frederic tuten, “the adventures of mao on the long march”

Frederic Tuten
The Adventures of Mao on the Long March
(New Directions, 2005; originally 1971)

The Adventures of Mao on the Long March is a collage-novel which tells, in circuitous fashion, what happened on Mao’s Long March. Although they initially appear to be the same, Tuten’s Long March firmly diverges from Mao’s Long March. The novel ends with an interview with Mao in 1968; in a description of Mao’s apartment, we learn that he reads, among many other periodicals, Artforum, Esquire, The Nation, and Cahier du Cinéma, and we realize that we are in the company of a different Mao. Before the interview, there are sections from a realist history of the Long March, collaged texts usually about aesthetics, sections of invented dialogue and action, and sections which parody the style of American writers. This is a book that reads very differently than it did when first published, in part because it has gained a great deal of front and back matter. Starting at the front of the book, one finds a forward written in 1997 by the author; then an introduction, John Updike’s “Satire without Serifs” (originally a review published in the New Yorker); then the book itself; then a list of sources used in the book (when this was added is unclear); and finally a postscript written in 2005 by the author, which goes some way into describing the book’s history. The cover, a lithograph of Mao by Roy Lichtenstein, also needs to be read as part of the book, as it was created for the original text.

But this is also a book that can be read differently when you burrow down to the text itself. Composed in part of sections borrowed from other texts, it was initially published without a list of sources; some the reader would be likely to recognize (bits of Hawthorne, Pater, and Wilde, for example), some less susceptible to recognition (long extracts from James Fenimore Cooper’s Venetian novel The Bravo). Now, of course, it’s very easy to tell where his sources spring from: plugging a string of text into Google generally brings even the unfamiliar to light. The first paragraph, for example, I found weirdly familiar; sending the phrase “to wit, a bottle of strawberry syrup” to Google provides two results, the first being this book and the second being the August 1898 issue of The Quartier Latin (the quoted text is the paragraph beginning “A beauty show” and ending “and so there was peace and happiness”), which I’m fairly certain I’ve never read. (This source, for what it’s worth, isn’t listed in the list of sources; an epigraph from Antony and Cleopatra is, but that epigraph isn’t to be found in my copy. Maybe it fell out of the book in some reprinting.) Before Google, most readers would have had to let this quote pass by; now anyone can pretend erudition. 

I’m sent back to Guy Davenport’s essay on Barthelme’s “Paraguay,” “Style as Protagonist in Donald Barthelme,” in which he carefully folds back the story to find the unacknowledged sources (a travelogue by Jane E. Duncan and Corbusier) to see how they resonate:

Barthelme’s genius was in such layering. Sometimes we can locate all the layers, sometimes not; Barthelme clearly wanted us to remain in the interstices: that’s where his poetry is. He does not mind (in fact, has alerted us) that phrases like “vast blind wall” and “vast expanse of blankness” can be identified as prose by an architect who cannot control the echoes these phrases contain from Kafka, Mandelstam, Piranesi, and from history. (p. 109 in The Hunter Gracchus.)

“Paraguay” appeared in 1969, slightly before The Adventures of Mao on the Long March; but there’s a similar aesthetic strategy being used, one found as well in the contemporaneous collage essays of Paul Metcalf. Tuten, like Metcalf, is essentially using language as a readymade; this goes for both the found texts on aesthetics, as well as for the parodies of the style of American authors, where an existing style is also something that can be taken and used as a tool. I think of the story of when Duchamp and Brancusi visited an airshow; pointing to a propellor, a beautiful example of industrial design, Duchamp said “Painting’s washed up. Who’ll do anything better than that propellor? Tell me, can you do that?” There are already so many things in the world: direct creation counts for less in such a world. The same goes for plot: Mao’s Long March was, as the real Mao realized, something that could be used as a metaphor; Tuten appropriates it for his own use. Tuten differs from Metcalf in that Metcalf’s interests (at least after Genoa) are not fiction, but rather describing a subject through juxtaposition. 

