Frederic Tuten, Self Portraits: Fictions, Norton, 2010

[Review Guidelines]

In his new collection, Self Portraits: Fictions, Frederic Tuten shatters the self into fragmentary and at times fantastical others, narrators who are at once portraits of their maker and not: a "paradoxical" mirror, as one such narrator describes himself, which does not reflect the viewer but the viewed. These specular stories read like a dream encyclopedia, meditate on a number of recurring and prismatically alterable ideas, and include talking bears, horses, elephants, Spanish bulls at table after surviving fights with cowardly matadors, incarnations of Death, and a Mephistophelean character peddling youth-restorative drinks on a beach.  
      Tuten's stories are filled with an artistic, perhaps painterly rendering of events and the world around his characters. This is at times comic, at times absurdist, and often powerfully moving and affecting. In the story that involves the talking horse, "The Bar on Tompkins Square Park: Self Portrait with Blue Horse," the narrator reflects sadly on the immediacy of discovering the harbingers of death:

One morning you wake to a death sentence without any hope of reprieve or pardon; and from that morning on you are already dead in an ocean of the living. These may be platitudes, but are true nonetheless.

Similarly, in "The Park in Winter," the narrator is awakened and led outside by the waiter from the hotel bar, now transfigured into Death, to a scene that mixes the sadness of leaving with the beauty of that which is left behind: 

"Let's watch the snow falling and the trees swaying their icy dead branches and let's remain still while all about us speeds and churns."
And so we did.           

"The Park on Fire" gives the account of the end of history, as the narrator, estranged (accidentally at first; later cuckolded and supplanted) from his young bride stumbles across the ruin of a civilization, from police brutality to childlike revolutionaries to the death of a prominent poet (presumably loosely based on the "disappearance" of Garcia Lorca, to whom the story is an homage) and the flight of two lovers attempting to find help and escape. Despite its shifting terrain, the story strikes the reader as terribly realistic, a comment not only upon history (again, the fascists and Lorca) but also the perils that come at the end of history.
      This story, as with the others, is a portrait of a world that is deeply personal, filled with the longings for youth, beauty, art, love, and home that make these portraits of oneiric, shifting, and fabulous settings immediately real and true. Their narrator creates these worlds as he inhabits them, infuses them with detail and deeply felt sadness as he experiences their laws first person. Over and again the narrator is pursuing a lover he cannot win, pining after his youth as death approaches, and mixing memory, impressions, and imagination.
      These ideas are connected, it seems intentionally, to Keats' "Ode." In "The Park in Winter," Tuten reconfigures Keats' urn's maxim, "'Beauty is youth and youth, beauty....'" This statement goes some distance toward summing up a major part of Tuten's project in these stories: the pining for youth, the elegiac awareness of life's slow decline, and the recognition of art holding these things in a sort of poignant, deathless beauty.
      Like Keats' urn, these stories freeze a frieze of selves in time, the longing, the love, the memories, the lives all endlessly repeatable, youth and old age, the first and last occasion of seeing a lover undress conflated, the dreams of childhood and the end of history all tied together into a caduceus of timelessness and temporal decay, a self lasting through time and disappearing. [MS]