A Necessary Fiction: Photography and Self-Image in Lynne Tillman’s “Men and Apparitions”

Bias is a fact of writing as much as perspective is a quality of sight. “Like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much farther away,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977). Petey is the consummate observer, seeing more than his human neighbors while remaining unaware of ecological threats to his survival. Petey is one he cannot catch (praying mantises are protected by federal law); but he keeps him in plush effigy, a stuffed witness to the Stark family drama. “I fell in love with an essentially always unavailable woman, the image of a beloved,” he laments. He idealizes a certain image of femininity, but lays blame when women don’t conform. He is the associate editor of frieze. The part of him left behind, wounded by cultural obsolescence, is perhaps his true “other inside.”
 
V. My mother tells me the photograph still makes her cry, but I wonder: For whom? Zeke’s infatuation for Clover grows when his wife, Maggie, leaves him for his best friend. Zeke’s one close live friend, Mr. The New Man is a paradox: self-aware of his privilege, and evaluative of his masculinity, but forced by analysis into a state of detachment that strains emotional engagement. Petey, is a praying mantis he spots in the family garden. Boy Zeke is a loner, more content to keep company with the dead. I imagine how Barthes felt about that portrait of his mother, how he saw her whole life in its fragment. He belonged to another era of masculinity, and so the image makes me think of my relationship to my mother, my mother’s to my father, my father’s to my sisters. “New Men” are Zeke’s subject of study for MEN IN QUOTES, though he clearly counts as one, too. Silly tot.” His recollection of childish entitlement, which could portend an artist’s ego, is actually the admission of someone terrified by fate’s unphotographable power. She stares straight at the camera, and I can tell she is laughing, even though her upside-down figure is a blur. The episode recalls Roland Barthes’s photograph of his mother as a five-year-old, which he describes in Camera Lucida (1980) as collecting “all the possible predicates from which [her] being had been constituted,” a total image that rehearses her eventual death while freezing her in suspended animation. Recent conversations around sexual harassment and assault have focused on men as individual perpetrators but rarely have examined the broader cultural conditions that shape their relationships with women. If photography allows Zeke to trap metaphorical bugs, Mr. Ezekiel Hooper Stark is obsessed with family photographs. All leftist politics face this same challenge, to move beyond the mere assimilation of radical discourse and into the realm of real action. New Men need New Pictures. “I was engaged in me, what was before me, which became a strange ownership, probably symptomatic or evidence of a little person’s pride in what he believes he controls. “I wished upon the first star that winked at me in a black sky: preserve me, keep me safe,” he recalls, in the hope he might never grow older. “I’m a picture to myself, a mental image,” he remarks, “but when I look in the mirror, I don’t know that person.” The central crisis of Men and Apparitions is Zeke’s inability to match his own self-conception, a crisis that pervades our social media age. A flighty endangered species with a talent for camouflage, Mr. THERE’S A PHOTOGRAPH my mother can’t stop thinking about. Leonard found them while looking through her mother’s pictures, and they show her grandmother as she first arrived in the United States after the long sea voyage from Poland. He sets out to explore “what are ‘men’ now, after the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, feminism, generally, how has that changed us, in what ways, and the women we know and love or hate, and what do we want from women.” The sample of men he interviews is self-selecting, composed of familiar peers. She is about nine years old in it, dangling from her father’s arms as he dips her low to the ground, a blissful moment she can’t remember, one of the few they shared together. Among my favorite of her creations is Madame Realism, a sage proxy who browses exhibitions at art and historical museums, often addressing the signage and lighting with the same perspicacity as she does the objects on display. We snap, we look, we share, we move on. Photographs, unlike human beings, can’t betray us. Thirty-seven, white, male, and heterosexual, from an upper-middle-class family in the Boston suburbs, Zeke is the kind of guy who likes to hear himself talk. How does it suggest I can emulate my grandfather, while learning from his mistakes? My grandfather leans too far forward; I can’t see his face. Photographs here provide a basis for self-image and self-reflection, and Tillman seesaws between an analysis of physical pictures and an examination of the ways we picture ourselves and others. From the moment she appeared in a 1979 column in Art in America, Madame Realism made criticism personal, its analysis situated in real space trafficked by real people. “Photographs render worlds,” writes Tillman, and so from the outset Zeke’s world is constructed