Sunday, April 17, 2011

REVIEW: Frederic Tuten's The Adventures of Mao on the Long March

"Mixing Pop and Politics, he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses
While looking down the corridor
Out to where the van is waiting
I'm looking for the Great Leap Forwards."

--Billy Bragg, "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward

A while back, I saw, in a magazine whose name I can't remember, a retrospective on Frederic Tuten's career. As of this year, he's been a published writer for 40 years, and Mao was his first book, so of course, they reprinted an excerpt from it to demonstrate the man's artistry.

In said excerpt, Greta Garbo drives up in a tank, tells Mao that his communist passions have inflamed her, and begs him to take her on the hood of her Panzer.
Needless to say, I ordered a copy immediately.
Really, who could blame her?
You may have noticed something of a trend regarding the Red Menace on this blog. A blend of fascination, admiration, and loathing. Eugene V. Debs is one of my greatest heroes, Marxist theory has a huge influence on the way that I read and analyze texts, but if I ever met Pol Pot I'd probably stab him in his fat face. The Long March, especially the way Tuten tells the story, forms a perfect intersection of all those conflicting feelings. In Tuten's narrative, it's hard not to look with awe at the heroism with which the Red Army is marching across the entirety of China, under constant fire from government forces--but throughout the book Tuten reminds you what's coming next.

One of the most fascinating reasons to read The Adventures of Mao, though, is the style with which it's written--something wholly unlike anything I've read before. Huge chunks of the book--as much as a quarter--are quotations from other works. Sometimes they secretly aren't: there are "interviews" with Red Army members that are an excuse to slap quotation marks around chunks of narrative. But oftentimes they are, and they don't always make sense at first: fragments of London's pro-socialist dystopian novel The Iron Heel are used to both describe the oppression the Red Army suffered under the Kuomintang and to foreshadow the Red Army's own rise to dictatorship, snippets of of Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, in which a sculptor pursues perfection, come into the text alongside Mao's struggle to create a distinctly Chinese Communism. At one point, in one of the beautiful moments of bathos in the text, Mao responds to a question about love by quoting, for ten pages, Friedrich Engels's analysis of the modern family structure.
Engels: not as brilliant at Marx, but an even better beard.
Similarly, Tuten tries to view Mao through the lens of 20th-century literature. Peppered throughout the work are brief passages where he (almost perfectly) imitates the voice of various modern American authors and uses their voices to tell different stories of the Long March. Hemingway describes the assault on a Kuomintang-held bridge as a bar fight, Kerouac tells a story of a joyous joyride through California as Mao approaches the end of his March, Faulkner (specifically, in the style of the second-to-last chapter of Light in August) elaborates on Mao's connection to the land and history of China.
Also, Lichtenstein did the cover.
In his forward to the book, Tuten makes his case--we have been far too strict on what a novel can and cannot be. His best defense is The Waste Land: if literary critics are going to praise a work made almost entirely from jumbled voices, imitations, quotations, and allusions as the greatest poem of the modern age, there better be at least one novel willing to take the same chances. And while Tuten's no Eliot (which he readily admits), Mao has the same thing going for it that I love about The Waste Land. It's fun. The assemblage and collage that goes into the novel, its fantastic segments and fake interviews, all form a sort of set of building blocks. And the real joy in the book is figuring out the connections, finding the resonances and the motifs, and then trying to build the novel in your head.

Also, you know. Greta Garbo, panting and lusty, climbing out of a Panzer and tearing her shirt off, begging to be taught dialectics.
"There is a spectre haunting my pants. It is the spectre of bonerism."

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