Although this is a comic novel which uses parody as an essential rhetorical stategy, Tuten doesn’t seem to be making fun of the original texts, even though it might be very easy to do so; rather, he allows them to shine under a different light to show what else might be there. An early section, for example, lifts a visit to the sculptor Kenyon’s studio in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun:

“Here might be witnessed the process of actually chiselling the marble, with which (as it is not quite satisfactory to think) a sculptor in these days has very little to do. In Italy, there is a class of men whose merely mechanical skill is perhaps more exquisite than was possessed by the ancient artificers, who wrought out the designs of Praxiteles; or, very possibly, by Praxiteles himself. Whatever of illusive representation can be effected in marble, they are capable of achieving, if the object be before their eyes. The sculptor has but to present these men with a plaster-cast of his design, and a sufficient block of marble, and tell them that the figure is imbedded in the stone, and must be freed from its encumbering superfluities; and, in due time, without the necessity of his touching the work with his own finger, he will see before him the statue that is to make him renowned. His creative power has wrought it with a word. (pp. 8–9.)

How sculpture was thought of in 1970 was worlds away from how Hawthorne imagined sculpture in 1860; Tuten’s genius is to see that Hawthorne’s words could be recast to describe what had happened in the visual arts in the twentieth century and what Tuten was attempting to bring to the world of fiction. The author of the collage novel is, to a certain extent, putting himself in the same position as the reader: in his introduction, Tuten notes that he wrote this book while working on a Ph.D. on Cooper, and one doubts that anyone not reading Cooper in that fashion would have found the sections of The Bravo that Tuten finds to use. Like the reader, the author makes sense of these juxtapositions. 

It seems important that Mao was still alive when this book was written (and when Lichtenstein’s print was made), as opposed to Warhol and DeLillo’s use of him: dead, he existed only as icon. Appropriating a living person as a character is a braver act (with the caveat, of course, that Mao was presumably then, as now, so distant as to be unreal). Written now, this book would register has historical fiction; in 1971, Mao’s legacy had not entirely congealed and could, one presumes, still be shaped. Lichtenstein’s Mao is a jolly Mao; in the 2005 afterward, Tuten recalls getting a telegram from a confused Diana Vreeland congratulating him on his scoop in interviewing Mao. At that point in time, Mao could still be shaped.

This is a well-wrought book, one which should be discussed more than it is. It’s odd that this book hasn’t come up recently in relation to David Shields’s Reality Hunger: it’s a fine example of how collage can be used inside the structures of fiction rather than precluding fiction, as Shields seems to be arguing.


frederic tuten, “tintin in the new world”

Frederic Tuten
Tintin in the New World: A Romance
(Inprint Editions, 2005; original, 1993)

This is not a book that is well-served by the Internet. The Amazon reviews are almost unanimously damning; a LibraryThing one suggests that this is “Maybe the worst book ever written.” This is not the worst book ever written. It is a well-connected book: on the back cover, there are blurbs from Jonathan Coe, Susan Sontag, Larry McMurtry, and Leslie Marmon Silko. The copyright page explains that the Roy Lichtenstein cover was “created expressly for this novel”; another Lichtenstein drawing of the same subject serves as a frontispiece. The book is dedicated to “my friend George Remi (Hergé) and Roy Lichtenstein”. The novelist’s friendship with Hergé (real or metaphorical, I don’t know) is almost certainly what causes the online reviewer’s bad reactions: this is a book that takes Hergé’s characters and puts them into another context, along with a lot of characters from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. This is a fine conceit for a novel in the pop art tradition; however, it’s a formula that’s going to leave Internet browsers who assume this is a Tintin spinoff deeply unhappy. I picked my copy up at 192 Books: its presence there made it clear that it’s a certain type of book – more so because this copy was signed, implying that Frederic Tuten is the sort of author who reads at 192 Books. I picked it up because I knew that Tuten was associated with Donald Barthelme andFiction back at that journal’s beginnings, rather than because Tintin was in it (though Tintin, of course, doesn’t hurt); he’d been on my list of people to get around to reading for a while. But that sort of paratextual context tends to get lost on the Internet. This is, among other things, a book about Tintin, and that seems to be how the Internet insists on reading it.

