The Genius and the Nobody: Lynne Tillman’s Men and Apparitions


There are girl girls and boy girls and boy boys and girl boys, I once heard Eileen Myles tell Lynne Tillman. You, she said, are a masculine writer. (I’m paraphrasing.) The two of them were discussing Tillman’s book The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories at The Center for Fiction in 2016. Myles, wearing a chambray shirt and khakis rolled up at the ankles, could’ve passed for a beatnik boy girl.”. “I’m talking about choices and affiliations,” she said. “The way you handle masculine characters,” she told Tillman, “seems like they’re very comfortable tools for you as a writer.”

In her new novel, Men and Apparitions (Soft Skull Press, March 2018), Tillman appears in the guise of a thirty-eight-year-old man named Zeke, an ethnographer whose research interests include the contemporary American male. I say Tillman appears in this guise because Tillman, it seems to me, is not a writer who invents characters and moves them through the machinery of plot. Rather, she seems to inhabit other minds—or she lets them move through her, like a medium.

In her writing, Lynne Tillman tunes to the thought transmissions of busted hearts, crack-ups, outliers, cranks—those too often alone and strange, tethered to the animal of the body, which is startling. When her character Madame Realism first appeared in 1984, in the self-published chapbook Madame Realism, she arrived on the frequency of a dropout: a woman who refuses the macho posturing of Surrealism (or Sir Realism). Employed as a critic for Art in America, Madame Realism took a contrarian stance that punctured the pieties of both the museum and the museum-goer.

Similarly, in her 1987 novel Haunted Houses, Tillman gave us girls growing up: obstinate or sullen, carried on currents and reasons unknown to even themselves. As curators Mark Alice Durant and Jane D. Marsching once wrote about the artist Susan Hiller’s work:

Echoing the cultural trope that young females are particularly susceptible to control by malevolent forces, the girls … represent the fear of the irrational by embodying or hosting or being a conduit for the spirit of another.

In her 2006 novel American Genius: A Comedy, Tillman depicts the revenant inner monologue of a woman named Helen, holed up in some sort of rest home like Hans Castorp in the Swiss Alps. Helen’s sidewinding thoughts take her through varied terrain: dermatology, textiles, the Industrial Revolution, family pets, slavery, aging, and death. “The circularity and repetition of her thinking seemed to me the way thought, when you’re not thinking, happens,” Tillman said in a 2011 interview with the Electronic Book Review.

Now, in Men and Apparitions, Tillman’s interest in the way thinking happens is evident in the narrator’s discursive, recursive banter. The book is the story of the Stark family—twenty-first century Boston Brahmins haunted by their past and undermined by the slow violence of alcohol and reticence. Or the book is a study of visual culture, like Susan Sontag’s On Photography or John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Or the book acts as a seismograph, registering shifting patterns of gender identity and its relationship to power.

It’s hard to classify this book.

The novel’s narrator, Ezekiel Stark (Zeke), was born in 1978, he tells us, which makes him a member of that in-between generation, arriving at the dawn of the digital era, neither Gen X nor Millennial. Zeke spends his childhood in the backyard, a fugitive from family life, with a praying mantis named Mr. Petey. Later, he devotes his academic career to the study of the American family photo album:

I name us Picture People because most special and obvious about the species is, our kind lives on and for pictures, lives as and for images, our species takes pictures, makes pix, thinks in pix. It exists if it’s a picture and can be pictured. Surface is depth, when nothing is superficial.

Zeke draws on semiotic theory and the work of contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince—Tillman’s peers, the so-called Pictures Generation—whose work interrogates the structures of power and identity embedded in the images of mass culture; artists after Warhol who recognize that image and identity are one.

That is to say, Tillman is interested in the performativity of images—the way that visual language, or any language, can accomplish things in the world. (Think of Bertrand Russell’s definition of electricity: not so much a thing as a way things happen.) In the book, Zeke says:

The image world is relational, inter-relational, vertiginous. The New Man developed AS images, since masculinity and femininity exist primarily as images and behaviors (which can and do change) in relation to each other.

