Men and Apparitions – Lynne Tillman

Ezekiel Stark, a skeptic in his field, was promising. He studied small groups or areas of cultural concerns – family photographs, the basis of images, men. His dissertation pubbed by a university press, his gig in acadoomia was upped to associate professor. He walked the halls of academe, walked the line, talked the talk, and went by the book. He was a good enough colleague, if sometimes too aggressive when he thought he was right. He always seemed preoccupied. Sometimes he partied. Sometimes he was a hermit. He did his version of field work. He wrote papers, articles, books, he made a splash, and then he floated.

Late in the “novel” ‘Men and Apparitions’ the protagonist, who has been writing fragments, short experiences and expositions, writes three third person sketches of himself, one is above and the other two contain spoilers so I’ll not present them here. Here’s my attempt at Ezekiel Stark’s story:

Ezekiel Stark, a boring, mundane academic, who takes anti-depressants, and excrutiatingly mansplains page after page after page on the totally disinteresting subject of ethnography [the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures], more specifically the study of old family photos. He is a narcissistic, misogynistic, bore of a human. He never parties, he just whines about the fact that his best friend ran off with his wife and talks about his fractured relationship with his mother, his father, his elder brother (who is more successful than him), his younger sister (who chose from an early age to remain silent), his aunt, his ancestors and any other relative he can blame for his shitty position. Ezekiel wonders if it was the rise of feminism in the 60’s/70’s that has brought on this crap life and writes a field study “Men in Quotes” which appears at the end of this book. It is no wonder Ezekiel is single, who could be enamored to such a self-centered bore of a human?

‘Men and Apparitions’ is close to four-hundred pages in length, with ‘The Spectator’ describing it as “mansplaining littered with tedious verbal tics, which is oddly compelling to read”, which is a perfect description. Unlike ethnography “photographs can create images, but they are not images per se, they are things, a physical object”, this novel is a slow feeding of images, semi-stories, a peeling back of layers, slowly (very slowly) the picture comes into focus.

Some have said that our being absorbed in images is the sine qua non for our inevitable self- and other-destruction. Some have said that narcissism, shown by our avidity for images, turned us inward, into inner-bounded psyches, away from the natural order and from a necessary empathy, both underlying our immense species failure and so on. Interiority – an illusion as great as Narcissus found the river/mirror to be.
Narcissism is part of the natural order.

These “chapters”, they read more like diary entries but are not marked as such, are random, disconnected mind explosions of Ezekiel. However, they do reveal learnings, about our protagonist, ourselves and our place in the world:

It was late for the morning, and I lay in bed like a drugged person, and that’s when the idea aced me. It flashed. It hit me, I’d look after the lost, care for the unwanted. Image detritus. I’d turn into a finder of the unwanted. Homeless photographs, the exilic.
I hunted the streets, sidewalks, under tables in restaurants (in winter, found gloves everywhere); the floors in clubs and bars; now in digital time, there’s way less. What people throw out tells an untold story. (I’m not a garbologist). There’s still purging among over inflated consumers of tech. Get rid of stuff and buy the new, so material shows up, photos left in a book, books tossed out everywhere; I’ve found thumb drives too. Meanwhile, garbage trucks drop cartons and garbage collectors run wild in the streets. The streets overflow with rejection.

Silence is also a theme throughout, the silence of his little sister who refuses to speak, his wife (“the silence grew”), his aunt who ignores him, his strange belief that he can make himself invisible, like Mr. Percy a praying mantis he used to visit in the yard when he was a child, the animosity between him and his older brother, the silence between them:

Little Sister prepared me for the silence required in thinking, writing, reading. I don’t blame her for what happened between me and Maggie [his wife]. Silence became an intangible obstacle. She has to deal with it, hers, all the time. Don’t know how she does it.

Always the academic, our protagonist quotes others’ texts throughout, here Clifford Geertz a famous ethnographer, talking about anthropologists and photographs:

They marginalize what is central. What is needed, or anyway must serve, is tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales: mini-narratives with the narrator in them.

Here’s our novel, a series of tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales and mini-narratives with the narrator in them. An ethnographer creating a cultural artefact that he can then digest, explore, study.

Fifty pages into this book I was willing to hurl it against the wall, the voice didn’t sound like any male I’d ever come across, the “just kidding” and “ only joking” at the end of lines, the tedious academic style, however I became slightly intrigued by this most annoying and unreliable narrator, and within another fifty pages I was strangely curious as to his fate.

At 397 pages this is overly long and I found the closing field study “Men in Quotes” completely off putting, an imaginary set of responses, by nameless “new men” subjects, to questions about the impact of feminism on their lives. Again, I do not know a single male (and I’ve known plenty) who would answer these questions in that manner. Interestingly in the acknowledgements Lynne Tillman thanks “all of the men who responded so generously and intelligently to Zeke’s questions”, so if they are actual responses then the circles that the author moves in are far far removed from the circles I move in. Not every man I know answers with academic twaddle!!!

Initially this began as a “did not finish”, slowly grew to a “I wonder what will happen next” and petered out to a “I’ve only 100 pages to go may as well finish it” book. I can imagine others liking it, just like I can imagine that I’ve completely missed the point, however I can’t see it making the shortlist of the Republic of Consciousness Prize – the reason I read it, it’s on the longlist. Next up my sixth title from the longlist, ‘Lote’ by Shola von Reinhold.

6 thoughts on “Men and Apparitions – Lynne Tillman

  1. Pingback: Republic of Consciousness Prize Longlist 2021 | Messenger's Booker (and more)

  2. This book has been out here for several years and I considered it a few times, but its length put me off. Your review has safely put to rest any temptations I might have had. I am hypersensitive to writers taking on a cross gender voice because there is a tendency to over reach. As in transition where similar efforts to play to a stereotype, I know well that people accept you, genderwise, at face value; it does not matter what your voice sounds like or what you say.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The narrator reminds me of the protagonist in Iris Murdoch’s the Sea, the Sea: annoying, lacking self-awareness, clinging to victimhood, etc. I quite liked the Murdoch. Maybe I’ll read this one.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, me too, I’m sure. Most of the contemporary fiction I read is sort of marginal anyway, but it can be educational if you compare it to better-made things. Only so much of that one can bear, of course, if one isn’t a specialist reader like those Victorian scholars plowing through stacks of second- and third-rate novels to broaden their understanding of the period.

        Liked by 1 person

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