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.
In his 1968 study Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the sociologist Erving Goffman famously adopted a “dramaturgical perspective” as his method of description, restricting himself to a theatrical vocabulary when interpreting social relations. Accounting for the behavior of a waitress, he might take care to refer to the “costume” she wore, the “performance” she delivered before her “audience,” the “props” she manipulated, and so on, with the result that dramaturgical scare quotes come to enclose every action in an ozone of artifice. The book, at times, can be a bleak read: it begins to look as if spontaneous, authentic, unperformed relations between people are impossible.
An identical bleakness is at work in Philip Roth’s new novel, The Humbling, which reads in places like the diary of a madman who believes he’s trapped inside Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Roth’s thirtieth, The Humbling charts the mental dissolution of the senescent ex-actor Simon Axler, whose end-of-career unemployment and irremediable actor’s block have driven him, at the book’s open, to thoughts of suicide. His problem is one of crippling Goffmanian self-consciousness: he suffers from the delusion that he’s acting at all times, performing in the play of his own life. “The only role available to him was the role of someone playing a role,” Roth writes. “[E]very word he uttered seemed acted instead of spoken.”
Onstage, Axler had once been able to transcend acting and truly “inhabit” a role, to “make the imagined real” and be Macbeth; now, after a double-bill butchering of both Macbeth and Prospero at the Kennedy Center, he’s so racked by doubt and self-alienation that he has trouble just being Axler. A stagy unreality has leached into his everyday experience of selfhood. Even his nervous breakdown seems like a performance—“an act, a bad act”—as if he were merely “playing the role of [his] own demise”:
He could not convince himself he was mad any more than he’d been able to convince himself or anyone else he was Prospero or Macbeth. He was an artificial madman too…A sane man playing an insane man…In the mornings he hid in bed for hours, but instead of hiding from the role he was merely playing the role…[A]ll he could think about was suicide… A man who wanted to live playing a man who wanted to die.
The attraction of suicide, for Axler, is that it constitutes a last opportunity to “make the imagined real,” an escape hatch out of everyday theatricality into an authentically inhabited experience. “Suicide is the role that you write for yourself,” he explains. “You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged—where they will find you and how they will find you…But one performance only.” This is why so many characters in plays commit suicide, he thinks: self-annihilation is central to the experience of performativity, and vice versa, “as though [suicide] were a formula fundamental to drama,…dictated by the workings of the genre itself.” That is, dramatic characters resort to suicide as an exit strategy for the same reason Axler would—they are trapped in plays.
If Axler sounds like a Bernhard character here, expatiating feverishly on the nature of suicide, it’s because The Humbling is, at bottom, a madman novel. Axler is a pathologically alienated monomaniac, whose obsessive fear is that he’s locked inside a drama, and the job of the madman novel is to convince him he’s right—to poke and prod him, push him to the limit, to corroborate his delusion and thereby usher him to its logical conclusion. In this, Roth doesn’t disappoint: dutifully he subjects his madman to a series of increasingly play-like situations, each tragically calibrated to make Axler lose his mind. When Axler enters a psychiatric ward, for example, the group-therapy sessions there are structured exactly like dress rehearsals: the patients with their round-robin monologues remind him of character actors, “rehearsing…the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, cruelty, vengeance, jealously, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor, grief;” chiming in himself, Axler soon realizes he’s “perform[ing] before his largest audience since he’d given up acting.” All the world’s a stage! (Wincingly, a doctor even refers to his grief as a “stage” of misery.) Eventually Axler leaves the hospital, but fares no batter back home. In his yard he spots a possum, the one animal guaranteed to remind him of “playing dead”: for days Axler watches as the marsupial, “nature’s little caricature of him,” prepares a hovel in the snow to die in.
Occasionally the narrator will play along, confirming at the level of word choice the reality of Axler’s “dramaturgical perspective.” Indeed, part of the pleasure of the novel is the Goffmanian ruthlessness with which Roth hews to a theatrical vocabulary. When Axler stakes his happiness on a last-ditch sexual fling, for instance, the narrator describes the fling as follows: “He was here. She was here. Everyone’s possibilities had changed dramatically.” Is it even possible to read that sentence as, “Everyone’s possibilities had changed a lot”? Maybe in a different novel. But Axler’s obsession italicizes “dramatically,” even if Roth’s typeset doesn’t.
Naturally, the lover Axler chooses is tragically ill-considered. What he needs is a relationship that won’t feel scripted or staged; what he gets is a woman precision-engineered to convince him that he’s performing at the deepest levels of himself. A middle-aged lesbian, moreover a butch who “owned little that couldn’t be worn by a sixteen-year-old boy,” Pegeen dresses and even walks like a man when Axler first seduces her. They tacitly agree that she must “become a heterosexual female,” and her conversion is treated (along with everything else) as a matter of performance: Axler takes her on a series of transformative shopping sprees, buying her Prada pumps, smart skirts, and expensive jewelry. Nor is her performance of femininity, or his role as costume director, lost on him. “Wasn’t he making her pretend to be someone other…?” he wonders. “Wasn’t he dressing her up in a costume?”