from photographs — or rather, from the medium of photography itself. When Zeke finally gets his own camera, it gives him a sense of dominion over the world — the feeling it can be captured, developed, cataloged. “My self is my field, and habitually I observe, and write field notes,” Zeke proclaims. I return to my mother’s photograph, or my pixelated version of that glossy object. The narrator of Lynne Tillman’s Men and Apparitions — the author’s first novel in 12 years — pores over them, scrutinizing their subjects, often to the exclusion of his real family. Writers are also always untrustworthy. When Zeke’s father dies, his ambivalent eulogy is abruptly intercut with a paean to Polaroid film, which ceased production that same year; he understands his father’s impatience and materialism through the immediacy of the film he once favored. His true subject, it seems, is himself: “I could shape myself into an ethnographer without a knowing attitude, and could learn as much about my own as ‘the other,’ or discover the other inside.” At his core, Zeke feels alienated by society’s expectations of men, as if his privilege affords him no feeling of ownership over the world he was meant to master. They study human behavior in minute detail, connecting actions with their motivations, cultural forms with their social function. Mr. “I wasn’t into the mechanics of cameras — lenses, focal length, speed — just the imagination behind the camera — me,” he recalls. A list of possible criteria, drawn up from Men and Apparitions: self-avowedly feminist, emotional, alienated, resistant to stereotypical gender roles, intimidated by machismo. His mother deems him morbid, for she understands photography’s relationship to death, something Zeke discovers only later. Good writers are always ethnographers of a sort. Several of Clover’s photographs appear here, along with excerpts from letters she wrote to family and friends. That smeary snapshot is a substitute for other memories she’d prefer to forget. I think of my mother’s text message: a photograph of a photograph, its physicality preserved while also flattened. Framing, and the framed, are central to Lynne Tillman’s writing, which ranges freely across genres, from fiction to art to literary criticism. The self-representation Leonard so poignantly foregrounds has since been sapped of its agency, subjected to the manic expectations of a society reprogrammed by digital images’ instantaneous circulation. On a quiet wall facing the Hudson River, as bright and colorless as a mirror, hung five photographs of photographs: portraits of a woman in a dark coat, silhouetted against the deck railing of a ship as it passes the Statue of Liberty. Am I a “New Man”? Zeke cannot perceive the emotional needs of the woman beside him and so returns to the company of a woman who cannot object to his advances. Its truth is a necessary fiction. Close family and friends appear in static snapshots: “I see the barbecue pit, my father disdainfully flipping burgers.” His narration grows so detached, he calls his kin “the family,” and he refers to his sibling as “Little Sister” in a tone less autobiographical than anthropological. One recent gray afternoon, I found myself on the fifth floor of the Whitney Museum, in New York, browsing Zoe Leonard: Survey, an exhibition of the American artist’s nearly 40-year practice. Across these five frames, the same two pictures repeat, as though Leonard’s film had been jammed. Personal digressions suggest an intelligent polymath with an empathy problem, too aloof to relate to those closest to him. He can talk the talk, but so what? The novel’s facts start to seem suspicious; Zeke’s research for MEN IN QUOTES is strung through with joking asides and anecdotes that would surely invite academic scorn. ¤
Banner image from Diego de Silva. The girl she once was, or the man he is no longer? His book, MEN IN QUOTES, a loose ethnographic study of contemporary masculinity, is excerpted at the novel’s end. Unappreciated by her husband, who disapproved of her practice, Clover killed herself one morning in 1885 by drinking photochemicals. He hates having his intellectual authority questioned. It is Lynne Tillman’s true genre, her subject, her muse. He often concludes self-lacerating statements with “kidding,” a verbal tic that seems somewhat insincere. As he considers the “glut of images” in which we live, his own mind comes to resemble that glut. There’s evidence James based his “Pandora” (1884) on her, a whip-smart, creative “New Woman” to match Zeke the New Man. “It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others — allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.” For Clover, as for Zeke, that psychic distance becomes too great to bridge. “I don’t pretend I’m ‘just’ an observer,” Zeke proclaims. Zeke Hooper is a picture of pictures, an amalgamation of the images he so hungrily consumes. Petey might just stand in for a film camera, a mute super-eye threatened with extinction. Each time I look at it, I force my nine-year-old mother into being, hold her, giggling, all to myself. ¤
Evan Moffitt is a writer and critic based in New York. I love that fiction; I need it. “If it did it would be just another unreliable narrator.” What else is there?  
