A speculative novel that unfolds with ease several narrative registers, Men and Apparitions opens with a quote from Flannery O'Connor: "The mystery is a profound humiliation for modern man." Humiliation perhaps because of the fascinating impotence that mysteries still produce in women and men today. What mysteries does the author of this book, Lynne Tillman, a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York and who has several novels to her credit, talk about? First of all, of how an essential invention of the modern world, the capture of images, the fixation of time in an instant, that is, photography, has influenced the construction of the separate consciousnesses of women and men in the last century.
Zeke, a young man from the affluent middle class of generation X, curious and obsessive, is dedicated to collecting old photos of American families, often found in the trash, and, through them and the different eras and fashions they reflect, he tries to create a theoretical framework of that iconographic "ethnography". While the image itself is "an experience," photography sees it as "a fact, an object." And it is on that path between the experience and the object that perpetuates it (reveals it) where the mystery occurs. But the characteristic of the "mystery" is its unknowability. And here arises another, the relationship between man and woman.
We see Zeke fall in love with a college classmate with whom he ends up marrying to live that "captive" love until one day he discovers that everything was a misunderstanding when she leaves him for her best friend.
We see Zeke fall in love with a college classmate with whom he ends up marrying to live that "captive" love until one day he discovers that everything was a misunderstanding when she leaves him for his best friend. And meanwhile Zeke's family framework appears: elusive and busy parents, a sister who is also a mystery, who in the end is tragically revealed. This is the most interesting part of the book, because it recovers a historical character, Marian Clover Hooper, who married Henry Adams, both Bostonians and always surrounded by artists and writers. She was a pioneer of photography in the second half of the nineteenth century, and Henry an eminent historian who wrote a paradigmatic book about her education in America and Europe, a model of a very American genre. In that book he does not mention at all his wife Clover, whose "new femininity" Henry James used in several of his novels, who one morning in 1885 swallowed his developing chemicals. On a trip to Spain as part of the "grand tour", Clover wrote to his father that "the Spaniards are the kindest, most compassionate, childish, impractical, incompetent and despondent people I have ever seen". One can think of Virginia Woolf in that poignant description and Clover's own fate.
"Words insinuate, images doubt," we read at one point in ethnographer Zeke's monologue, a speculative, descriptive and sometimes colloquial, joker, intimate monologue. But the opposite can also be said: images hint (what is not in the frame, for example) and words doubt or make doubt. This book is peppered with pertinent photos and some that are less so. A very convincing one is that of Adams taken by his wife in the cabin of the ship that was going down the Nile: a dejected, powerless man. From there begins a confusing investigative discourse about the "new masculinity" arising from the equality between the sexes forged since the postwar period. It collects testimonies of these clueless men and sometimes involved in a company that seems to surpass them. One of them says to the ethnographer who records his words: "The more committed I become to the idea of women as equals, the less mysterious they become."
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