Life in the Bits and Pieces: Lynne Tillman’s Quiet Revolution

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.

{EAN1}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.”

This is one reason it took so long for Tillman to write the book after her last novel, American Genius, A Comedy, appeared in 2006. And yet, it is also true that every book is a journey, which means that the best, or most engaged, writing is open to the vicissitudes of process — what a writer learns, what is taken on and discarded along the way. Coincidence again, which in the case of Men and Apparitions means Clover Hooper Adams, real-life wife of Henry Adams, and a pioneering 19th century photographer. In 1885, at age 42, she committed suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide. “I became completely fascinated,” Tillman laughs, ticking off the various ways that Adams connected to the concerns with which the novel was already enmeshed. “Her father was an ophthalmologist, and he raised her. Her mother was a feminist who died of tuberculosis when she was very young. So, I’m constituting Zeke’s family, I’m thinking that on the maternal side, there is this connection, and then she committed suicide. I’d never written about suicide, but I have had friends who committed suicide, and it is a great mystery when somebody does it. I was thinking about that, and this helped me work it into the family romance, and bring that together with the thoughts about his scholarship. At a certain point, I realized that she had to have her own chapter, where Zeke goes to DC and researches her.”

What Tillman is describing is narrative, the way it gets constructed out of bits and pieces, which means that it is something we discover as much as we create. More to the point, however, she is suggesting the extent to which Men and Apparitions is a novel of ideas. Indeed, it makes us question the very notion of the novel, and not only because Zeke is a descendent of Clover Adams. Throughout the book, Tillman intersperses her own found photographs, most from a junk store in the Hudson Valley, which often represent invented characters: uncles and cousins and family members, the fictional palette rendered real. “I decided pretty early on,” she says, “that I wanted pictures. It didn’t make sense to have an ethnographer of family photos, a collector, and not to use photographs.” In a way, this serves, like Adams, to blur the boundaries; is it fiction or nonfiction or a bit of both? On the other hand, Tillman points out, “photographs or illustrations have been used in books since the beginning of books. Everybody now cites Sebald, but it happened way before he started doing it.” The idea, for her, is to explore family, identity even, as something that we want to preserve, to hold onto, even as time insists we can’t. For Zeke, this means his distant older brother and his semi-silent sister; his wife, who has abandoned him for his best friend. “I think in a funny way,” Tillman insists, “that’s part of what Zeke is thinking about. At the time we take them — not now so much, with the cellphone — but previously, people thought photographs would capture something they would always want to remember. But the fact is that as you are living, mostly you don’t want to go back.” The past, in other words, is a construction — like the photograph itself. “All ‘portraits’ are also self-portraits,” Zeke declares at one point; what he means is that all portraits, all images, are a function of their frames.

For Tillman, this is also true of masculinity, which compels both her and Zeke. The novel ends with a 67-page case study on the subject; it is the flip side of Haunted Houses in that way. Here, Zeke frames a concept he calls the New Man, although this, he acknowledges, involves another “construction — or fiction, characteristics of boys born under the sign of feminism.” Zeke himself is such a figure, born in the late 1970s, navigating (or trying to) a world in which the boundaries are necessarily in flux. Still, what is masculinity if not a sort of image? This is, in part, what drew Tillman to the book. “I knew,” she explains, finishing her tea in the half-light of the restaurant, “I wanted to write a novel about living in a glut of images. I knew I wanted to be thinking about masculinity in our time. The images became the way in because masculinity is also based on image. And all of that is broken down.”

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