Smyles & Fish asked writers Jerome Charyn and Frederic Tuten to write about their former colleague and friend Donald Barthelme. But what began as a simple look at an influential 20th century literary figure by two of his most notable contemporaries evolved into a portrait in some ways more reflective of the two narrators than of its intended subject. As the project continued, the subject of the piece shifted almost imperceptibly. Like a Barthelme short story, the piece turned inside out, form and content switching places multiple times until these elements became easily interchangeable and finally inextricable. The result, it seems now, is less a portrait of Donald Barthelme, as it is a collage of these three writers and the world of their influences. The picture, complete, fractures. And through the cracks, a new subject emerges: The Collagists.Life-long friends, novelists Jerome Charyn and Frederic Tuten have shared much over the years: the neighborhood of their youth—the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue in the 1950’s; the love of a certain Fay Levine who, famous throughout the neighborhood for her Elizabeth Taylor like-looks, pit them as rivals; and their dream of one day escaping to a larger world beginning with Manhattan, extending to Paris, and ending in the world of art and literature in which they would both thrive by reviving and reinventing their histories in the many guises of their writing.
The lives of Charyn and Tuten have overlapped at many moments prior to the page they share here. In addition to novels, each has written extensively on art and film, and these respective interests have come to inform their fictional works. Charyn has said of his childhood that the movie house was his library and has thus made a parallel career as a film theorist (teaching American film in the American College of Paris) when he is not at work on another novel.Tuten has written screenplays, co-writing with Andrzej Żuławski the Caesar-winning film and cult classic Possesssion. Tuten appears as an actor in the short film The Year Zero One by Alain Resnais. Another Alain Resnais film serves as the centerpiece of one of his stories, “The Park Near Marienbad.” He has written prodigiously on art for numerous publications including Art in America, Art Forum, and The New York Times, and has taught at both The School of Visual Arts and the University of Paris 8. References to film informs much of Jerome Charyn’s work, just as art sounds a kind of second heartbeat in Frederic Tuten’s fictional worlds. The cover of Tuten’s first novel, a post modern pastiche entitled The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, depicts a cartoon-like portrait of a smiling Mao Tse-Tung, created specially for the book by Tuten’s friend, the well known pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein. Charyn has written graphic novels, one of which Tuten reviewed. Tuten’s color drawings have appeared in the “Writer’s Brush,” a visual art show featuring writers who make visual art. Tuten and Charyn exchanged views in a conversation published in the highly influential arts and culture magazine BOMB. The two are the subject of a film aired originally on the BBC called Boys from the Bronx. What could they have had to talk about? Both of these “Boys from the Bronx” left the Bronx eventually, first to attend college in New York City—Tuten at The City College of New York, and Charyn at Columbia University. Both, in alternate moments, have lived and worked in Paris. Both have written in a wide variety of modes—novels, memoirs and journalism. Charyn’s most recent novel, Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution (Norton), is, according to BookForum, “a breathless and poignant tour de force narrated by the fast-talking, one-eyed double agent John Stocking, whose mother runs one of the city’s most notorious brothels, and whose mystery father may be George Washington.” The novel, though only just published, has already received great and widespread acclaim. Tuten, meanwhile, is about to publish a collection of short stories, which, though fictional, will serve as the first part of a two-book autobiography. He is currently at work on the second book, a memoir, but not a memoir—a familiar trope in Tuten’s oeuvre; remember the first novel that was not a novel? Tuten continues with inordinate zeal to break apart every regularly accepted genre in order to expose the vital and naked human body beating within, disordered, warm and frail at the heart of every one of the seemingly cold paradoxes so often attributed, mistakenly, to experimental writing. Both Charyn and Tuten have written extensively of their past, though each has handled the subject with marked distinction of the other. Charyn reflects directly on his childhood in autobiographical books such as Bronx Boy and others. In books like El Bronx and Marilyn The Wild, Charyn, who left the Bronx long ago for Paris, where he currently resides, writes passionately about characters still left to smolder in the Bronx of his memory and imagination.
