“When you look at something like this,” says Lynne Tillman, “you think, how is this different from somebody else’s photograph? That’s what I always try to clarify.” We’re at the Morgan Library looking at a picture of a cat. The picture was taken by Peter Hujar in 1957. “It’s the way he’s making the cat central, in-focus and sharply defined, while everything around it is blurred. That strikes me as somewhat different. He’s not documenting a scene,” she says.
Tillman has been looking at and writing about art for over thirty years. I’m interested in how she does it: What does it take to look at an image and what does it mean to look?
“That’s one of the reasons I wrote Men and Apparitions!” she says. Men and Apparitions, out earlier this month from Soft Skull Press, is Tillman’s first novel in twelve years. The book examines the roles of images in contemporary culture through its protagonist Ezekiel Stark. A thirty-eight year old cultural anthropologist and ethnographer, Stark is a wry and, at times, rambunctious guide through the Age of Images. In the patter of a Catskill comedian, he delivers commentary on males, mail, people and their pets, semiotics, spiritualism, and the “Picture People,” that 21st century tribe tethered to their phones or photo albums, hunting for evidence that they exist. We are the Picture People, claims Stark — compulsive, anxious image-makers. Raised on images of the past, we possess historical awareness and self-consciousness of our role in the present, which activates or troubles the image.
Stark’s phrase brings to mind the Pictures Generation, a title that emerged in the late 1970s to refer to contemporary artists such as Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Louise Lawler, and Cindy Sherman. These artists began to plunder mass media, appropriating images in diverse ways, and revealing the forms of identity and power encoded in our images. As photography’s status as impartial witness or empirical proof was increasingly questioned by artists and art historians, it assumed a greater role as art.
Wandering through the exhibit, Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, in the Morgan’s first-floor gallery, Tillman spots the photographer’s range of references. A photograph of La Marchesa Fioravanti, installed on an Italian hillside in a fur ruff and black pearls, looks like a Renaissance portrait, says Tillman. Hujar’s Holstein cows echo 17th century Flemish landscape painting. She points to a nude portrait of the artist moving across his studio floor. “Do you think he was thinking of [19th-century photographer Eadweard] Muybridge?”
She pauses to point out people she knew in New York’s downtown scene during the late 1970s and 1980s: Fran Lebowitz, Cookie Mueller, Ethyl Eichelberger, Charles Ludlum, Jackie Curtis, William S. Burroughs. She never knew Candy Darling, no. Paul Thek was before her time. Many of these people were taken early by AIDS. One by one, they appear for the camera in a moment of repose, framed by darkness or a visual void.
“I have no nostalgia for the period,” says Tillman. “I have memories, but I feel very much a part of the time in which I live. Young people are always taking risks. I’m determined to still take risks.” As we talk, she leaps from one thought to the next, as if language can’t keep pace with her thought. For the author, dialogue requires daring.
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Nicole Miller: You open Men and Apparitions with quotes from Rabbi Abraham Heschel (“We must learn to be surprised”) and Flannery O’Connor (“Mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind”). Why start there?
Lynne Tillman: I’m not a religious person, but I do feel that life is more complex than most people would like to admit. Living in relationships is complex and mysterious, as to motivations and why things end or begin the way they do. If you think about the history of Modernism — leaving the basement for the well-lighted places — as if we could have that kind of great illumination all the time. There is a jaded quality to people who never want to be surprised. It’s as if to be surprised indicates a lack of discernment. Obviously, surprises aren’t always good, but I think it’s important to allow for not knowing.
NM: You’re thinking about this at the level of plot, as Zeke interrogates what he knows about his family, and at the sentence level. Your sentences move forward even as they question their own claims. Writers and readers are always subject to ambivalence and doubt, but you’ve elevated this uncertainty to a kind of religious awe.
LT: Certainly doubt and awe. For me, it’s not religious. It’s existential. It’s very hard to live with doubt, but it is what we’re served.
