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.
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