Perfectly Literary Subversions
Stories have shapes, and Frederic Tuten's are among the most elegant in contemporary fiction. His newest, Van Gogh's Bad Cafe, describes a perfect figure-eight with the crossing point a hole-in-time linking 19th-century France with New York's Lower East Side today. Tallien: A Brief Romance (1988) is a gently arcing tunnel, Tintin in the New World (1993) a collapsing double-helix, and his calling card -- a remarkable collage novel called The Adventures of Mao On the Long March(1972) -- a series of linked compartments, as compact and purposeful as a Joseph Cornell box. With The Adventures of Mao back in print and Van Gogh's Bad Cafe just published, readers can finally glimpse the seriousness and breadth of Tuten's full project.Tuten has pursued a singular inquiry over the last 25 years, using the residue of the past (primarily texts, fictions, and fantasies) as an echo-chamber for contemporary concerns. Writing within strict, patterned frameworks in a prose-style as potent, clear, and reduced as brandy, Tuten has thrown the most basic questions -- Is love possible? Can we be good or just? What is art? -- into that chasm, like a man shouting his own name against the hills. The answers come back all crazy and enlarged, the same name shouted back, but made spacious and unstable by the distance crossed.Like most of America's literary writers, Tuten is more respected than he is read. For 15 of the 25 years he's been writing, he's had nothing in print. His name is virtually unknown outside of New York's art circles (and their bi-coastal satellites), and his work is rarely taught in the universities where most literature now cowers in its last safe-house. Tuten has managed to stay in print abroad even while sinking off the media-radar at home. (How do these people keep working?) Coupled with the surprising commercial success of Tintin three years ago, Tuten's solid reputation has helped get The Adventures of Mao back in print, and encouraged publisher William Morrow to do a half-decent job announcing Van Gogh's Bad Cafe. WHY SHOULD WE CARE? With so much fatuous crap masquerading as serious fiction these days -- I'm thinking of Sapphire, David Guterson, T. C. Boyle, Annie Dillard's self-important domesticity, Ethan Canin, Michael Chabon, A.M. Homes' cut-and-paste porn, Michael Cunningham's trite family tragedies, Davids Leavitt and Foster Wallace, all 520 flavors-of-the-week of the last 10 years of Manhattan literary fashion -- it's easy to forget that a dozen or so American writers are actually pursuing sustained, purposeful inquiries through the practice of their writing. Lynne Tillman's astonishing body of work goes in and out of print. Guy Davenport shuttles from book to book, largely unread. James Purdy conjures his 16th brilliant novel, and has to go overseas to get it published, while Frederic Tuten takes 25 years shaping his four beautiful books. What matters about this handful of largely-ignored writers is their ability to make the novel fresh and surprising, to open our eyes to the broad possibilities within the form, and then to reinvent it as something shocking and memorable. This work is news that stays news (as Ezra Pound described real poetry).The Adventures Of Mao announced Tuten's formalist concerns from the first. Composed of four parts quotation (from Jack London, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Mao, and others), one part parody, and one part history, the novel is a fractured, non-linear assemblage of texts, an off-spring of T.S. Eliot's Wasteland and the films of Jean Luc Goddard. Mao is an artifact of intellectual life in a world made only of residue, as nimble and playful as it is purposeful.Tagged with a blurb from Susan Sontag and quickly endorsed by John Updike in The New Yorker, the book became an instant art-world fetish, its few copies coveted by the small audience that sought it out (first editions today go for roughly $7,500). For the next 15 years, it was all Tuten published. As he tells it, in a disturbingly elegiac preface to the 1997 re-issue, "Vivid experimentation was going on everywhere around me, Rauschenberg was combining disparate materials -- mattresses and rubber tires, perhaps even the kitchen sink -- with his paintings; Lichtenstein and his comic-book images were realigning our view of subject matter appropriate for art... The Adventures of Mao was, I hoped, a book with no detectable voice in any one line or passage but one distinctly heard humming through in the novel's structure."Tuten seems to have put the contents of his library in a trash-compactor, yielding a potent conflation