MAY 14, 2018
THERE’S A PHOTOGRAPH my mother can’t stop thinking about. 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. 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. She stares straight at the camera, and I can tell she is laughing, even though her upside-down figure is a blur. My grandfather leans too far forward; I can’t see his face. My mother tells me the photograph still makes her cry, but I wonder: For whom? The girl she once was, or the man he is no longer? That smeary snapshot is a substitute for other memories she’d prefer to forget. Its truth is a necessary fiction.
Ezekiel Hooper Stark is obsessed with family photographs. 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. 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. “My self is my field, and habitually I observe, and write field notes,” Zeke proclaims. His book, MEN IN QUOTES, a loose ethnographic study of contemporary masculinity, is excerpted at the novel’s end. 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.
“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. “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. 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. His mother deems him morbid, for she understands photography’s relationship to death, something Zeke discovers only later. 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.
Boy Zeke is a loner, more content to keep company with the dead. 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. 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.
Zeke’s one close live friend, Mr. Petey, is a praying mantis he spots in the family garden. A flighty endangered species with a talent for camouflage, Mr. Petey is the consummate observer, seeing more than his human neighbors while remaining unaware of ecological threats to his survival. If photography allows Zeke to trap metaphorical bugs, Mr. 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. Mr. Petey might just stand in for a film camera, a mute super-eye threatened with extinction.
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. “I wasn’t into the mechanics of cameras — lenses, focal length, speed — just the imagination behind the camera — me,” he recalls. “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. 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. What lies beyond the frame always determines what fits within it.
Framing, and the framed, are central to Lynne Tillman’s writing, which ranges freely across genres, from fiction to art to literary criticism. 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. From the moment she appeared in a 1986 column in Art in America, Madame Realism made criticism personal, its analysis situated in real space trafficked by real people. 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 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? Lynne?) as it does about our acculturation by images.
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. 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. Personal digressions suggest an intelligent polymath with an empathy problem, too aloof to relate to those closest to him. 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. Men and Apparitions is a work of fiction as ventriloquy by a winking puppet. If it is criticism, too, it knowingly undermines its own arguments. “A photograph doesn’t speak,” notes Zeke. “If it did it would be just another unreliable narrator.” What else is there?
Good writers are always ethnographers of a sort. They study human behavior in minute detail, connecting actions with their motivations, cultural forms with their social function. Writers are also always untrustworthy. Bias is a fact of writing as much as perspective is a quality of sight. “I don’t pretend I’m ‘just’ an observer,” Zeke proclaims. “In the field, ethnographers become engaged, entranced, involved, even entangled.” Tillman, Zeke, and their readers are both looking and being looked at. This book’s lens is also a mirror.
Am I a “New Man”? A list of possible criteria, drawn up from Men and Apparitions: self-avowedly feminist, emotional, alienated, resistant to stereotypical gender roles, intimidated by machismo. Perhaps. “New Men” are Zeke’s subject of study for MEN IN QUOTES, though he clearly counts as one, too. 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. 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.
Zeke craves intimacy with women and is drawn to their strength, but he is ultimately more comfortable keeping them at a distance. 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. There’s evidence James based his “Pandora” (1884) on her, a whip-smart, creative “New Woman” to match Zeke the New Man. Several of Clover’s photographs appear here, along with excerpts from letters she wrote to family and friends. 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. Unappreciated by her husband, who disapproved of her practice, Clover killed herself one morning in 1885 by drinking photochemicals. 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. “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). “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.
Zeke’s infatuation for Clover grows when his wife, Maggie, leaves him for his best friend. Maggie appears throughout the novel only as a kind of cipher, thinly described, an image lacking true life. 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. “I fell in love with an essentially always unavailable woman, the image of a beloved,” he laments. Photographs, unlike human beings, can’t betray us.
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. It’s worth treating the first post-feminist generation of adult males as a test case for long-term solutions to the problem. If Zeke is a New Man in search of New Women, his notional feminism isn’t backed up by behavior. He still lacks empathy. He hates having his intellectual authority questioned. He idealizes a certain image of femininity, but lays blame when women don’t conform. 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. He can talk the talk, but so what? All leftist politics face this same challenge, to move beyond the mere assimilation of radical discourse and into the realm of real action.
Tillman is 71, but she delves deeply into the psychology of a man half her age. 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. Zeke’s world, and its expectations of him, have changed as rapidly as photography. He feels endangered, a Mr. Petey past his prime. The part of him left behind, wounded by cultural obsolescence, is perhaps his true “other inside.”
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. 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. Across these five frames, the same two pictures repeat, as though Leonard’s film had been jammed. In one, the woman faces Liberty, while in the other, she looks slightly askance. 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. 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. I think of my mother’s text message: a photograph of a photograph, its physicality preserved while also flattened. Leonard’s photographs have a metonymic quality, like tender relics of a relative she hardly knew, realer now than the person they capture.
Zeke Hooper is a picture of pictures, an amalgamation of the images he so hungrily consumes. “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. 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. Our public personae are now simulacra, crafted to appeal to specific audiences and subject to constant reformulation. We snap, we look, we share, we move on. “For ethnology to live, its subject must die,” Jean Baudrillard wrote in Simulations (1983), and so now we die every day. 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. New Men need New Pictures.
I return to my mother’s photograph, or my pixelated version of that glossy object. How does it suggest I can emulate my grandfather, while learning from his mistakes? 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. Each time I look at it, I force my nine-year-old mother into being, hold her, giggling, all to myself. I imagine how Barthes felt about that portrait of his mother, how he saw her whole life in its fragment. Zeke would cherish my photograph, too, and its false promise to make sense of the past. “The self is a necessary fiction,” he observes. I love that fiction; I need it. It is Lynne Tillman’s true genre, her subject, her muse.
Banner image from Diego de Silva.