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.
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