Here, the insights of artists and performers converge with those of sociologists and postmodern feminists such as Judith Butler. Applying theories of language to the processes of gender construction, Butler demonstrates how gender identity emerges from words and actions repeated in a social setting. Establishing your identity or recognizing the identity of another relies on a shared set of codes and signs—an interpretive act fraught with the ambiguities and uncertainties of reading and writing. This uncertainty is also Zeke’s subject.

In the book’s final section, Zeke embarks on an ambitious new project: an ethnographic study of his peers, the New Man, a generation shaped by the work of feminism. Facing personal losses and plagued by uncertainty, Zeke wonders, What does it mean to be a man now?

Rather than consensus, he finds confusion among his interview subjects: “In the post-women’s-movement era: what kind of partner do women want us to be? And: what do I feel during sex?”

One of his subjects admits:

I’m also confused about my attitudes towards women because I’m also confused if I am a woman. Genderqueer. I’m certain I haven’t had ‘women’s’ experiences… like walking down the street being catcalled, like sex with men, like straight female bonding… I have been called a feminazi though, I have been reviled as dyke and dyke is especially bad because it falls outside of male sexual use.

The confusion arises once you unhook the body from a predetermined role. In 1978, the year Zeke was born, the number of women entering the workforce peaked. Redistributing roles—and thus, the measures of value and power—appears to leave the distinctions between masculinity and femininity to the field of aesthetics—the makeup counter or the surface distinctions of the image.

(Look: the man on the train beside me is taking a selfie. He’s carefully adjusting the angle of his phone, the tilt of his chin, his gaze. He snaps several, then scrolls through the images, swiping, selecting variations of the pose. I take this to be an exercise in self-seeking: searching for the image that will reflect back to him some vision of masculinity that he has in mind. Of course, this is not a matter merely of personal taste. Our aesthetic judgments are also social, says Zeke.)

Arguably, the evolution of the American male since the mid-twentieth century is a function not only of feminism, but also a changing economy—our shift away from manufacturing toward the service sector. Zeke’s subjects seem to register their economic predicament only dimly. But this, more than feminism, may account for their sense of confusion: outpaced by women in a white-collar economy, unable to adapt to changing conditions or put feminism to use as a tool for re-imagining themselves, they can only say blankly that they think they have more choices than their fathers did.

Tillman told me in an interview that she wanted to write about contemporary masculinity because she wasn’t seeing this point of view on the current literary landscape:

I have a lot of young male friends, and they talk differently than older men about their relationships and attitudes about gender. I thought: this is fascinating. Why isn’t anybody representing this?

For those interested in taking the temperature of the American male, new batches of think pieces arrive more frequently than the Olympics. Even before the #MeToo movement, it wasn’t hard to find a cultural call and response on gender identity and relational norms. Nearly a decade ago, Hanna Rosin’s cover story for the Atlantic, “The End of Men,” noted the shifts in the global economy that have favored women in the workforce, upending the economic, cultural, and familial roles historically played by men. In 1999, Susan Faludi’s book Stiffed: the Betrayal of the American Man offered first-hand accounts from a diverse cross-section of men, from the working class to the entertainment industry. Like the men in Tillman’s novel, Faludi’s subjects report feeling that they’ve “lost their compass in the world.” Compared with their fathers’ generation, they feel “less triumphal, less powerful, less confident of making a living.”

It’s dispiriting to think that it’s women doing the important cultural work of listening, recording—or even asking the question: how does your gender identity impact you?—among those who, as far as I can see, have not made the same longitudinal inquiries into the female experience. My perspective here echoes Moira Donegan’s brave #MeToo account:

We spent hours teasing out how these men, many of whom we knew to be intelligent and capable of real kindness, could behave so crudely and cruelly toward us. And this is another toll that sexual harassment can take on women: It can make you spend hours dissecting the psychology of the kind of men who do not think about your interiority much at all.

