Self Portrait: Fictions

Frederic Tuten’s new collection of stories Self-Portraits: Fictions is probably the most pretentious book I’ve ever read and still enjoyed without reservation. The book is Erudite and reads like something Important. His biography stresses this: teaching in Paris, hanging out with filmmakers (one of whom was Alain Resnais) and artists (one of whom was Roy Lichtenstein) – basically being an Intellectual (you know: one of them).

Yet, Tuten wishes to stress right from the beginning of this book (or, rather, the character of Tuten, or whatever exactly is going on with the autobiographical elements of this book; that part, frankly, eludes me) that this Intellectualism comes from the proverbial Humble Beginnings (so actually, dear reader, he’s one of us). As a young man, he told (or the character tells) stories to his illiterate grandmother. In this first piece, Tuten discusses devices of storytelling: “‘and then’ is the fulcrum of all fiction, going back to  the earliest time our ancestors sat about the communal fire spellbound by tales; the ‘and then’ that moves the narrative forward and, most of all, keeps the reader or listener hooked on yearning to know more of the story.”

Fair enough, but this is a little deceptive.

This fundamental way of hooking a reader (or listener) might suggest page-turning fiction – but Tuten, with his roots in the avant-garde of the 60s, is a little too self-consciously clever for that. Instead, the “and then” of storytelling is present in the book because most of the stories are simply about one person sitting down with another person and telling that person a story. Most of these stories are about other characters asking “and then,” rather than the reader turning the page. He discusses storytelling in what seems like a populist way at the beginning of this book, and then turns that notion of “and then” into a way to write a series of obscure pieces about pirates and people sitting in cafes, watching parks burn and saying Profound things like, “We’ll make ourselves invisible… We can do everything together, even fly and walk on water.” After all, one of these pieces is an homage to Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, which is not exactly the kind of story that would have had our ancestors sitting around the fire saying, “and then… and then?”

Don’t get me wrong. I am nowhere near as down on this book as I might seem. In fact, I’m not really down on it at all. I kind of loved it, in all its messy, over-the-top, PhD-fodder glory. Where other experimental writers like Barthelme and Coover and Hawkes have depended upon humor and humor plus genre and pure gut-wrenching terror (respectively) to couch their experimental tendencies, Tuten is mostly interested in talking about abstractions like Love and Death. I’m into this stuff. But as a reader, I never found myself asking the question “and then…?”

But, as I said before, maybe that’s not really the intention of this book. In “Self-Portrait with Bullfight,” the narrator tells his lover a story about two men trying to share a woman and about a fateful coin toss that decides it all; in “Self-Portrait with Cheese,” the narrator tells his lover a story about bears who realize they like it better in the slavery of the circus; in “The Park on Fire,” the narrator spends a significant amount of time wandering around with a poet and waxing, well, poetic. I confess to probably not being smart enough to understand most of what’s going on here. In the back of the book, Tuten dedicates each of these stories to somebody. Two of these names I know: Walter Mosley and Federico Garcia Lorca. Allow me to Google at random one of the names I do not know: Kenji Coleman-Yamada. There is a Kenji Coleman-Yamada out there who, it seems, makes “liturgical music.” Is this the same Kenji Coleman-Yamada to whom Tuten has dedicated his story about the grandchild who tries to trade a drawing of Death to some pirates in exchange for his grandmother’s soul? Yeah, that sounds about right.

I’m teasing Tuten a little bit. But I also remember this article by Robert Cohen that I read from The Believer. In that article (“Going to the Tigers”), Cohen sketches out a difference between “redskin realists” and “overly refined palefaces.” Tuten, in case you haven’t guessed yet, is an overly refined paleface. He wants to buy you a cup of coffee and talk to you for hours about love and art. He writes sentences like these two from “Voyagers”: “I thought to tell her how many bodies I had seen in the streets, and how the old houses and cafes we had known had been gutted by shells and bombs, and how children wandered the hospitals searching for their families among stacks of corpses lining the corridors. Then I thought I would write her about the rooks, hundreds of them perching on the dead trolley wires and crowing for hours without stop, deep cackles and high shrieks and then a kind of chorus of laughing as they watched the bodies being lifted from the rubble and tossed into open trucks.” This is about as refined a way of writing about atrocity as I can imagine. Yet, Tuten sells it to me; over and over again in this book, he sells it to me like few writers ever really sell anything to me. Tuten has no other way to write about this. Tuten has fallen so deep into his style that he cannot struggle out of it – nor should he…

Benjamin Rybeck is the co-editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. He teaches writing at the University of Arizona. His fiction has appeared in Natural Bridge and Guernica, and is forthcoming in Solstice. He won the first LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Award from the Poetry Center, and was a finalist in one of those Glimmer Train contests that everybody seems to be a finalist in.

