“The miracle of photography, of its so-called objective image,” wrote Jean Baudrillard, “is that it reveals a radically non-objective world.” A photograph creates the illusion of a stable reality. But what it truly captures is the most passing revelation—a kind of social “apparition” from which we gather clues.

This miracle lies at the heart of Men and Apparitions, Lynne Tillman’s idiosyncratic new novel. Ezekiel Hooper Stark, the cultural anthropologist at its center, studies family photos, and he sees keenly how images construct the mysteries of identity. “A family’s secrets appear as absences and exclusions, erasures and deletions,” Zeke says. “The not-there, un-pictured life—think about it, an un-pictured life—or invisible story, hangs around the edges of albums, obscene, out of sight, off screen, you name it.” In other words, there’s more reality there than we see. Zeke has blind spots, too. Reeling from romantic upheaval, he embarks on a project to study the image of the New Man, raised in the 1990s “under the sign of feminism.” It’s an effort to reveal the apparitions of his subjects’ masculinities—and his own.

The photos we capture—and launch from our devices onto Instagram, YouTube, Tinder—extrude our desires into the ether, and Tillman has attuned her antennae to their strange frequencies. For her, they raise questions of heredity. What images of family and self have we inherited? How do we assemble our identities—of families, genders, and physical bodies—and the “un-pictured” life at their margins? And can we change the way we see them? In a novel that overflows with obsessive, encyclopedic energy, her characters luxuriate in self-conscious play, double meaning, and provocative inquiry. The result is a work that enlarges our understanding of what the novel can be—and the sense of self we take for granted.

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