Men and Apparitions acknowledges this cost in the figure of Clover Hooper Adams. A pioneering photographer, a gifted conversationalist and correspondent, friend of Henry James and wife of historian Henry Adams, Clover appears in the Stark family tree. She’s one of the apparitions in the title. Her presence begins to haunt Zeke as he turns over the past; she may haunt Zeke’s sister, too, afflicted from childhood by mutism or some other nervous disorder we associate with nineteenth century women—that is, pre-feminist, pre-Freudian mental health. (Zeke’s sister brings to mind Alice James, sister of Henry, a bright soul and a sharp wit, who would’ve been a tragic invalid had she not refused pity.) In the historical record, Clover’s life has been eclipsed by her suicide and by her husband’s decision, after her death, to destroy her letters and photographic negatives. When Clover appears to Zeke, her visitation is a “return of the repressed.”

It’s tempting to read Tillman’s work in light of contemporary cultural shifts—from third wave feminism to postmodern gender theory to trans activism. But reading this book, I found myself thinking of Henry and Alice’s brother, William James. There’s a clue in Zeke’s indecisiveness, a condition his therapist diagnoses as abulia: “an abnormal lack of ability to act or make decisions.” William James suffered from something similar: Should he pursue painting or medicine? Psychology or philosophy? Should he marry? Should he retire? Pulled in many directions at once, he found in the German language a name for his feeling: zerrissenheit, or torn-to-pieces-hood.

And there’s Zeke’s interest in spiritualism, which he shares with William James. Throughout his life, James was an avid, if skeptical, investigator of spiritual mediums and psychic phenomena. He helped found the American Society for Psychical Research, which applied modern scientific methods to studying the paranormal. Committed to suspending disbelief until all the evidence was in, he was convinced that human consciousness apprehends only a portion of the vast “cosmic consciousness.”

The nineteenth century quest for contact with the spirit world, as it appears in this novel, suggests Tillman’s interest in ways of knowing. Zeke is asking the questions that absorbed William James at the turn of the century: What is an object? What is a thought? How do we know? For James, direct perception—first-hand experience—was discovery’s workhorse:

Woe to him whose beliefs play fast and loose with the order which realities follow in his experience; they will lead him nowhere or else make false connexions.

This line, which comes from James’s Pragmatism lectures, delivered toward the end of his life, provides the epigraph for Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy. In these lectures and throughout his work, James sought to debunk nineteenth century idealism, which privileged universal principles over lived experience. (“I say damn the Absolute!” he once joked to a friend.) Instead, James took an empirical approach; he was relentlessly curious and insistently open to the buzzing, blooming contradictions of life. For him, the varieties of human experience did not call for a unifying theory, but manifested a rich pluralism. No wonder he often felt torn to pieces.

Tillman, too, in her late novels, seems to let everything in. Zeke riffs on Ellen DeGeneres, O.J. Simpson, utopian communities, 1950s TV, Emma Goldman, the United States Postal Service, suicide, Warhol, Margaret Fuller, John Cage. “How do you throw out the bathwater without the baby?” asks one of Zeke’s subjects, suggesting that the burden of proof—of knowing and deciding—relies on that vertiginous negotiation with others. Tillman’s insistence on the relational structure of meaning is a hallmark of James’s modernism.

There’s a chilling line in American Genius:

When something I suspected might annihilate me rose to the surface like scum, I vanished or disappeared inside myself, since I thought I knew what could destroy me, and, actually, I’d mandated myself to protect my mind, but I didn’t know what to do with my body, didn’t want to obey its laws, blood, curves, holes, and I didn’t care about it, was profligate with it, and still nothing of it could be forgotten, nothing.

To me, the line evokes an immanent threat: the speaker’s own body. Helen suffers afflictions of the skin and the stomach and her mind—because, as it turns out, you can’t protect your mind from either its conclusions or doubts. This is the problem that occupies Tillman in Men and Apparitions, and throughout her work: our embeddedness or emplacement in a body or skein of language that we did not make, which we must use to fashion our identity and negotiate with others. We’re “thrown,” as the philosophers say, into the world. We inherit a system of referents—male, female, black, white, gay, straight—that may turn out to be babble or worse, threaten our well-being, like the body’s own betrayals—it’s pernicious eruptions or derangements of the blood.

