Masculinity, we are often told, is in crisis. The narrator of Men and Apparitions, Professor Ezekiel (Zeke) Stark, both studies this crisis and personally confirms it. ‘I came naturally — haha — to observing my posse and me, guys late twenties to forty, and our attitudes to women, ourselves as “men,” etc’ he says, by way of introduction to his anthropological thesis about growing up under feminism. Prepare for mansplaining littered with tedious verbal tics, which is oddly compelling to read.
Zeke is between things. Born on the cusp of Gen X, a middle child to middle-class parents, he’s loitering on the tenure track of East Coast ‘Acadoomia’. There’s his Mother, an editor, who never loved Father, ‘a condescending asshole’, Brother Hart, a bully, and Little Sister, a ‘selectively mute’ fan of Virginia Woolf, who also kills herself. Zeke is saved by marrying Maggie, the love of his life, but she then goes off with his best friend. Most of the novel is Zeke’s monologue about the strain of these relationships, interspersed with photographs from his research into representations of anonymous American families. He pines for the analogue world of his first Kodak, but also envies — as an outsider — the togetherness of a group selfie.
Working at the frontier of fiction and criticism, Lynne Tillman is admired for smuggling theory into novels. As well as references from Walter Benjamin to Susan Sontag, the final quarter of the book is a draft of Zeke’s thesis, MEN IN QUOTES, a parody of ethnography that is thick with solipsism and thin on method. Although the switch in form is jarring, and not altogether successful, Zeke’s respondents do speak to troubling episodes from earlier in the novel. Modern men may ‘not always think of women as equals, or treat them as equals’, one source says, but ‘they’re certainly aware that they’re supposed to’. Maybe ‘the convincingly sensitive routine was just a Trojan Horse to conceal a caveman’ says another, which takes us back to when Zeke tells Maggie: ‘You have to love me, you have to’. She refuses. His reflex is to ‘hurt her, fuck her, get her back, make her mine, murder her’.
Why would a woman write this? Tillman clearly doesn’t condone such sentiments, but rather acknowledges their reality and recognises a responsibility at least to listen. Zeke’s voice at the novel’s close could well be her own: ‘These pages… contain other men’s thoughts, but always my preferences, because unwillingly I participate in everything I want to change.’
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