inside or beside portraits of desirable or desired others, too. The other’s desired life is a fashion or style, there is no inner to the outer-wear. Fashion and style rule because the shopper assumes the style of the designer and imagines it’s his or her own. When in fact he or she is merely branded. (See Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)”
Erving Goffman is a touchstone for Zeke, as are Sigmund Freud and Clifford Geertz and a smattering of cultural anthropologists and thinkers, but it’s through Goffman and his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that he considers performative qualities we bring to the daily interactions that define us. In effect, Zeke confirms Goffman who confirms the old Shakespearean adage—“The world’s a stage” — in that the roles we play and the way we convey (and betray) ourselves is a choice, or a repetition. Habits, they make you. Or they become you. A disruption can also change you. As Zeke remarks at the beginning of Men and Apparitions, he’s been conjugating breakfast for his entire life. It seems relevant here to tie in Tillman’s writing on the gaze and the desire in Cindy Sherman’s photos, from an essay in The Complete Madame Realism:
[Sherman’s] photographs are not about her. They are about us. Human beings want to look at themselves, and the ubiquity of the camera and its photographic products demonstrates that obsession. People construct ways to look at themselves and others. It is an incessant desire, impossible to satisfy, which creates more pictures. Humans stare at each other longingly, or with disgust, anxiety, curiosity. People watch people, as if everyone might live in a zoo or be a zookeeper…Sherman’s art registers the restlessness of people to see who they are, or who they might be or become. And what will happen to them.
Tillman, through Zeke, is not asking how should a person be or how does the world look, but rather, how does a person become? And how do images complicate these notions of ourselves and this desire to become someone else?
Zeke’s rhythm of thinking, his patois, his clipped observations, his tendency to employ maxims evoke a far different mind than the narrator of Tillman’s previous novel, American Genius, A Comedy, whose smooth recursive thoughts loop back on themselves, riffing on skin, memory, and American history. And yet, what unites their voices is Tillman’s commitment to writing the drifts and vagaries of the mind, attempting to capture the generation of ideas on the page, and to stay with them over an extended period of time—here for nearly 400 pages. The depths Tillman plumbs seem almost paradoxical to a novel so intensely focused on surfaces and photography. It’s as if Tillman is acknowledging that life is life, but the active life occurs in the interface with the mind. Thinking is life. Zeke’s inaction or as he puts it, his “Hamlet disease,” is pitted against a multitude of photographic surfaces. Zeke’s depth begs the question, how does coming to know Zeke through voice differ from knowing him through an Instagram feed? And do the profusion of images surrounding him threaten depth of character, as in, will our surfeit of images lead us to understand, or “see” character or personality differently? Think of the balderdash on Twitter, the sound bites, the seduction of social media feeds, selfies. The fragmentation already.
The novel ends in fragmentation. A field study, “Men in Quotes,” was performed and collected and arranged by Zeke, but his observations merely order the responses by subjects interviewed about their roles, their love lives, their relationship to masculinity. Of the largely heterosexual pool, some are confused, some admit to repeating their fathers’ lechery, some admit to desiring partners who are equals and more independent than their mothers, some aren’t mystified by women while others still are. Zeke articulates his idea of the New Man as a reappropriation of James here. too, but with a twist:
Guyville in Jeopardy: The New Man is analogous to Henry James’s New Woman, but change for him isn’t about his greater independence; it’s about recognizing his interdependence, with a partner, in my study, usually female, even dependence on her…He must recognize different demands and roles for him, and for her. A New Man must investigate the codes that make him masculine, and the models for hetero-normative behavior. And make him who he is or was, make him what he never believed had been ‘made.’
This new awareness of interdependence between sexes seems all the more timely, and fragile too, given the resurgence of the strong man, partially as backlash to this new masculinity. As this recent headline in The Guardian states, there’s a crisis in modern masculinity. This too is shifting, not set. “We think we can be whatever we want to be,” says one subject in Zeke’s field study.
“Men in Quotes” is a collection of observations more than a summation, and it’s meaningful that the voices are not mediated through Zeke. It’s also curious to note how this section nods to the final chapter of Susan Sontag’s On Photography—“A Brief Anthology in Quotations”—which collates an assortment of quotations relating to photography; this in itself nods to Walter Benjamin’s cataloguing of quotations documenting the shift to modernity in Paris in The Arcades Project.
Earlier in On Photography Sontag observes, “A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations.” Men and Apparitions, then, appropriates Sontag’s linguistic equivalent of the photo album with “Men In Quotes,” and in doing so marks its own shift in voice. Ending the novel with prismatic voices speaking to the many facets of the New Man is a deliberate opening of form to other voices, and quite literally, too. The responses from interview subjects are in fact responses to questions Tillman posed to a small survey of interlocutors identifying as male, age 25 to 45, and “Men in Quotes” features a glimpse at their candid responses with Tillman’s Zeke acting as a guide. Could this making room for other voices also mark a shift towards a new form of novel? It opens up possibilities. The gesture expands upon a form used in David Shields’s Reality Hunger and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, where the proximity and ordering of quotations creates a narrative of its own. Like setting images side by side. Like in the best books, where readers’ imaginations are coaxed to leap. Men and Apparitions is a loose and beautiful baggy monster of a novel that opens in on itself like a fun house hall of mirrors. What a tremendous experience it is to walk through, never quite sure who’s who or what you’re looking at.