III. He feels endangered, a Mr. Lynne?) as it does about our acculturation by images. Zeke craves intimacy with women and is drawn to their strength, but he is ultimately more comfortable keeping them at a distance. Zeke suggests many causes for her gruesome suicide, but we are left to wonder if she wasn’t killed by photography itself, and the emotional space it forced between her and the people she captured. In many ways, Men and Apparitions is a portrait of Generation X: caught between the analog and the digital, economic prosperity and recession, the sexually objectifying gender stereotypes of the Bush-Clinton years and the Obama-era gender revolution, Gen-X men are cleaved by history, left raw and ready for the malaise of middle age. Our public personae are now simulacra, crafted to appeal to specific audiences and subject to constant reformulation. What lies beyond the frame always determines what fits within it. Zeke would cherish my photograph, too, and its false promise to make sense of the past. In a form of critique reminiscent of Andrea Fraser’s early performances, her observations at once lance visible institutional biases and the hidden forces that instill them. She texts me a picture of it one afternoon, its corner creased from an antique vanity mirror where she keeps it tucked up against the glass. In one, the woman faces Liberty, while in the other, she looks slightly askance.  
IV. Men and Apparitions is a work of fiction as ventriloquy by a winking puppet.  
II. “In the field, ethnographers become engaged, entranced, involved, even entangled.” Tillman, Zeke, and their readers are both looking and being looked at. “A photograph doesn’t speak,” notes Zeke. Leonard’s photographs have a metonymic quality, like tender relics of a relative she hardly knew, realer now than the person they capture. Zeke’s world, and its expectations of him, have changed as rapidly as photography. It’s worth treating the first post-feminist generation of adult males as a test case for long-term solutions to the problem. The women he understands best live in silver gelatin: a long portion of the novel is dedicated to Clover Hooper Adams, a distant relative and amateur photographer, whose work was much acclaimed by her circle of New England patricians, including close confidant Henry James. Petey past his prime. Zeke wonders if he inherited his love of photography from her, though they more clearly share a sense of alienation from the world around them. “For ethnology to live, its subject must die,” Jean Baudrillard wrote in Simulations (1983), and so now we die every day. Perhaps. MAY 14, 2018

I. If Zeke is a New Man in search of New Women, his notional feminism isn’t backed up by behavior. This book’s lens is also a mirror. Tillman is 71, but she delves deeply into the psychology of a man half her age. Zeke’s melancholic obsession with analog photographs is also a refusal to let a part of him go that must expire so that photography can survive. A cultural anthropologist by profession, Zeke ricochets between detached analysis of heirloom pictures — his own, or others fished from flea-market albums — and theories of photography in a 400-page monologue packed with observations on gender, sex, and death. Maggie appears throughout the novel only as a kind of cipher, thinly described, an image lacking true life. Photographed on tables wrapped in crinkled white butcher paper, they appear worn by human touch, as if cut from the jaundiced innards of a family album. He still lacks empathy. “The self is a necessary fiction,” he observes. If it is criticism, too, it knowingly undermines its own arguments. Zeke soon learns that photographs cheat the aging process: “At nine I stared at pictures of Mother when she was nine, so cool, Mother, Ellen, a girl, and only I alone could force a Mother into Being.” They give him the power of time-travel, the ability to surround himself with people plucked from the past, like bugs encased in amber. She teaches us how to look, while revealing why we see what we do. Zeke Hooper might be Madame Realism reincarnate: his monologue is an essay, a theory of photography, that reveals as much about its author (Zeke?