But this book. Tintin, at Marlinspike with Captain Haddock and Snowy, is at loose ends; he wants something to involve him. A letter from Brussels, one presumes from Hergé, summons Tintin to Peru where an adventure should happen. No adventure happens. Instead, Tintin promptly meets the secondary characters from The Magic Mountain: Peeperkorn, Settembrini, Naphta (whose name has become “Naptha,” perhaps so that it’s not pronounced “NAFTA,” or perhaps to suggest naupathia), and Clavdia Chauchat. Tintin becomes Hans Castorp; Captain Haddock mostly fades away, a drunk resigned to his fate. Snowy is philosophical and doesn’t assume that anyone will understand him since he lost the power of language early in the Tintin series. Tintin finds love with Clavdia; eventually, he does in Peeperkorn. The complementary Settembrini & Naptha end up as lovers. Tintin finally leaves the mountain to become a savior to the natives.

Mixing and matching characters from earlier books has become commonplace in the past decade, whether in fan fiction on the Internet or in the bookstores with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. It’s hard to remember how radical this would have seemed even in 1993; this book follows hard in the tradition of Barthelme, both in his love of the readymade and in his strategy of setting up a ridiculous situation and then scrutinizing how it might play itself out. When this works well – as in, for example, Snow White – the fictional and the mundane cross paths: Snow White and the seven dwarves’ dilemmas are our dilemmas. One doesn’t, perhaps, learn very much about the original narrative – except how strange it actually is – but the present is illuminated.

That’s what’s happening here, mostly. Tintin’s life doesn’t make a great deal of sense when scrutinized closely: ostensibly he is a reporter, but he never appears to do any actual reporting. Tintin is perpetually youthful; he lives in Marlinspike with Captain Haddock, a violent drunk. Tintin’s life isn’t quite as endlessly recurring as, for example, The Simpsons, as his adventures do have a direction, but it doesn’t seem that Tintin ever really learns anything. He has adventures, over and over again, with beginnings, middles, and ends. He’s a character, and he lives through stories. The way a plot works isn’t the way life works: what Tuten does in this book is to take the character of Tintin and drop him into a world that’s marginally more realistic. Tintin finds love with Clavdia, and begins, instantly, to age: towards the end of the novel he has “man-sized hands” and possibly a beard. There’s an echo here of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal narrative, with Haddock taking on the character of Falstaff, wanting to rage on forever, though I don’t think this is a case of Hal being right and Falstaff being wrong: Snowy, Tintin’s conscience, goes home to Marlinspike with Captain Haddock.

The broader question here is why we read what we read. Plenty of the same people who read Tintin read The Magic Mountain; but they read them for vastly different reasons. This is why, I think, a distinction can be drawn between something like this and Sense and Sensiblity with Sea Monsters: that book exists as a novelty, a reification of the idea “wouldn’t this book be more entertaining if there were sea monsters in this book”. Austen’s premises are immaterial: her book is raw material for comedy. There’s a comic element to Tuten’s novel, but it’s not a hilarious book; rather, it’s a serious attempt to see what happens when the two books are put together. Tintin is the reader’s dream of eternal youth; The Magic Mountain is a negation of the possibility of that dream in the real world. There’s validity in both, but they don’t sit comfortably together as each looks ridiculous in the light of the other. Tintin’s existence seems weirdly retarded; the Magic Mountain seems overwhelmingly somber. In a scene towards the end of the book, Peeperkorn, having taken up painting, shows Tintin how he has imposed Clavdia’s figure on the entire history of Western art, from Leonardo to Ruscha: he constructs his own narratives. Tintin never quite manages this; adrift in the end, wanders off into another another narrative entirely, becoming, perhaps the one that the Incas describe as the messiah to come.

Did I like this book? I didn’t love it in the way that I love the Barthelme pieces that do the same things: I can’t find the hilarity or the depth of feeling that I do in those works. This is a book that’s happy to be unsure of genre and for that reason it’s hard to judge – perhaps this is why the reviews on Amazon and LibraryThing are so savage. But it’s an engaging book: it’s been kicking around my head for a while, and I’m not sure that I’m done with it yet.