Make it new, the modernists said. But how to rebuild the living body? How to challenge the ideologies embedded in our bodies of discourse—sexism or racism, for example. Zeke may be agnostic on whether the individual can escape the bounds of emplacement, but Tillman’s work does suggest some means of egress.

First, there’s her radical empiricism, inherited from William James and echoed by Zeke: “Imagine if every time you entered into something, experience actually counted.” Letting experience shape belief, and not the other way around, expands the range of possibilities and offers the possibility of surprise.

Tillman’s pluralism affirms the idiosyncratic, the particular—the sick soul and the healthy mind. “Also I notice stooped shoulders, wandering eyes, palsies of every sort, harelips, limps,” says Helen in American Genius, “because for one thing, I am interested in defective bodies that function anyway.” For Tillman, our secondhand materials, inadequate or broken, spur invention and novelty. Defects are not nothing. As Helen observes:

A mistake or failed idea can also detonate the imagination, since it may explode a period’s codes or unconscious habits and actions better than its successes, and much erupts from the erroneous.

Zeke may not put it so blithely, but he does reach a kind of detente with his flawed ways of knowing.

The unconscious, for Tillman as for James, is an important reservoir of knowledge. Helen calls the unconscious “a force of nature like that the 18th century named ‘genius.’” She has in mind, I think, the Romantic poets, maybe standing on the yellow bank of a lake, the wind moving through the tops of the trees. For the Romantics, genius was a spirit that descended on the poet through the air. During a time of revolutionary upheaval in Europe and the American colonies, genius, bypassing the intellect or will, gave the poet a prophetic role.

The European surrealists also raided the unconscious for political, as well as artistic and literary, ends. In the involuntary and irrational images of the unconscious, they found the key to exposing the disorders of society and épater le bourgeois. But to the American mind, shaped by the Puritan belief in original sin, disorder is apparent everywhere. No need to go dredging the deep recesses of the mind. Here, what’s hidden is the immaterial principle of life—Dickinson called it Immortality; Emerson called it Soul. Maybe this is why, in the New World, the unconscious found an eager audience among Spiritualist mediums—mainly women, Zeke points out, long associated with ideas of the irrational.

When Eileen Myles called Tillman a masculine writer, she wasn’t referring only to Tillman’s subjects or themes. I think she also had in mind the role Tillman has claimed for herself in the public space. “I’m merely the writer,” Tillman told me when I spoke with her about the book—as if to distance herself from authorial intent—as if to say, I’m merely the radio dial.

In a conversation with City Lights Books, Tillman imagined a soundtrack for the novel:

It would move from hissing sounds, whispering voices, stadium shouting, lullabies, radiator noise, Bach played by Glenn Gould, Aretha, and Marvin Gaye, Al Green always, maybe some Dylan, my husband, David Hofstra, on bass, a metronome ticking, 1010 WINS news, weather reports, baseball and football games, etc.

Picture her tuning the dial on the wireless—a passive receiver for all that mobs the ether.
So: the nineteenth century Spiritualist medium. Bound by whalebone and bustle, this cohort of women tuned to a spiritual technology that offered some liberation from their material conditions. Their spiritual vocation—bypassing the intellect or will—gave them an authoritative voice and a public role. Many Spiritualists, reckoning with the social and political implications of this newfound authority, championed women’s rights, calling for equal access to education, property, and capital.

The unconscious: a force of nature like that the eighteenth century named ‘genius.’ Reframing our understanding of genius in this way to comprise the dark matter of human cognition, Tillman speaks to our current moment. Today, at the highest levels of the culture industry, power—otherwise known as genius—is being unseated. What has, until now, been invisible or silent steps forward. “I’m compelled to trust in the imagination,” says Helen, tossing a long line to Zeke, “it may offer, when it presents itself, something like choice.”


Photograph of Lynne Tillman © Craig Mod.

Nicole Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Guernica, Fence, The Atlas Review, Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. She serves as an editor for the digital arts journal Underwater New York and is a participant in the 2017-18 Arts Writing Workshop sponsored by the AICA/USA and Creative Capital/The Andy Warhol Foundation. More from this author →