FICTION OCTOBER 6, 2010
by Frederic Tuten
W. W. Norton & Company, 256 pp., $23.95
In “Self Portrait with Cheese,” a story from Frederic Tuten’s new collection, the narrator tries to give bears a seminar in the “history of humankind.” But the bears, freshly escaped from the circus, soon grow bored of both his teachings and their newfound life of ease. They resolve to return to the circus, but to perform only in the manner of their choosing. Relating the tale to his wife, the narrator feels saddened by the meaninglessness of his life: “For all the art history lectures—with visuals—for all my pantomimes and stories and games, for all my telling them of human history, of philosophy from ancient times, when even blind men sat in little shaded groves and discussed their love for beauty, I could not even keep content the bears in their den.” While the bears go on to become “true artists,” the would-be lecturer decides to drown his sense of failure in a dozen martinis. “That’s a wonderful idea,” says his wife. “We can save the leftovers for breakfast tomorrow. Have them with the sardines.”
Decadence (of words, of thought, of consumption) is the delight and the funny, revelatory emptiness around which Self Portraits: Fictions revolves. The amorphous couple that appears in various settings and guises throughout Tuten’s sixth book spends their days “devouring” art; drinking martinis “under a red umbrella, beneath a toothless sky;” bathing at hotels with “giant white towels, whose cushiony thickness I had never before felt and which I was sure I would never again feel in any world solely mine;” treading on carpets thick enough “to deaden the world’s noise.” Tuten’s language luxuriates at a similar remove from the everyday and to no apparent end. Seagulls and cormorants appear in an urban park “silvered in the moon [and] fluttering about the lampposts like trembling sheets;” a waiter clears a table to reveal a “denuded tablecloth alive with brazen bread crumbs.”
But just as the waiters in these stories routinely point out the precariousness of luxury by serving olives “squirming with hairy worms,” darts in place of toothpicks, and a platter of sliced eyeballs, Tuten never forgets that words are only words. Books may be “safer than walls of loneliness,” but they serve equally well as “matchsticks to light a passionate fire.” Like the bears who abandon art history lectures in favor of art-making, the bookish narrator of “Self Portrait with Icebergs” decides to accompany a young couple on their trip to Antarctica, setting sail from the East Village in search of “the end of words, to their transmutation—to the truths behind their veils.” If such a journey would seem to carry the reader far from the realm of ordinary human concerns, Tuten takes many worthwhile detours through familiar scenery, observing, say, adolescents walking on a beach (“Three teenagers sauntered by, loving themselves in a fidgety, insecure way, amazed by the newly found power of their bodies to unhinge reason and jolt planets from their orbits”) or a newlywed already bored of her husband’s tales (“‘How bizarre!’” my bride exclaimed, like a cat worrying a lace from a fallen shoe”).
Tuten is as uninterested in psychoanalyzing his characters as he is in explaining the intrusions of magic into the otherwise staid hotels and restaurants in which these stories take place: a gloomy blue horse swindles his fellow bar patrons; birds at a beach canteen sing in German of “love eternal, of love beyond the bodily frame, beyond the cells as they ecstatically crashed into blindness, silence, and death.” Although Tuten tells us in his prologue that he writes stories “about men and women seeking the faraway,” it is more precise to say that Self Portraits is itself a search for the faraway, with language serving as the conveyor. Writing, for Tuten, is a love affair with his own imagination, which can only be related at a certain distance from standard discourse.
Such a distance impedes linear understanding, but the dialogue and the psychology of the socialized world are not Tuten’s concern. In the postscript to his first novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March (1971)—a collage including Mao’s soliloquies on minimalism, parodies of Steinbeck and Faulkner, and a deadpan history of the Long March—Tuten bemoans “the endless repetitions of well-made stories in well-pressed sentences. Stories that usually begin with the protagonist’s meditation on his or her manicured lawn in the suburbs and end with an insight into the nature of his or her white ennui.” However simplistic his dismissal of all narrative fiction, Tuten’s own language is unusual in ways that warrant our gratitude and close attention. Unlike the worst avant-garde writing, which defines itself through opposition to its predecessors, Tuten’s language and structure are new because his books see the world newly.
Yet they refuse to take this newness too seriously. In “Self Portrait with Bullfight,” Tuten pokes fun at speech that serves only as a mask. When the narrator tells a waiter that he looks familiar, the waiter replies, “We Spaniards all look alike,” to which the narrator retorts, “Perhaps all Spaniards look alike in their brotherhood of despondent capes and sombreros blackened by the night, and with eyes of the same inky shade or related blackish hue, but you look especially familiar.”
Given how attuned Tuten is to imagery (of the external world as well as of the imagination), it is no surprise that Self Portraits is nearly as steeped in visual art as Tuten’s previous novels about Van Gogh and the New York art world. But in Self Portraits, Tuten’s background in art criticism manifests more personally, as a conflict between living through one’s solitary, ineffable feelings about paintings, and living in the relational, flesh-and-blood day. In “The Park Near Marienbad,” the narrator’s wife faults him for his inability to “experience anything unless it’s mediated by art,” including the dinner she has prepared. Although the narrator responds with a speech on the integrality of art to every civilized experience (wine being another precious “non-utilitarian by-product of culture”), he looks forward to ending their argument with “lovemaking, unmediated by art.” Throughout Self Portraits, Tuten’s characters ask variations of the question, “What will any of this matter, once I’m in the grave?” Because we die, art is nothing more than an ineffectual “inventory of missing;” also because we die, we may as well delight in what is uselessly beautiful.
While traveling in Peru, the narrator is amused by a Mayan sculpture of Death with an erection: “I conjectured that what got Death hot was Life, all of it, its being and its idea, which outlasts the last breath of the last atom.” Tuten’s collection of self-portraits reveals not his life, but Life, details endlessly noted, imagined, disappeared. As the narrator (inaccurately) tells us, the dying Keats said of the blood on his sheets, “I know it’s my life—but look at the color!”
Hannah Tennant-Moore is a writer living in Brooklyn.