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I remember picking up The New Yorker at a newsstand and reading John Updike’s review of my novel and riding home on my Raleigh roadbike and reading it again in bed. I remained in bed the rest of the day, thinking I’d gotten a spring flu from riding around the city and sweating like a crazy man on that bike.

It wasn’t flu that had laid me out. It was the Updike review, stunning, out of nowhere, a long line dropped from the eminent upper earth with its message of greetings: “Chum, I’ve read you, read you carefully, and here are my thoughts.” Updike understood a great deal about my novel, had come to its heart -- an organ many at the time did not believe the novel possessed.

Myself included, if heart meant personal anecdote, the common tissue of fictionalized autobiography. I did not want my first novel to be animated by that kind of warmed-over heart. I did not want to trade in the confidences of unhappy childhood, nor in the tale well told, peopled with colorful characters and larded with easily prized sentiments. I was sure I did not want to do the nineteenth century novel yet once again.

That would have been to be born old and exhausted. I would be just trotting out the plaster casts and anatomical models and replaying The Raft of the Medusa, only in contemporary acrylic instead of venerable oils. There were some models which pointed to my novel’s direction, all the same. They seemed at the time fresh and important ways of thinking about writing fiction -- or at least about the kind of fiction I then wanted to write.

T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland -- its structure and not its cultural politics -- was one of these models; Eliot’s idea of a work composed of fragments, mosaics of quotations arranged so that their configuration transcended the parts and gave resonance to the whole, and his hint that those fragments might make up an autobiography to shore against his ruin. I was taken by the idea of an impersonal fiction, one whose personality was the novel’s and not apparently that of its author, an ironic work impervious to irony, its tone a matte gun-metal gray with just a flash of color here and there to warm the reader.

In a different vein, there was the idol of my generation, Godard. I liked the anti-cinema way he sliced quotes into his narratives, and how his characters read essays and declaimed directly into the camera. Godard’s radical format seemed not an end in itself, not some attempt at a purely abstract, non-referential cinema, as in the films of Stan Brakhage in America, but an essay in quickening the spent formulas of social and political cinema and of cinema itself.

I wrote THE ADVENTURES OF MAO at a most political time: the radical waves of ’68 were hitting all shores; young people believed the Revolution was at the gate. China was near, its revolution still fresh and seemingly uncorrupted. In 1969, I published a thirty-nine page version of THE ADVENTURES OF MAO in the magazine Artist Stain, one of the many items -- stamps, seals, watches, rings, lithographs, cut-out figures, etc. -- included in a limited edition three-tier plastic box topped by Ernest Trova’s sculpture, “Falling Man.” Trova had asked me to write a piece on Mao’s Long March for a magazine to be included among the items in the box-sculpture.

Except perhaps for length, I had no restrictions. There was a wonderful freedom in knowing that I could write as I wished, knowing that the work would be published and not be left to molder on a closet shelf among dead shoes and old diplomas. And for further encouragement, vivid experimentation was going on everywhere about me. Rauschenberg was combining disparate materials -- mattresses and rubber tires, perhaps even the kitchen sink -- with his paintings; Lichtenstein and his comic-book images were realigning our view of subject matter appropriate for art, and his work drove a new bright energy into painting, at a time when the vitality seemed endemic.

There was also something innovative in the literary mood of the late Sixties and early Seventies, some idea of refreshing the novel. (Of course, it was constantly being refreshed from the day it was born.) I’m thinking of the era of Steve Katz’s THE EXAGGERATION OF PETER PRINCE, a novel interlaced with photographs and ex’d-out pages of text and of Donald Barthelme’s extrapolation from Pop art, the idea that comic book characters could live in the pages of fiction as well as any characters one could invent or model after. There were other such off-register books in and about the period. But the innovative climate, on the whole, made up only a rare exception to the general and predictable weather.

THE ADVENTURES OF MAO ON THE LONG MARCH was my first published novel but not my first attempt at writing one. I had been trying short fiction since fifteen and wrote a novella set in Mexico when I was nineteen. Very Malcolm Lowry stuff: a young man in Mexico City -- love, drink, sorrows, the obsidian night of the soul. Somehow Jack Kerouac crept into the pages as well. Then another novel went on and off in my late twenties, a story about a young man on the Lower East Side who makes his way by collecting bottles and trash, his idea to live like an urban Thoreau, to the bone and unencumbered. I intercut the narrative with passages from WALDEN and from Emerson’s essays and snatches of other early American writers. My room was filled with the American Transcendentalists, and once in a while Melville would rise from his chair and cuff their ears. I published sections of the novel years later but I never finished it.

I had come to write THE ADVENTURES OF MAO ON THE LONG MARCH after hearing many voices. All the way through into my early thirties I listened to John Dos Passos and Hemingway. To mix the metaphor, I’d no sooner unstick myself from the glue of Dos Passos’ trilogy USA with its lyrical, proletarian appeal, then I’d find myself caught in Papa’s tight web -- designed in planes, after Cézanne. No young writer today can imagine the power Hemingway’s prose had for us then. You could take one of his sentences and twist it and shake it and slice it, and it would always return to its original shape. It was you who was misshaped at the end, turning even laundry instructions into a Hemingway line. In THE ADVENTURES OF MAO, I tried to rid myself of these siren voices by capturing them and teasing them. All those parodies of Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Malamud, Kerouac, done in an attempt to seize their essence through homage and to trap them in my pages, and once there, forever exorcise them and their serenades. These are the arrogant things the young dream up. Murdering Papas, ingesting them, and keeping their image respectfully distant. So, with its parodies and appropriations (an inventory of them is appended), its collage format and deadpan, textbook narrative describing the history of the Long March, THE ADVENTURES OF MAO was, I hoped, a book with no detectable voice in any one line or passage but one distinctly heard drumming through in the novel’s structure.

THE ADVENTURES OF MAO was published in America in the fall of 1971, and in France -- thanks to Raymond Queneau -- chez Editions Gallimard in 1975, which has kept it in print. The novel owes its flickering English-language life to rare-book dealers. I have dreamed for years that the novel be reissued -- and now, twenty-five years later, here it is. Twenty-five minutes or twenty-five seconds later, it might well be. Though I notice I have become the portly avatar of the youngish man who wrote that novel, little else has changed.

It is not for me to say how well THE ADVENTURES OF MAO holds or does not hold its center, but I hope the novel has kept its interest in these years of changing cultural temper. I still read the book as a record of sensibility, filtered through masks and quotations, and as an autobiography of thought. The real Mao embodied the Revolution with all its contradictions, his vanity dictating its failure, intimation of which the Mao-character in the novel glimpses. But that is just a matter of history.


©Frederic Tuten, 1997. Published by permission of Marion Boyars Publishers. From THE ADVENTURES OF MAO ON THE LONG MARCH, with an introduction by John Updike. Marion Boyars Publishers, New York and London, $13.95 (paper). Distributed by Inbook/LPC, fax 1-800-334-3892.



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