Though Charyn has left physically, it seems that imaginatively he is unable or unwilling to resist completely the thrall of his youth. He returns to the Bronx in book after book. Haunted or enraptured by the tumultuous and seductive dangers of the past, Charyn has called the Bronx “the great snake that wrapped around us,” suggesting an ambivalent respect for its capricious bite and strangely alluring venom. Through the music of his fiction, Charyn conjures the snake to rise and dance before us. Taken at his metaphor, if the Bronx is a snake, then Charyn is its charmer. Or do his frequent returns to these memories suggest just the opposite—could it be that the snake is charming him?Tuten gazes back just as frequently, however more indirectly. While telling the love story of French revolutionary Jean Lambert Tallien, the narrator imagines he is addressing his dying father in the hospital. Tuten imagines what he would say to his father, who left his family forever when he was but ten. He tells of the romance he imagines between Tallien and his lover Therese (Tallien: A Brief Romance, 1984). It is Tuten’s signature style evidenced in much of his work to tell his own story by imagining another—his dreams making up the medium through which he communicates. By imagining foreign landscapes, Tuten’s own life appears, like stubborn grasses sprouting up through the cracks of a sidewalk.
Indeed, his next book, part one of a two-part autobiography, is a collection of short fantastical stories in which he, the book’s ostensible subject, is never even mentioned but for the very occasional apparition of a ghostly third-person narrator suddenly made flesh in the rooms where these stories take place.A collection of “Self Portraits,” as they are titled, they are stories about imagined couples whose gestures are but echoes in an eternal parade of relationships, modern tales where pirate ships intrude to barter stolen souls, where East Village apartments fill with ice cubes, where a woman perpetually arrives, youth elixirs are peddled along Hampton beaches, and through the windows of subway cars the Bronx and Sicily are glimpsed on both sides. Through each of these imaginative expeditions, we glimpse the deepest heart of the writer and ultimately recognize the writer’s true project—an autobiography of the imagination. The stories have all been published previously in magazines from Granta to Conjunctions to Harper’s, as well as others, so that a piecing together of the book is already possible. And as Tuten is himself a collagist, it seems it would not be too unfair to read this way for now and perhaps prematurely draw some conclusions.
Fiction is certainly a peculiar manner of memoir. This unusual mode suggests Tuten views his fictional landscapes as a more accurate depiction of himself than any direct memoir could hope to approach. What is real in Tuten’s work is also what is imagined. Storytelling and storyliving are interchangeable after a time, and inextricable. As the body and brain combine to suggest a mind, so does the mind at work suggest the imagination, suggest the soul, to which Tuten so often refers. Tuten’s self portraits might be object lessons. The reader of these “Self Portraits” is asked to see Tuten as the writer at work. His fictional creations, the manifestations of his soul, his worlds suggest his existence through their existence. The story, any story, is thus an extension of the self. Fiction is a protracted self-portrait, he seems to be saying with this latest collection. Fiction is the shroud over a body laid bare.Barthelme’s short stories, the genre for which he was best known, bring together many worlds. In his stories we find seemingly simple send-ups of revered philosophers, his wisecracking tales of terrific heartbreaks which hurt all the more as they please because life is so unjustly funny, solutions of language made up of the elegiac, the philosophic, and clips of ad-copy all at once. Lists, collages, superheroes in domestic splendor. Many drinks, board games, and balloons. Ennui galore! might be a phrase he wouldn’t mind so much for all its absurd pretensions. Perhaps a good hook for his story “Eugenie Grandet” if it were to be marketed next as summer blockbuster. Barthelme’s reputation has recently enjoyed a critical rebirth with young readers discovering him anew and critics writing articles suggesting a secured place for him in the American literary cannon. Barthelme’s work, like Charyn’s and Tuten’s, offers pastiches of real and imagined territories. Descriptions critical and celebratory of modern life seem painstakingly glued together with the innocent, almost naïve passion of a schoolboy assembling a model airplane he’s got through the post. In his stories, Barthelme seems to suggest he is only dutifully following the instruction manual that came in the box with the Modern World. And of course the instructions are absurd; they must be if they are to be accurate. But there is no manual that Barthelme is following—at least there wasn’t before him. The stories themselves read as just that: cryptic instructions for modern “city life” (the title of one of his collections, incidentally). The kicker for Barthelme, though, and what his most sympathetic readers understand all too well, is that a decoder ring is required to decipher them. Barthelme’s decoder ring takes the form of humor. Unfortunately for many, however, such a valuable thing might have been accidentally thrown out with the cereal box, mistakenly dismissed as kid stuff. Though often criticized as a jokester, as a cold experimentalist who did not put enough of himself on the page, did not venture enough into the deeps of humanity if at all, books like Sadness convince the sensitive reader otherwise. He writes for anyone who has ever laughed at his own misery, finding even in the greatest sorrows a redemptive beauty shimmering in a gown of wit and understanding. Barthelme, in all his games, as he spins and throws lances at his targets—couples, families, scholars, politicians, etc.—lays himself bare in the process. His targets are not nearly all that is captured in his work. What also emerges is an outline of Barthelme himself in all his humanity.