NM: Zeke’s research focuses on family photographs, and you include many images in the book. How do you understand the relationship between the prose and pictures?
LT: I’m using words to think about pictures. This relationship troubles the narrator. He wants to put words to images, but he knows that the image can’t necessarily be confined to words that might describe it. The elusiveness of photographs is part of the problem for him. He’s trying to learn things from a photograph, trying to figure out who his mother and father are from photographs, and he can’t.
NM: Although pictures are problematic as a source of meaning, we seem to be stuck with them. We live at a time when our language is primarily visual, and I wonder where that leaves you as a writer. Your prose isn’t necessarily scenic or visually descriptive. It’s really driven by the narrator’s voice. Is this a conscious response to the visual soup we’re living in — or something more temperamental or idiosyncratic?
LT: That’s an interpretation that I’d like readers to make, really, about language versus images. The Picture People, I speculated in Men and Apparitions, need proof of their existence, empirical proof — and voilà, photography. That need for proof interests me. And, in any case, words make images too, don’t they? They’re also images. I’m not sure my writing isn’t visual — it’s odd how readers project into a narrative their own visions, especially when they’re not specifically drawn. People see my characters and scenes, they tell me. It’s curious.
NM: The book speaks to contemporary concerns, as Zeke investigates what it means to be a man today. Why did you want to explore this question from a man’s point of view?
LT: I write fiction because I’m interested in imagination — my own and other people’s — and I think gender fluidity is available to us. I’ve written from the point of view of a man in other short stories and in one novel, Cast in Doubt (1992). I’ve been thinking for a long time about the position of men in the context of feminism or post-women’s movement. 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?
NM: Zeke is studying “the New Man” — men raised under the sign of feminism. He says, “The New Man is analogous to Henry James’s New Woman, but change for him isn’t about his greater independence, it’s about recognizing his interdependence, with a partner, in my study, usually female, even dependence upon her.” How did you create his research subjects? Did you interview men?
LT: Yes, by email. I sent out a questionnaire to about thirty guys. Their answers were extraordinary. The novel and its protagonist were a perfect vehicle to talk about these things, because Zeke is an ethnographer, and he’s had this rupture in his love life, and he’s full of doubt. There were all sorts of reasons for him to want to study his peer group.
NM: Why does Zeke call his project Men in Quotes?
LT: Well, it’s very playful, isn’t it? Putting the word in quotes makes you wonder: What is a man? It suggests that gender is a construction. I do find it odd that someone wants to be a woman or a man when there is no essential woman or man. So what is it that one wants to be? I’ve always felt at odds with the concept of “woman.” I’m a woman, but so many of my desires have nothing to do with what is typically considered a woman’s domain. I’ve always thought more in terms of male and female: one is born this way or that way. I guess I’ve always felt aware somehow that the way I was being positioned had nothing to do with my capacity. So Men in Quotes could be Women in Quotes.
NM: You wrote about Gertrude Stein in your collection of essays What Would Lynne Tillman Do (2014)? Stein saw language as a medium of consciousness — a vehicle for movement and change rather than a system of referents. We know that language has performative power — a vow, for example, enacts the promise it makes. But if you put a word in quotes, it becomes representational, rather than performative — in this context, maybe castrated?
LT: I’m not Valerie Solanas! [Solanas was a radical feminist and author of the SCUM Manifesto, which was dedicated to overthrowing society and eliminating the male sex.] I never loved Valerie Solanas, the way some did, particularly for shooting Andy Warhol. When you put a quote around something, you’re drawing it out of the sentence. You’re calling attention to it as something that represents. The word says what it represents, but it is not that thing. Of course, Men in Quotes does not have quotes around it!