“This question of presence seems crucial to Tillman’s project. Her position in a text is tricky—she operates both inside and outside of it, which allows her to thwart distanced critical authority and also perform the aesthetic slippages she admires in others’ work.” On Lynne Tillman’s new story collection.
Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, Kristin Hersh’s chronicle of her long and complicated friendship with the musician Vic Chesnutt, was the first book I picked up this year, and little did I know then that its title would set the tone for what was to come in the following weeks and months. “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” is a pact Hersh and Chesnutt made, with regard to their music, with regard to their lives, and through her book Hersh attempts to come to terms with the loss of her cranky, tender, and at times cantankerous friend who died from an overdose on Christmas 2009.
But 2016 followed much in suit, full of broken promises, full of much sucking and dying, heralding the loss of visionaries David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen, whose lyrics and music provided a soundtrack for my coming-to. I can’t help but think their absence has set us further off-kilter as we stumble into a future aligned with Cohen’s dystopian vision:
“the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul.”
Books like Fanny Howe’s Indivisible offered refuge. When reading Howe, I sense the necessity of writing as if breathing, of seeking the sacred alongside the profane. “Snow is a pattern in this story,” she writes, and it is; she follows the singularity of experience against an awareness of the multiplicity, community. Protagonist Henny resists complacency; an act that causes her discomfort tells her she’s doing something right: “I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded most — to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me.”
With depth and melancholy and bitter humor, Jacob Wren’s Rich and Poor pits narratives of a greedy billionaire CEO against an impoverished laborer focused on one goal — killing the CEO. The apathy of the wealthy and those in power, their ability to act with impunity, without conscience, and with cruelty towards laborers and those on strike resonates too deeply with the times.
And now, rereading Rich and Poor in light of Donald Trump’s election brings a different clarity. The mechanisms at play have been in place, and will continue, or not, depending:
The roulette wheel spins and the numbers that come up are the ones that win. If you were a left wing activist in Germany in the twenties or thirties there would be little you could do to stop Hitler. And yet it’s important to believe there is always something you can do, to lie to yourself a little, because at least then you have a shot.
This may be couched from the CEO’s perspective, but the question stands: how does one reconcile the impossibility of making a difference in the world while attempting to live as if you still can?
Fantasies, or rather, delusions and the way these delusions imposed upon others can have deleterious results, even a kind of violence, is what intrigued me most about Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea. I read this book while staying at my aunt’s house beside the ocean for two weeks, and I could deeply understand Arrowby’s desire to retreat from his hectic theater life to a refuge where he could reflect and write. But in doing so he fools himself into thinking what he lacks is what he desires, and he goes to great lengths wrecking havoc on other’s lives with his hapless grasping.
I also read Brandon Shimoda’s Evening Oracle while staying by the sea. The ocean is filled with water and whale and fish and ships and detritus, and together they comprise its vastness, even if when we think ocean, we think body of water or perhaps its outline on a map. Evening Oracle is a collection of poems that contains the sea and herons and plums and crossing vast distances; it also features other poet’s poems and excerpts from many email messages exchanged. The plurality of voices together remain spare, taken together form a patchwork quilt of a document.
Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers is a book I carried with me for much of the year. Opening its pages is like entering a portal to elsewhere, dipping in sloughed sleep from my head, or rather maybe pushed me further in. Mommy is such a tender term and yet here it’s slippery and laced with contempt: mommy is caretaker, mommy is authoritarian, and with her swarm her body multiplies. Mothers eat moons, rats devour rabbits and pigs, rats crawl through corpses, flesh is rotting, it’s a garden of earthly delights as all hell breaks loose.
Perhaps this masochism and curiosity with messy and failing bodies explains too why I go to Adam Phillips for insight into human desire, motivation, fantasies, and our (at times) delightfully misguided ways. This year it seems we’re no closer to knowing what we desire, in fact as a plurality we seem to be drifting even further away. The Beast in the Nursery and Terrors and Experts go hand in hand, pitting the capacity of knowing against the ability to be absorbed, investigating what we’re avoiding with the thriving business of distraction, the tantrums we throw when we feel deprived, the curiosity that drives our inquiry into the unknown, the unrelenting desire for power and control.
Lynne Tillman’s story “Madame Realism’s Conscience” is a good place to start, when thinking about power and the presidency:
Those who ran for president, presumably, hungered for power, to rule over others, like others might want sex, a Jaguar, or a baby. Winning drives winners, and maybe losers, too, Madame Realism considered. Power, that’s what it’s all about, everyone always remarked. But why did some want to lead armies and others wanted to lead a Girl Scout troop, or nothing much at all? With power, you get your way all the time.
Madame Realism, Tillman’s alter ego, is a divining rod to offset the cartoonish post-factual state, and so I consider the newly released Complete Madame Realism as part of the antidote. And, I remind myself, with the end of this year, a new one begins. Will I read differently? Yes, I’m certain. I will start the new year with a more auspicious title, or one that’s better equipped for what’s at stake — perhaps Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, or Patty Yumi Cottrell’s forthcoming Sorry to Disrupt the Peace.
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