Like several other Frederic Tuten novels, Self Portraits: Fictions features a Roy Lichtenstein painting on the cover. More than just good friends, the two men were stylistically simpatico, appropriating the iconic—whether that meant Chairman Mao or figures from a gum wrapper—and giving it a high-culture top-spin that has captivated and confounded in equal numbers. This time, instead of teaming Tintin with characters from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, or providing fanciful, semi-fictionalized accounts of a communist leader, Tuten turns his compound eye in on himself, delivering a fractured memoir centered around the narrator’s relationship with his Sicilian mother and a woman named Marie who recalls Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Circular Ruins” one moment and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind the next. The latter because most of these vignettes, which sport names like “Self Portrait With Circus” and “Self Portrait With Cheese,” concern a couple doomed to drift apart and reunite ad infinitum while they drift through memoryscapes, pleading with talking bears, dissecting contemporary art, or waiting for waiters who never come. And when they do, they’re bearing plates of eyeballs prepared á la “Un Chien Andalou.”
This may sound like pretentious stuff, and it is, with plenty of harumph-worthy sentences like “This is a fine and novelistic close of the day” to turn off readers who would prefer less sound and more fury. But the narrative whorls and loops describe tight circles, and a meandering bullfighting story quickly cedes the stage to a more rousing bit about a spurned circus ringmaster and a randy midget. Also working to Tuten’s advantage is his gift for pithy observations like “Art is an inventory of missing” and “it was aggression in the guise of a truism.” Like the young painter his authorial stand-in critiques, Tuten is charming when dishing out the details, but sometimes struggles to produce a harmonious whole.
In that vein, Fictions often feels like a wide-ranging, discursive conversation with a particularly well-read friend who’s three-quarters in the bag. Whenever he notices his audience’s attention waning with all the talk of Jean-Luc Godard, the nature of desire, and the relationship between beauty and youth, he begins frantically unspooling cockamamie yarns about a kiosk that sells immortality, but has an infinitely long line, or about a family of circus bears who escape, then return to the big top when they inevitably begin jonesing for the applause. Blustery, but good company, Tuten manages to cram the fake story of his life into 200 attention-addled, often-engaging pages.