The depths Tillman plumbs seem almost paradoxical to a novel so intensely focused on surfaces and photography. It’s as if Tillman is acknowledging that life is life, but the active life occurs in the interface with the mind ... Men and Apparitions is a loose and beautiful baggy monster of a novel that opens in on itself like a fun house hall of mirrors. What a tremendous experience it is to walk through, never quite sure who’s who or what you’re looking at.
Incantatory, maddening, brilliant, zestful, compassionate, and timely, Tillman’s portrait of a floundering academic trying to make sense of a digitized world of churning, contradictory messages reveals the perpetual interplay between past and present, the personal and the cultural, image and life.
The photos we capture—and launch from our devices onto Instagram, YouTube, Tinder—extrude our desires into the ether, and Tillman has attuned her antennae to their strange frequencies ... In a novel that overflows with obsessive, encyclopedic energy, her characters luxuriate in self-conscious play, double meaning, and provocative inquiry. The result is a work that enlarges our understanding of what the novel can be—and the sense of self we take for granted ... Tillman writes pictures the way Jeanette Winterson writes the body: with great and counterintuitive attention to detail, theorizing and revising as she goes ... It’s staggering to watch Tillman so precisely dissect Zeke’s Gen-X masculinity and its contradictions ... The pseudo-study [end section] feels like anticlimax...I’m not sure the novel needs it, and it appears as its own postmodernist formal convention.
The text is spurred on by Zeke’s objects of study—photographs, particularly family snapshots, which he deconstructs, theorizes upon, and puts back together ... Words mislead, images too, always mediated by the selective vision of the writer or photographer and the reader or beholder. Indeed, Tillman constantly asks her readers to shift perspective, hopping from photo to photo, story to story, to lives within and outside of the frame ... As a preamble to Zeke’s study, there are photos of men flexing their muscles, as toddlers in high chairs, powdered with makeup on their faces, beside their mothers, in uniform, and on vacation. Each iterates a different formulation of masculinity and makes us question how power and dominance might be staged performances, not unlike Tillman’s own conjuring of Zeke’s mind.
A smart and sleightful novel ... In some respects, there is an orthodox novel of late-twentieth-century American family life lurking inside Men and Apparitions, but the novel is more essay collection than cross-generational saga ... Most of [Tillman's] constellating of culture is sharp and sharply expressed ... Among its many other wise and witty lines of thought, Men and Apparitions is a vexing inquiry into the recent sexual-political past.
Tillman isn’t a writer you look to for plot-forward work, and Men and Apparitions is no exception, but neither does it coast on the clumsy charm of its narrator, though it could. Instead, it’s interested in something much more cerebral, and much more difficult to distill into a 600-word review. As I read it, I realized it was doing something I haven’t seen convincingly accomplished in any recent literature: It captures the feeling of life in a society that’s focused more on the quick consumption of a massive amount of text and images than it is on experience ... Men and Apparitions begins as a book about men, and becomes one about everyone.
Tillman’s novel is a patient, insistent exploration of what it means to live inside such a mind ... The book starts with ideas, then moves, in brief fragments, to ramifications of those ideas. Plot is not the point. You won’t hear or taste the world much in this novel — there is little 'lyrical' writing, little sensory writing, but the tracking of Zeke’s consciousness, fragment by fragment, is often thrilling ... The achievement of this new book is that it never disparages Zeke, who in other hands might come across simply as a mansplainer. His vision is hindered by a blind spot, but in this, Tillman seems to say, he is like us all.
Reading Tillman reminds me of once visiting the home of an acquaintance ... Spending time chez Tillman feels like that to me: disjunctive, fascinating, a little appalling. It calls things into question. The random digressions make me crazy, yet I want to imitate them.
There is scant dialogue, little in the way of action, and, to the extent that there’s a narrative, it’s spread so thin over the course of nearly 400 pages that it essentially disappears ... Readers interested in and knowledgeable about Clifford Geertz, Gerhard Richter, and Jean Baudrillard might find that Tillman has some interesting things to say about their work. It must be said, however, that she has nothing to say about the Kardashians that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. For Tillman superfans only.
...a timely, if messy, exploration of modern masculinity ... As always, Tillman is inventive in her approach to storytelling, inserting photos and allowing Zeke’s mind to wander. While there is much to admire, occasionally Zeke’s digressions impede narrative flow. The result is a novel full of fits and starts, equally charming and frustrating.