NM: One of the women in the book is Clover Hooper Adams, who was an early adopter of photographic technology, a friend of Henry James, and wife of 19th-century American historian Henry Adams. You quote a letter written by Henry Adams claiming that “Clover can’t spell.” A very similar detail appears in your essay “Cut Up Life,” in your book What Would Lynne Tillman Do? You write that the poet Charles Henri Ford was a friend of writer Djuna Barnes, and he typed the manuscript of her novel Nightwood (1936) because, he said, “She couldn’t spell.” He’s negging her! But worse, by denying her the tools of language, he’s excluding her from public discourse.
LT: The letters that Clover wrote to her father are magnificent. Not only could she spell, but she had a wit “distinguished by … genius,” according to James. She’s a figure in American history that most of us don’t know about. Colm Tóibín told me about her, and I wanted to bring her into this book because I found her so fascinating. It wasn’t that she was a great photographer, but she was a brilliant woman who lived in the shadow of her husband to some extent. After she committed suicide, Henry Adams destroyed all her letters to him and her photo negatives. I decided to put her in Zeke’s family tree, because I wanted to think about the generational impact of trauma — the way it repeats itself in the family.
NM: And in our culture. Part of Clover’s story is about women’s work. Even in her lifetime, as you say in the novel, her husband didn’t want her to publish her photographs. Her work was diminished or suppressed in a public context. We see this theme in the stories emerging from the #MeToo movement. How has gender shaped your own experience as a working writer?
LT: I don’t believe women writers are taken as seriously as male writers. What they call the Great American Novel came out of World War II. Before then, you probably had more play from women writers, including Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. After the war, American culture became decidedly macho and male, and the novels that came out of that period were all war novels. How does a woman get indexed into that? Great writers like Mary McCarthy did not get their due. Just this week, the New York Times Book Review interviewed Robert Coover about what he’s reading and what’s on his bookshelf. He mentions two dead women. The rest are all men.
With my novel American Genius: A Comedy (2006), I knew there were very few people who would publish the novel, but one of the rejections was amazing. It came from a formidable female editor at a good press. She said, “I don’t know what Lynne Tillman is trying to teach me.” Would she write that about a male author? Of course not, because women are supposed to learn from men. It was so clear to me that I had stepped out of place. I think I’ve done that with most of my work. I’m in the crack or the interstices of literature. I’m not writing about relationships or the family or children or a certain kind of domesticity. In my novel No Lease on Life (1998), I was very deliberately playing with Joyce’s Ulysses, structuring the book over a period of twenty-four hours. Rather than Molly Bloom lying in bed, it’s the boyfriend Roy who’s asleep throughout most of the book! Only one reviewer noticed that and he didn’t really know what to make of it. That was in 1998. I think there really is a difference in the way men’s writing is read, and it’s not that the writing is different. I think it has to do with systemic prejudice.
NM: In the book, Zeke observes that young women are more independent and more dissatisfied than ever. He calls it a “post-feminist malaise.” Can you unpack this idea?
LT: The emergence of autonomy for women is linked to the birth control pill. As women have gained autonomy over their bodies, I think they’ve expected other gains. But look at the US Senate. There are some women in the Senate, but not many. The wheels of revolution grind slowly, and there are always setbacks. It’s going to continue to be hard, especially as the current presidential administration is trying to take away birth control! It’s a massive retrenchment. There’s a fundamentalism around the world that wants to control women, and you do that, in part, by controlling their reproduction.
NM: The #MeToo movement has brought this question to a head: Why have the feminist gains of the last century been so slow to materialize? Your book points to the structures of power that resist our emerging sense of a shared humanity. How do we dismantle those structures of power when we’re embedded in them — or they’re embedded in us?
LT: There’s that famous Audre Lorde quote: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I don’t know that that’s true, exactly. I quote Virginia Woolf in the book: “[Words] do not live in dictionaries … they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change … It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, another thing to another person.” Woolf was working with the English language and she was using those words to make a difference. I think consciousness is a big part of change — recognizing that there is in you and in your mind some of this stuff that you don’t want to be there.