In Jerome Charyn’s essay, Charyn offers a personal look back at his brief tenure as Barthelme’s accomplice, when together with Mark Mirsky, Faith Sale and some others, they began Fiction magazine. However, through his narrative we also learn a little bit more about Charyn himself. Tuten, meanwhile, chooses to look back by looking elsewhere. By assembling fragments of Barthelme’s oeuvre to work in conjunction with glued reproductions of his most beloved paintings, Tuten unveils a bizarre self-portrait with his response. Perhaps refraction is the nature of reflection and so it would be impossible for light not to bounce back and elsewhere, creating accidental targets. For, as Charyn and Tuten reflect on Donald Barthelme and the nature of his project, glimpses of their own lives emerge and their dreams poke through the fault lines of the collage.
In Tuten’s novel Tallien, the narrator, quoting the 17th century painter Claude Lorrain, says, “The foreground in a picture is always unattractive and art demands that the interest of the canvas should be placed in the far distance, where lies take refuge, those dreams which blossom out of fact and are man’s only love.” The novel has at its foreground the story of Tallien, the French revolutionary, told in an imagined speech delivered to the father from the son. What is the book about? Bringing this to bear on our collage assembled here, the question is plain: Which is the foreground, our designated subject? And that which we see receding in the distance, is it more or less important? The figures of this piece alternately emerge from and retreat into the background, the foreground and background becoming almost interchangeable. Thus, is there a definitive subject in all of this? And is that subject, too, just a mirror back? The suggestion of a hand at work? Are all works of art self-portraits finally? The question cannot be put off any longer: Is all literature about me?
Charyn, Tuten and Barthelme illuminate and confuse this question in each of their works, as they give us stories in which we find our own hearts as well, tales in which we find echoes of our deepest selves, scenes depicting eternal gestures that have been or will be made if at least once by our own hand or with our own eyes, or in the way we might one day cast a face toward the sea at a dusk come too quick, or when we stand at street level above the Paris Metro and feel the rumble underfoot of a train escaped from the Bronx, or in a glance toward a woman who only ever arrives, or a look back—
I never really knew him well. I knew him, and that was enough. He looked like Ahab with his grizzled beard. But he wrote like Jonathan Swift, with a pinch of Rimbaud. I remember the first “compliment” he ever paid me. I’d given him a novel of mine, about a homicide detective who dies in the middle of a ping-pong match. He promised to read it, and he did. “A good genre novel,” he said, stroking his beard. “I could only find one or two clinkers”—meaning bad sentences. You could not find one clinker in anything he ever wrote.There was in his work a perfection beyond that of any other master, even beyond the musicality of James Joyce. Barthelme shunned music, though. His sentences were a kind of relentless babble ripped out of our culture’s squishy heart. He was the ultimate junkman. Barthelme salvaged and reprocessed all the dross that had crept into our language, and like the shrewdest of alchemists, he turned it into his own curious gold. “Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole,” he wrote in “The Indian Uprising,” my favorite of his stories.
Nothing escaped his savage wit—fathers, dead or alive; Snow White; Alice B. Toklas; Captain Kidd. He had an echolalia that mimicked all our voices, all our desires. But he was most savage with himself. I rarely saw him smile, except at his own foibles.
He was stingy with his praise, but when he did love something, he loved it like a priest, with a devotion that was absolute. Barthelme was one of the first to read Gabriel García Márquez, and he imposed his priestly legislation upon me: I could either read One Hundred Years of Solitude, or never talk to him again. I was caught up in the dream of Macondo for an entire month, and I never really recovered from that book.
I could understand Barthelme’s devotion to One Hundred Years of Solitude—it was like a dueling mirror to his own work. If García Márquez’s writing was about the ultimate expanse of the imagination, Barthleme’s was about its ultimate contraction. He’d narrowed language down to a murderous pin (with a lot of prickles).