One of the most useful stupid things to talk about regarding writing (and as some of us know, there are plenty of useless stupid things to talk about) is that hoary concept of voice. Why do we write the way we write? I’m always struck by people who complain that certain subjects should be written about in certain styles. Is this true? I don’t know. But I also side with the notion I encountered in some old Godard film (can’t remember which one) that art is “form becoming style; but the style is the man; therefore art is the humanizing of forms” (in any event, Godard probably cribbed this from someone else). Tuten has a voice; he has a particular way of writing, and it is as sincere as any other way of writing I’ve ever encountered. You could complain that he does not write about atrocity with the blood and guts that it deserves. But the important distinction to make about the passage I quoted before is that Tuten is not really writing about atrocity; he’s writing about writing about atrocity. Never ask the question, Has this great writer chosen the right style? Ask whether the great writer has chosen the right subject. We might complain if Tuten wrote about a man on a cross-country trek getting trapped under a rock in the style that pervades this book; but the point is that Tuten probably wouldn’t write such a physical story as that and would, instead, write about men and women talking dreamily about what it means to get trapped under a rock.

When closing the Tuten book, I found myself thinking about one of my favorite contemporary writers, Steve Erickson, who writes about the “cinema of hysteria” (another term a covetous artist probably cribbed from a source I’m not familiar with). This is basically a film that does not make literal sense but makes emotional sense. Of course, this can be applied to stories as well. It can be applied to one of my favorite stories in Tuten’s collection, “The Park in Winter,” in which a man and a woman talk at a restaurant about an old friend, Henry, while a waiter presides over their meal. Later that night, the woman suggests to the man that perhaps he should have had sex with Henry, but the man tells her that he never had the desire to. But then, in the middle of the night, after the woman has fallen asleep, there is a knock on the door, and the man is visited by the waiter, who takes him out into the park to sit together to “watch the snow” and “the trees swaying their icy dead branches” and to “remain still while all about [them] speeds and churns.” The last sentence of the story? “And so we did.” What does any of this mean? I don’t really know. But I do know that when the man and the waiter sit together in the park, it feels, well, warm to me. It gives me a sense of comfort and closure that seems more emotionally satisfying to me than answers to questions like, “Der, why did the waiter knock on that door in the first place?” Tuten is writing stories of hysteria. They are mesmerizing.

This gets me to my final point about all of this. It’s old hat at this point to complain about writers who hide behind style and narrative trickery to disguise some of their more sentimental and sincere impulses (make a list of any ten or so writers today who do this: your list will probably include Eggers and Chabon, but make sure you include Jennifer Egan, whose The Keep is horrifically guilty of couching its sincerity in profoundly stupid narrative chicanery). Tuten, on the other hand, has no apparent problem with going over the top – in fact, he rents a jet and flies, Yeager-style, into the stratosphere. Here are some examples:

From “Self-Portrait with Beach”: “Flat, feverless, an ocean too exhausted to make waves, an ocean that had seen too much travel.”

From “Self-Portrait with Cheese”: “I was a solitary, lost being, myself wary of my own kind – humans, that is – and happy to have run into them and not a tribe of dancing, mouth-frothing green snakes, so abundant in those wild regions.”

From “Self-Portrait with Sicily”: “Pray, she said, that we can pay the rent, pray that we can pay the electricity to light us through the coming winter. Her offering and our prayers were soon rewarded with a soaking rainstorm, the goddess imagining, perhaps, that we were farmers praying for water in a land of drought.”

What does all this prove? I don’t know. I think all I’m saying is that writers need to stop being afraid of seeming ridiculous: they should stop stepping back from theirown beautiful language and reminding us that all literature is language. Well of course all literature is language. So come on, writers. Step up. Look at Tuten. The old dude is besting y’all. Just write some fucking language!

Look: not for a minute does Tuten bat an eye. Not for a minute does his style break. Not for a second does he indicate that this overblown, stylistically high-minded prose is all just a joke. That’s because it’s not a joke. Tuten is a smart, intellectually-minded, erudite dude who is writing the only prose he knows how to write, and is writing it with the grace that I think only comes from doing it for a long time. Have I done anything to convey what this book is about? That’s the wrong question. Have I done anything to convey what this book is like? If you’re not going to automatically pick up a book dedicated to Alain Resnais, I doubt this review has changed your mind. I mean, let’s face it: this book is not written for a lot of people. Tuten isn’t really telling “stories,” and this will frustrate a lot of readers. Sometimes it frustrates me too in certain writers (I’m looking at you, Kundera). But Tuten seems to care so deeply about these “erudite” things that even when I find myself adrift – even when I wander a bit – I never lose the emotional thread, because the emotional thread is as clear and sincere as in any of the best books I know.

Benjamin Rybeck is the co-editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. He teaches writing at the University of Arizona. His fiction has appeared in Natural Bridge and Guernica, and is forthcoming in Solstice. He won the first LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Award from the Poetry Center, and was a finalist in one of those Glimmer Train contests that everybody seems to be a finalist in.

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