of texts that sparks meanings by the brilliant juxtapositions it creates. A faked interview with Mao turns maudlin and sentimental as the Great Leader mouths (but doesn't cite) Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, concluding his revolutionary cant by musing "I have a strange longing for the simple primaeval things, such as the sea, to me no less of a mother than the earth." These samplings (over two-thirds of the book) are neither framed nor commented upon, giving the work an arch distance or neutrality, like that of a field-scientist who simply collects and displays specimens. This mask ultimately (purposefully) fails to hide the deep affection Tuten has for his materials, so that the book sometimes reads like a night of stoned channel-surfing with someone who really, really loves TV.Tuten's choice of Mao is brilliant, like Warhol's silk-screening the Great Leader. Tuten is so apolitical he can use any material he wants, even this icon of 60's radicalism, in pursuit of his resolutely aesthetic questions (in this case: is purity in art possible or desirable?). This has been Tuten's assertion, his fascination, from the start: the creation of a strictly aesthetic realm of experience using the residues of history -- the conjuring, through imagination, of the sacred from the profane. The parallel with Warhol is total. Tuten exhibits exactly the same blend of dead-pan humor and high purpose, faux-naivete and moxie, humility and bombast as the famed "Drella."Mao is a nearly perfect book, one which asserts nothing but the fact of its presence in the world. It is a catalogue of references which finally does not refer to anything but itself, patient and certain, like a Platonic form. Accordingly, Mao did not provide Tuten with any kind of model for further work; nothing could be made of it. This sort of problem doesn't stop most applauded writers from repeating their first trick ad nauseum, but Tuten showed the rare intelligence to recognize what he'd done and move on. He took 16 years to finish the next book.Interestingly, the advance he hit upon with Tallien(1988) and Tintin (1992) -- books which evolved in tandem during the 15 years after Mao -- was a retreat into time-worn genres. Tallien is a historical romance, tracing the love between the French revolutionary Jean Lambert Tallien and a Spanish aristocrat, Therese de Fontenay. While their tale is enclosed in a partly-autobiographical frame (we meet a man much like Tuten in the Bronx who "would have liked to tell this story" to his dead father) and punctuated with a handful of scenes in play-script, its form is perfectly ordinary -- perfectly literary -- and as disorienting in its plainness as Mao was in its novelty. In Tintin, meanwhile, Tuten placed Herge's famous cartoon hero in the midst of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, lifting Mann's plot and most of his characters whole to provide a landscape for the philosophical and sexual awakening of the eternally puerile boy reporter. Tallien and Tintin turned Mao upside down: the forms, the genres, are received -- reproduced -- while the materials ring out as new and fresh.Tuten's language in these books is exquisite. He's shifted the locus of composition to the most basic level. No longer focused on blocks of text, he fashions clauses and sentences with the care of a skilled jeweler. "'All the winter the north wind roamed on the hills; many trees fell in the park.' Marlinspike 'seemed barer and more desolate than ever; broken branches littered the roadway, and tall trunks showed their wounds.' Beyond the sandstone balustrade, far beyond the tawny, wet dunes and eroded beach, out across the white-capped sea, a lone fishing boat silhouetted itself against the orangy winter sky, and long sheets of gray clouds heaved on tips of leaden sea-swells. It drizzled. Tintin morosely regarded the blustery scene from his library window." He's up to his old tricks of quotation (the opening lines) but here their source is incidental (a 19th-century novelist, George Moore). These quotes are little more than wallpaper, decor from the library where Tintin stands looking out. Meanwhile Tuten is really quoting from Herge, borrowing each of the paragraph's rich colors directly off the pages of the original comic. Throughout both Tintin and Tallien Tuten delights in these small subversions. He has gained confidence in himself and his readers, showing his faith that the most lasting revelations operate subtly, at ground level, in a single word or sentence, and that these modulations will register best on the quiet landscape of familiar forms or genres. This