Barthelme emerged in the 1960s as our most original storyteller. He’d revised and remapped the whole literary landscape. He was always being imitated. Barthelme clones appeared almost as soon as Barthelme himself. And if he ended up in a state of exhaustion, that’s because he left himself so little wiggle room and no escape routes. His entire oeuvre was an attack upon the novel, with its digressions and swollen joints, yet he too wrote novels, as if he had to participate in his own evisceration. He was also an incredible maker of collages, and that’s how I was introduced to him.It was during the seventies, when serious fiction still seemed to reign, and Barthelme, together with Faith Sale (an editor), Mark Mirsky (a novelist and critic), and Marianna Frisch (Barthelme’s German translator), decided to test the longitude and latitude of good writing and produce a magazine that slyly looked like a newspaper and cold be sold like a newspaper, but with the contents of a Molotov cocktail—subversive, exciting short stories. I quickly joined the crew. We called the magazine Fiction, and with Barthelme’s imprimatur, we had, in our very first issue, contributions from Peter Handke, John Hawkes, Stanley Elkin, Max Frisch, Thomas Bernhard, and John Ashbury. Barthelme created a collage for the very first cover: Little Red Riding Hood in bed with the Wolf, who’s wearing a bonnet, while images of Marcel Proust look down from the wallpaper behind them.
Barthleme pretended that he did not take part in the editorial process, that he was simply helping to design the magazine and might happen to look over our shoulders from time to time like a sympathetic Santa. But Mirsky and I were forever politicking, maneuvering around Barthelme, and once we happened to slip a story under his radar—it was by one of our former professors, someone we admired; it wasn’t a bad story, but it did have a number of “clinkers.” Barthelme raged like Ahab when he saw the story in print. And he removed himself from our editorial board. Like deceitful children, we had let him down.
But our fall was inevitable, I think. We would have disappointed him in some other fashion. We connived too much, took too much glee in our little games. After that, the magazine continued to chug along, but without those wonderful Barthelme covers. No more Little Red Riding Hoods. No more Marcel Proust. Yet that could also have been Barthleme on the wallpaper, behind Red Riding Hood, with a beard rather than a moustache, and with a seriousness and corrosive wit that seemed to shame us all.Some while ago, I was invited by the editor of Smyles & Fish to write a few words about Donald Barthelme, the post-modernist writer, whose fiction and collages struck me on first sight in those creatively rich and aesthetically adventurous years of the 1960’s.
I came to know him in 1971, shortly after publishing my first novel, TheAdventures of Mao on the Long March, a book made of quotes taken from various sources combined with my parodies of American writers and of the then current art criticism. It is a novel made up of fragments cohered around the unifying spine of a rather straightforward narrative describing Mao and his army’s 9000-mile foot-marched flight across China to safe havens in the caves of Yanan.As much as I had admired him, Barthelme was not the significant influence on the novel but the older T. S. Eliot and his autobiographical Wasteland, a poem collaged with literary fragments—shorn, as he said, “against his ruin.” There were other muses for my novel, too, like Jean Luc Godard, whose films broke all narrative rules and suggested license to do the same in all the arts. I had found in Barthelme less a direct impress on my writing and more of an example of what an American and a contemporary could accomplish in making the story and the novel fresh—to give to literature the vigor of subject matter and style of what Pop Art, and especially Roy Lichtenstein, had then recently infused in painting.
I wanted to make this collage in homage to Donald Barthleme for his influence on me as a young writer, years ago, in showing that there were many ways of telling a story. And that subject matter could come from anywhere, even comic books as well as the material of one’s life. His story about Batman and Robin, “The Joker’s Last Laugh,” was especially rich in that conception because it indicated that one could make a fiction winnowed away from the trails of autobiography, from politics, from ideas. Of course, this idea is itself a fiction.I greatly admired Barthelme’s sympathy for visual art and that he had made collages, combining appropriated images and his original text to tell some of his stories. I saw him in the tradition of the artist Max Ernst, whose wordless collage-narratives I loved for their mystery and disquieting feelings.
I wanted to make a collage using the troubling images from Max Ernst’s book, UneSemaine de Bonte, and bind them to lines from some of Barthelme’s stories, hoping to create from that blend a work wholly mine yet wholly anchored in the works of those two artists, both vivid presences in my life.As much as I had wanted to keep the structure of my collage story pure by using lines from Barthelme’s stories only, I could not help but slip into my text a writer I have long loved and whom I have quoted before in my novel, TheAdventures of Mao on the Long March. Walter Pater’s concluding essay in his Studiesin the Renaissance haunts me to this day. I find in it most of what I believe about art, and what I suspect that Barthelme also believed. That is, art for the sake of its being and for the beauty of its being.
Finally, I wanted to compose a work to say to Barthelme what in the time I knew him I did not have the temerity to say, and to send him an affectionate salute.