There’s a lability of sexuality and gender in this novel, everywhere depicted in terms of performativity. Pegeen “becomes” a heterosexual female as easily as her former lover, undergoing hormone treatment and surgical breast removal, “became” a heterosexual male. Pegeen “becomes” a male herself whenever she dons her green strap-on dildo, which Axler thinks of, characteristically, as “a mask on her genitals.” Axler, too, performs his sexuality, and not at all subtly—when he and Pegeen bring home a drunk woman for a three-way, he joins the fray thusly: “‘Three children got together,’ he said, ‘and decided to put on a play,’ whereupon his performance began.”
None of this, obviously, helps Axler shake the feeling that he’s playing a role—least of all when he and Pegeen “role-play” in bed. Dating her, he doesn’t escape from the role, only manages to “dig himself deeper into an unreal world.” And that’s before you even factor in Pegeen’s dramaturgical lineage. The daughter of some old theater friends of Axler’s, Pegeen Mike is named after a character in Playboy of the Western World, a play that Axler got his start in: while Pegeen’s mother, just pregnant with Pegeen, played Pegeen, Axler played the title role, opposite Pegeen1 (the character) and Pegeen2 (the fertilized egg and, unbeknownst to him, his future lover). This leads to a metafictionally vertiginous sequence in which Axler, arguing with Pegeen2, begins addressing her as if she were the character in the play: “‘Perhaps, Pegeen Mike,’ he said, falling into the Irish accent he hadn’t used since acting in Playboy…” Of course, it’s fatalistically engineered—and somewhat overdetermined—that he and Pegeen should begin dating forty years after that performance: he really is “playing a role” by dating her, a character from a play, and it’s one of the oldest roles he knows. He even lapses into lines from the script!
This is the point that critics are missing when they complain that Pegeen is too sketchily drawn; that, if you try to read her as a realistically motivated character, it’s not always clear why she (a middle-aged lesbian) is even with Axler (an old man) in the first place. But Pegeen’s plainly not a realistically motivated character, any more than the possum was, and she should be read as fulfilling the same function as the possum: she’s visiting Axler—Roth is inflicting her on him—as a destroying angel of thematic appositeness. She’s not his most credible sexual partner, just as Jocasta wasn’t Oedipus’s: she’s the shortest route to the ripping out of Axler’s eyeballs. And as a narrative device designed to ratify Axler’s nightmare and precipitate his suicide, she reads splendidly.
When she leaves him, as she must, he calls her parents to discover where she’s gone, but feels more than ever as if he’s merely reading off a script. What follows is a fever dream of self-consciousness, and the entire sinuous movement of the novel can be glimpsed, in miniature, in the peristalsis of Axler’s thought patterns here—from the alienated experience of his “self” as a role, to his resolution to commit suicide:
His voice was trembling and his heartbeat had quickened…It was very like the way he’d felt [at the Kennedy Center]…If he were given this role to act in a play, how would he do it?…He could no more figure out how to play the [abandoned] elderly lover…than he’d been able to figure out how to play Macbeth. Shouldn’t he just have blown his brains out while [Pegeen’s mother] was at the other end listening? Wouldn’t that have been the best way to play it?
The reader perks up at the line, “No more than he’d been able to play Macbeth.” A hundred and fifty pages earlier, this was just how he described the hollow fraudulence of his breakdown: he’s left at the same impasse, with the same recourse. Not long after hanging up the phone, Axler does commit suicide, and it’s the only suicide available to him: that of a character in a play. Pretending that “the attic [is] a theater” and that he’s the character Konstantin Gavrilovich from Chekhov’s The Seagull, he takes down his hunting rifle and sets the stage for a final performance. No encores. His suicide note contains only the play’s parting line of dialogue: “The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.”
It is a black, ambivalent ending. How to read Axler’s “transformation” into Konstantin Gavrilovich? Either the bullet that breached his skull breached the dramaturgical scare quotes, too, freeing Axler, one last time, from the imagined into the real; or else he’s entered more radically than ever before into the artificiality of a play, embedded in Chekhov’s The Seagull like Zod in his crystal prison, hurtling through the void of some Goffmanian Phantom Zone. The novel itself concludes ambivalently, on a note either of ovation or irony, with a line like a theater critic’s review of a performance: “He had brought it off,” it reads, “the well-established stage star, once so widely heralded for his force as an actor, whom in his heyday people would flock to the theater to see.”