Digressive Sensitivity

Snapshots reproduced in Lynne Tillman's novel Men and Apparitions. Courtesy Soft Skull Press.

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Lynne Tillman’s fiction is animated by critical inquiry: her characters question everyone and everything around them, they question themselves, they question their own questions. The narrator of her previous novel, American Genius: A Comedy (2006), is so attentive to materials and textures, and to her own attentiveness, that the story is continually stalled as she slowly circles new revelations and doubles back to previous subjects.

Throughout her career, Tillman has worked such convolutions into her art criticism, most famously in the Madame Realism stories, several of which were first published in Art in America in the 1980s. She created personas with self-consciously goofy names (Madame Realism, Paige Turner, the Translation Artist) who reflected on the personal and institutional contexts in which art and culture are seen. Through these characters, Tillman delivered serious commentary disguised as fiction. Her texts blended art-critical acumen with literary expressions of sensation and anxiety.

For Tillman, neurotic reflection is not a retreat from politics: it’s a contemporary form of sensitivity to the world and the people in it. Of course, it can also be more than a tad blinkered and narcissistic. This push and pull between curiosity and insularity is a vivifying tension in her work. Her new novel is true to form. Men and Apparitions is a meandering monologue narrated by Ezekiel H. Stark, a successful young cultural anthropologist (he calls himself an ethnographer) who studies both vernacular photography, examples of which dot the text, and changing ideas of masculinity. It’s a brisk and lively book, in spite of its length and complexity. It contains a family history, a tale of failed marriage, and a portrait of nervous jealousy, all tied together by Stark’s need to theorize his experiences.

His experiences don’t make for a particularly unique story: he marries young, his wife leaves him for his best friend, and he undergoes a crisis of self-hatred and anger. Tillman doesn’t color his resentment with the sort of psychological detail that might elicit sympathy; Stark’s desperate, possessive rage makes for uncomfortable reading: he calls his ex evil and wishes death on her from the depths of his self-pity. But his subsequent attempt to ground himself by obsessively researching a nineteenth-century relative, Clover Hooper Adams (the wife of historian Henry Adams and a friend of Henry James), allows Tillman to recover neglected histories as a springboard for lengthy meditations on the possibility of intimacy with those who are absent—a theme that dovetails nicely with the book’s consideration of photography.

Ethnography provides a perfect intellectual backdrop for Tillman’s digressive style because the field is fraught with the problem of establishing one’s own position relative to those under observation. For this reason, it’s tempting to read Stark’s commentaries on culture as if they were the book’s theses, even though his arguments are often vague and he’s clearly an unreliable narrator. Nonetheless, his musings echo Tillman’s concern with the layers of culture that condition our thinking. If the Madame Realism stories examined how institutional settings contribute to one’s understanding of art, Men and Apparitions explores how theoretical knowledge constructs one’s understanding of experience. In both cases, the understanding can be deeply felt in spite of its murkiness. Stark’s conclusions are often overly general, and yet in the context of his narrative, the clichés acquire a kind of poetic sense:

Because of the camera and photographs, consciousness changed. Or, put it this way: there could be a consciousness industry, because of photography. There could be pop culture.

Such statements do not incisively describe the world, but they become complex within the text because they rub up against so much disparate material, including contradictory arguments and novelistic storytelling. Somewhat akin to John Ashbery’s liberal inclusion of clichés in his poems, Tillman’s use of familiar cultural commentary represents how individual notions of truth are often tied up in idiosyncratic or fuzzy thoughts yet can become profound in the complex context of a life, or a book.

Tillman’s narrative devices further complicate Stark’s theoretical arguments by filtering them through his neurosis. Men and Apparitions might broadly posit that photography changed consciousness, but more specifically, it attempts to express that change in the voice of a character who is aware of how his own consciousness has changed. Later in the novel, Stark’s analysis of himself and his social position becomes more explicit: increasingly, his narration turns to questions of gender as he obsessively muses on shifting norms of masculinity. He argues that certain men (young, educated city dwellers—the demographic he identifies with) have undergone a shift in consciousness (analogous, one supposes, to the shifts occasioned by photography) and are now more sensitive to their own performance of gender.

Stark, still devastated by the dissolution of his marriage, risks derailing his promising academic career by devoting himself, against his department’s wishes, to a study of what he calls “the new man.” The last section of the book reads like a rough draft of an ethnography of masculinity. Titled “Men in Quotes,” Stark’s paper is a collage of unresolved theories and quotes collected through a survey of men like himself. It’s a loose, personal, and painfully earnest conversation among peers about intergenerational change:

I mean, we boys breathed the aroma of freer lives for women, but in actuality what was happening on the ground wasn’t so sweet. Still, their/our mothers and aunts espoused women’s rights, and we/they learned them, early. Our fathers (some who art in heaven) squirmed, resisted, supported, ignored, or asked for divorce. Or, she did.

At this point, the book’s relationship to satire becomes highly ambiguous. Is Tillman’s representation of Stark a novelistic attempt to empathize with an unsympathetic character? Or is she critiquing liberal male feminists for fetishizing their own self-awareness? Certainly the closing dissection of masculinity casts a different light on the book’s earlier depiction of intense male jealousy. One inevitably reads Stark’s supposedly well-intentioned theories of gender in the context of the character’s obsessive behavior. And yet aspects of his theories are nevertheless reflective of reality, insofar as they seem like commonly held positions. Understandable—even if confused and vague—they are opinions about a changing world.

Ultimately, Men and Apparitions, unlike its narrator, is not interested in conclusive cultural diagnosis. Tillman is far more concerned with structures of feeling than with grandiose analytics. Stark’s reflexive theorizing neither suggests social progress nor masks regression: rather, it represents one version of self-awareness through which people today see themselves. Tillman is trying to capture this refracted way of seeing, which is contemporaneous, as the book argues, with our current image regime.

Though her writing is conceptually knotty, Tillman’s style gives her work clarity. Casual and direct, her prose is associative both in content (it skips from one digression to another) and rhythm (it is often irregular, singsongy, bouncy). No matter what genre Tillman is working in, this style suggests an endlessly unspooling talking cure, a social body attempting to imperfectly come to terms with itself. Men and Apparitions is one of her most sustained, complicated, and astute reflections on the dialectics of sensitivity.