is the difference between, in architecture, early Jean Nouvel (his knife-edged puzzle, the Arab Institute in Paris) and more recent Nouvel (the clean geometry of the Cartier Institute); in dance, between early Mark Morris (Socrates) and more recent Morris (Stabat Mater, L'Allegro Il Pensarro); in rock between early Husker Du (Land-Speed Record) and later Hsker Du (Zen Arcade); and in painting, between the early abstractions of Philip Guston, and Guston's later figurative work. Across all the arts, we've seen, in the last 30 years, potent innovations achieved through an apparent retreat into more traditional forms or genres.Perhaps this is also the difference between any young artist and the handful of mature artists who retain a commitment to innovation. It's also the case that the arts generally are still in recovery from the dizzying heroics of high-modernism, with all of its puritanical agendas, its gargantuan revisionist projects, and its obsession with "making it new." As we begin to try and actually live with the art coughed up by this fanatical last century, it makes sense that the feverish innovations of youth would fade beside more subtle, lasting articulations. In Tallien and Tintin, Tuten welcomed back the nineteenth-century and early-modern novels as a neutral ground where lush and peculiar blossoms could be grown.This isn't a failure but an advance. In fiction, the most potent innovations of the last 30 years have come through exactly this strategy. James Purdy's Malcolm, In A Shallow Grave, and House of the Solitary Maggot, for example, all more sharply relevant, solid, and alive today than any of the clever inventions of Barth, Coover, Barthelme and the other self-important, time-worn meta-fictionalists. Edmund White outshines John Rechy. Lynne Tillman sparkles while Carol Maso fades into self-parody. Wisdom endures, and that is why a long slow soak in the clarity of a Tuten novel is so much more rewarding than, say, witnessing the loud, bombastic struggles of a David Foster Wallace (like the difference between the seductive shuffle of a sixty-year-old Brazilian Samba king and the spasms of a slam-dancing teen). Tuten freed up his sentences by inhabiting the hodge-podge architecture of received genres. In Tintin and Tallien, the conventions of historical romance and the philosophical novel, even formulas like play-script and film screenplay, formed boxes, clear containers, to hold the liquid prose in place. But in Van Gogh's Bad Cafe, Tuten has stepped free even of this scaffolding. Here the literariness of his language, the deceptive turns of his sentences, hold center stage with only the simplest, the slightest of superstructures to support them: the mysterious Ursula arrives through a hole in the wall, and the book asks, "Who is this stranger?" Tuten has stripped the rest of the scaffolding away. The sentences remain afloat, miracles:"It was different then. You could be standing by a burned-out lot, waiting for no one and nothing, not even for a lonely red bus. You'd be just there, studying the rubble of a building along Avenue C. Charred bricks and shrieking plaster-board, a bathtub naked on its side, and through its drain, a lone sunflower, sulfuric yellow and furred like a honeybee screwing up toward a whirling yellow sun." The unanchored specificity ("it was different then") and the conditional tense ("you could be standing...") destabalize this pretty scene, lifting it slightly away from the duty of mimetic representation and toward the realm of pure literature, of style and language, a collection of sentences that begs no questions about "accuracy." Set in two real times and places -- New York City now, and Auvers-Sur-Oise, 100 years ago -- the story masquerades as mimesis while proposing nothing beyond its own possibility: "You'd be just there."Art this autonomous is indefensible. No argument can be made for its importance or truth. Moreso than in any previous book, Tuten is here at ease with this fact. The book has no defense; it doesn't need any. It remains unburdened by arguments or claims, and suggests no "higher" purpose than its plain one: to assert its own possibility. Interestingly, from this position of autonomy Tuten has forged a sharply relevant exploration of innovation and meaning in the arts today. With Ursula, an artist herself, traveling through time, Van Gogh's Bad Cafe manages to raise an important question: has anything changed during the last one hundred years of modernism? Are we trapped somewhere in the myths of our own past? Have artists made any discoveries since Van Gogh, or have we merely retreated into confusion?