E. L Doctorow recently discussed the stagnation of the novel as an art form in comparison to art and music. He wants to tweak the form as have other so-called post-modern authors. “Outlaw writers” are not new: Melville, Virginia Wolf, Joyce were outlaw’s whose works later joined the pantheon of classics. Vonnegut, Pynchon, Barth, and Barthelme were in vogue when I attended university. It was during this period that this novel was composed.
Frederic Tuten’s “The Adventures of Mao on the Long March” is pop art literature. Part narrative, essay, criticism, parody, and documentary. The edition published by New Directions Classic, includes the author’s 2005 Postscript. Writers, who have been turned down by editors (meaning all writers) may want to start with the Postscript. It traces the history of the novels literary development and the travail of publishing outside of mainstream commercial or less avant-garde small press. The book cover by Roy Lichtenstein, a friend of the author, was key to its publication. “You Got to Have Friends..”
When the book was ultimately favorably reviewed Diana Vreeland of Vogue contacted the author about doing another interview with Mao. It was clear she never read the book, which includes an imagined interview with Mao. Mao is often a vehicle for Mr. Tuten to expound on literary and art criticism, philosophy, sex and humanity. In some of his other works the dialogue of characters have these discussions, which is less appealing to me than the tongue-in-cheek narrative approach he uses in this book.
The most quoted and amusing scene from the novel occurs after the Tatu campaign during the Long March. Mao is alone in his tent, when a tank covered in peonies and laurel comes to a halt just before crushing him. The hatch opens,
“Gretta Garbo, dressed in red sealskin boots, red railway-man’s cap and red satin coveralls, emerges. She speaks: “Mao, I have been bad in Moscow and wicked in Paris, I have loved in every capital, but I have never met a MAN whom I could love. The man is you Mao, Mao, mine.”
Mao considers this dialectically. The woman is clearly mad. Yet she is beautiful and the tank seems to work. How did she get through the sentries? Didn’t the noise of the clanking tank trends wake the entire camp? Where is everyone?
Mao realizes the camp is empty. He is alone with Garbo. But Mao has always been more attracted to Harlow than to Garbo. What should he do not to break her romantic little heart?
“Madame, I have work to do,” says Mao gently.
“I can wait till tomorrow, my love, she answers, unzipping her coveralls.
Mao thinks: “After all, I have worked hard and do deserve a rest.” But an internal voice answers him: “Rest only after socialism”
“My Mao, this is no way to treat a woman who has made a long journey to be with you.”
“But what of my wife?”
“Ah, that is an old bourgeois ploy, Mao mine.”
Garbo hangs her cap on the mouth of the tank’s .375 recoilless cannon. And that night Mao instructed Garbo in the Chinese Way, The Five Paths, and the Three Encirclements.”
It a world of hackers, would anyone write the same about Kim Jong Un today? Here the author is turning Mao’s rejection of Western marriage on its head, as he later rates the wives and mistresses of contemporary world leaders of his time. Mao is self-effacing. A relative who is a long serving loyal soldier of the March is charged with treason and is brought to Mao for execution. He had been paid by Chiang to write criticisms of Mao. Ling explanations that the criticism was in service of the revolution. The argument is over poetry. Ling feels Mao’s is abstract and divorced from nature. Mao believes Nature is a disease. They discuss whether art imitates nature or nature art, and what is an artist. Ling is not executed and decides he will make a good cultural commissar some day.
The novel weaves excerpts from other literature into the narrative. Sometimes parodying the style, other times extrapolating from the theme. These sources and the page numbers are referenced in an abbreviated bibliography to ease the reader’s transition. These associated writings include Jack London, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, James Fennimore Cooper, Emerson, Bernard Malamud, Frederich Engels, Jack Kerouac, Washington Irving, Hemingway, Walter Pater, John William De Forest, Oscar Wilde and James Russell Lowell. A number of these are early socialist and republican works that are associative to movements during the early stages of Mao’s rise to power. Jack London’s Iron Heel and James Fennimore Cooper’s Bravo are examples.
To some extent, the novel is the author’s search for his voice. Are events post-youth elegiac? The novel does not address the Cultural Revolution, although in the interview Mao intimates that everything after The Long March was epilogue. This is not Mao’s voice, except of course to Diana Vreeland.
For writers and readers it is an interesting read. Readers who are inclined toward Realism or Impressionism in their artistic preference should be forewarned that this is modern art recast in words.
This novel was published by New Directions, a small press that has published classic and new quality fiction for 100 years. It recent publications include the well-received The King by Kader Abdolah; Robert Bolaño’s last work A Little Lumpen Novelita and the award-winning The End of Days by German author Jenny Erpenbeck. Its forthcoming 2015 publications can be found at http://ndbooks.com/books/. You can also find its editors’ and interns’ favorite books on the site, which is a nice touch for writers.