“Maybe men just shouldn’t write women.”
It’s a common refrain, typically delivered through barely-contained rage, and it comes out often among my friends who write and read fiction. Whenever we encounter a male novelist whose women characters seem as flat as a dorm room poster of Kate Upton, we entertain the fantasy of a literary world where men are not allowed to write women characters. We decide that the inverse would still be okay, because, to paraphrase Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, that’s how generalizing about men works.
But Lynne Tillman’s new novel, Men and Apparitions, makes a better case for women writing men. I loved her pretentious protagonist, Ezekiel Hooper Stark, a 38-year-old ethnographer and assistant professor at an unnamed “Eastern university.” (His description of academia is perfect: “I’ll get associate, tenure, if I don’t piss off the department stiffs by being ‘too clever.’”)
Zeke studies family photographs, and is at work on a project called Men in Quotes that interrogates traditional modes of masculinity. His inquiry into photography forms the backbone of Men and Apparitions, and all the showy references are there: Baudrillard, Benjamin, and Barthes all make appearances, but so do Six Feet Under, the Nicole Brown Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey murder cases, and a praying mantis named Mr. Petey. The academic jargon’s further cut with an examination of Zeke’s own “peculiar love-troubles” (he just wants “a self-possessed, long-distance running woman”) and the very typical dysfunction of his family—his absent, alcoholic father; his adored, selectively mute little sister; his loving but distant editor mother; his terrifying pathologist older brother.
Tillman isn’t a writer you look to for plot-forward work, and Men and Apparitions is no exception, but neither does it coast on the clumsy charm of its narrator, though it could. Instead, it’s interested in something much more cerebral, and much more difficult to distill into a 600-word review. As I read it, I realized it was doing something I haven’t seen convincingly accomplished in any recent literature: It captures the feeling of life in a society that’s focused more on the quick consumption of a massive amount of text and images than it is on experience.
Consider Zeke’s damning deconstruction of the concept of picnicking: “The word ‘picnic,’ meant to be an idyll, signifies an idyllic image; the actual event is mostly hellish.... We can plan them, the way we do weddings, anniversaries, a picnic of delicious eats, sun-joy and togetherness, happiness galore: high expectations for a luxe day to remember, pleasant indolence, blissful relaxation. Reality disappoints regularly. When people are supposed to have fun, it’s likely they won’t, because fun can’t live up to its image. Does anything live up to its image?”
I immediately thought of Instagram. Why have the cookie on the plate when you could have the photo of the cookie on the plate? Does the idea of a thing before the reality of that thing provide a chance for it to disappoint you? This is a sad question to ask, because, really, I’d rather eat the cookie. I love cookies.
And anyway, this isn’t really about cookies. It’s about everything. It’s about constant mediation between experience and the description or idea of that experience, a troubling simultaneity that splits focus and fosters unhappiness. This is a scourge of modern life, a high-res lens through which we see our fractured world, and one captured with melancholic clarity in Men and Apparitions.
The second-greatest trick of this book is that it purports to be about old photographs, but it’s really about the ones streaming through the tiny computers we carry in our pockets at all times, invading our brains ahead of the world itself. The greatest is that Men and Apparitions begins as a book about men, and becomes one about everyone.
Men and Apparitions
by Lynne Tillman