It’s been a long time coming, Lynne Tillman’s sixth novel Men and Apparitions. “I spent eight years,” the novelist says on a Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, over a cup of tea. We are sitting in a restaurant in Silverlake, in the precise stillness of the gap between lunch and dinner, empty tables and 1970s rock on the speakers: Steely Dan, Stealers Wheel. It is not unlike a moment in a Tillman book: liminal, marked by hints and whispers, stuck in the middle with you.
Tillman and I have been friends for many years, since her novel Motion Sickness came out in 1991. She is my favorite kind of friend, someone I met because I admired her work so much. Motion Sickness was a revelation when I read it, a novel built — to some extent, at least — around the conceit of postcards never sent. “The strain of responsibility pulls me on in moderation,” she writes there. “I get seasick on ferries even when the water’s calm. Motion sickness. Motion pictures. Picture postcards.” The idea is that storytelling is conditional, something we do for reasons we may or may not be able to articulate, something we do (perhaps) first for ourselves. We look for clues, or we invent them; we build the landscapes, the dynamics, that we need. “The fiction of fiction,” Tillman calls it, although her novels have never been conventional; her first, Haunted Houses, published in 1987, involves three women whose stories never overlap. “Writing Haunted Houses,” she remembers, “was teaching myself how to write a novel. I knew nothing. I hadn’t taken writing courses and I couldn’t figure out why I needed to have the girls connect. I was thinking of them as case studies, each girl, and then I got to the second section and realized, Oh this is where people have their characters meet. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I needed to do that. To me, there was no logic of necessity. I thought to myself: They’re together in the space of the book.”
Men and Apparitions operates out of a similar territory, down to the idea of case studies. At the same time, it’s also a departure in many ways. “I’ve never wanted to follow,” Tillman says, “an idea of what the novel is, or needs to be. In Motion Sickness, for instance, I wanted to do the opposite of what I had done in Haunted Houses. Everybody says you can’t do coincidence in fiction, and so I made a novel full of accidental meetings.” With Men and Apparitions, she has pushed those intentions further, writing a novel that, in some sense, is not really (or only) a “novel” at all. Narrated by Ezekiel Hooper Stark, an ethnographer and cultural anthropologist who specializes in lost family photographs, it is a grab bag of a book, mixing text and image, fiction and nonfiction, material about the character (his history and relations) and essayistic takes on art and photography and masculinity. “At first,” Tillman recalls, “I thought I was going to write the book from Zeke’s point of view as a kind of lecture. A long lecture with a lot of digressions. But that structure didn’t work because there were so many digressions. This lecture would be an hour and a half, let’s say, at a big auditorium in a graduate school; suspending time and then going back to the lecture didn’t make sense. So how to use the stuff I’d written in a different way became the first big structural challenge.”
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