The Adventures of Mao on the Long March
“Funny thing about Kitty is,” Tommy said, leaving the subject of Betty Breyer’s assets, “funny thing is, Kitty never learned to fall…people used to come from miles around just to hear her head go squish.”
Fresh fruit is as important when you live in a hotel as it is when you live on a ship; besides preventing scurvy it’s a reminder that mother earth continues to produce and care for us, or tries to against great odds.
“Yes,” Aldyce said. “Would you care to hear classical, jazz, or rock?”
“What rock do you have?”
” ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ ‘Downtown,’ and ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.’ My son left them here.”
“Those are classics,” Rosa said. “But play them anyway. I don’t mind a trip down memory lane.”
Rosalyn Drexler’s To Smithereens, from which these quotations come, is a narrative duet, the story of Paul and Rosa and their brittle but ongoing affair, told by each of them in turn, in relay. Paul is an art critic with a yen for large ladies, and especially large ladies who wrestle or figure in the annals of the Junoesque Femmes Club. It all goes back to his tiny mother, who seemed like a toy to him, and whom he hit when he was fourteen for frying his eggs the wrong way. “She fell down. Lay at my feet like a cloth effigy: faceless, boneless, but resembling herself.” Rosa is a belated flower-child of Forty-second Street, always getting caught in someone else’s scene, as she says, up on dope, conservation, health foods, and carrying a straw bag whose contents are a form of biography: “Clothes and things. Telephone book, cigarettes, makeup, douche powder, douche, dexies, Meth, Thorazine, vitamin pills, rose-hip gum, sugar cubes, perfume, jewelry, the I-Ching, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Delfen foam.”
Suitably, the two meet in a darkened movie-house, where Paul puts a tentative hand on Rosa’s thigh. Rosa grabs the hand and squeezes hard (“His bones rose toward the middle of my relentless palm like a log jam”), then whacks Paul across the wrist, and they are all set for a beautiful friendship. When money runs out, Paul induces Rosa to become a lady wrestler (with Bobby Fox’s “troupe of gorgeous grapplers”), and the rest of the book retails the intermittences of her affair with Paul, and the picaresque performances of the wrestling team and hangers-on on tour in Florida and Mexico.
There is no conclusion; the book fades out on a bomb scare which clears a second movie-house, and the suggestion is that this suspense, this avoided blast, is what we have now, how we live between beginnings and endings which are as violent as the creation (“A big explosion…God was the first Weatherman…from the big bang which blew everything to smithereens new planets formed”) or as accidental death (“Wanna see a picture of my wife? She’s dead. So’s my kid. That’s my story. Everybody got a story. That’s mine. Train knocked the car to smithereens…daughter to smithereens…. wife to smithereens…”). Meanwhile, between explosions, a small, erratic love or two may be possible.
The scene of the novel is less a time and a place—New York, mainly, in the late Sixties and early Seventies—than a condition of consciousness. New York becomes a name for a brand of hysteria, for a circus of crazies, comically seen and perfectly human and manageable as it turns out. Paul and Rosa, individual and well-defined as they are, tend to disappear into this collective portrait. Paul is the twitchy, ruined modern male from an R. Crumb comic (“the universal Paul,” Rosa thinks), and Rosa is the resurgent |female, all immediacy, innocence, and half-nelsons.
“You’re not as crazy as you seem, are you?” a character says in Rosalyn Drexler’s play The Line of Least Existence. “None of us is. We’re all rational people.” The specific context of the words makes them sound like a desperate pleading lie: we are just as crazy as we seem, if not crazier, but please let’s not admit it. But the play itself, and in particular the character of the woman speaking the lines, suggests that what the words say is literally, drably true. We are dull people, and any semblance of vivid craziness we may present is an illusion. Mrs. Drexler knows that we really are crazy, and in very bad shape; but she also knows that the forms of our craziness have a conformity, a banality all of their own. Between madness and grayness, or out of a gray madness, we have to put something together. Rosa does it by always being on the move, being ready to try anything—hotel lobbies are her emblem:
I like lobbies, entries, foyers, passageways, hallways…places where there is movement to other places…where you don’t have to stay…where you can stop to rest, or lean and think.
Paul at one point wants Rosa to rough him up in public but is not sure how to set the scene in motion. “Such simple needs,” he sighs, “and yet they must be arrived at intricately.” But they are arrived at, Paul does get to the simple by means of the intricate. Paul and Rosa carry on: “But that was him, and he’d never change. I didn’t even argue with him.”
There are occasional failures of confidence in the novel, places where Mrs. Drexler seems to feel she has to tell us that Paul and Rosa have a good thing going, even though they are surrounded by jokes (Proust said that although was a disguised form of because—“les quoique sont des parce que méconnus“), and there is one wild moment of lost control when Rosa turns herself into Lévi-Strauss and speculates on the relations of cookery, cannibalism, and magic. Otherwise it is an impeccably funny and intelligent book, a sensible trip through the homeland of nonsense.
The last thing failing in either Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao or Violette Leduc’s The Taxi is confidence. Indeed both books are so skilled and sure of themselves that they seem slightly meretricious, exercises in literary poise. Tuten’s novel seems, finally, less a novel than an illustrated contribution to the theory of fiction; and Violette Leduc’s seems to be less a piece of fiction than a piece of delicately structured logorrhea.
Action, The Adventures of Mao suggests at its outset, can only be pointed to, not written about, not talked about. It can be referred to only in language stripped of all emotion, all style, all literary intention:
Not long after the fall of the Ch’in dynasty in 1912 and the founding of the Chinese Republic, the Kuomintang (KMT), a nationalist party, was formed by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who had dreamed and fought for a united, democratic China….
In 1927, with the leadership and organization of the Communists and revolutionary workers, the KMT took Shanghai….
Mao supported a policy of confiscation of all privately owned land and its distribution among the landless peasantry….
Mao’s line was opposed by the leaders of the Communist Party, especially Ch’en Tu-hsiu, whose vision….
However, by 1930….
This history, these Chinese facts leading to the Long March and continuing through it, are interspersed with various forms of pastiche and extended quotation, mounted in a collage invoking Jewish novels, the general strike, the current state of art, southern fiction, the new criticism, the Civil War, snatches of science fiction, much more. Everything outside China in the Twenties and Thirties, not only in literature and art, but in life itself, becomes a mere dance of clichés and falsehoods. What happens in reality in China, happens for us only in the banal backrooms of our minds and our galleries and our books:
“As in these busts in the block of marble,” thought Miriam, “so does our individual fate exist in the limestone of time….”
Mr. Reed will be remembered for his billboard of Elizabeth Taylor smoking a Marlboro cigarette (1964), his 80-by-20 foot peppermint-striped canvas (1965), and his fluorescent-light chevron series—30 chevrons of yellow light spaced over 1000 yards of New Jersey marshes (1966)….
In this poem images of synethesia and oxymoron decidedly mould meaning, lending to the work a certain hermetic, neo-Platonic tone and implication. These images undercut one another not in effect but in sense, so that the world of the poem is in imagistic stasis, and the poem itself is given an immutable and dynamic locus: permanency and change unite to form a synthesis at once inexplicable and emotionally logical….
But then as the book progresses, this hollowness, this strenuous and sentimental absurdity take over Mao’s world, too. We see him worrying about his poems, and the revolution takes on the quality of an ordinary evening in New Haven:
“Are you wistful, Mao?”
“No, my dear, I’m thinking of blackbirds.”
“Any kind especially?”
“Three of them in a tree.”
“Urns and empty glass jars.”
Garbo shows up in a tank, hangs her cap on a cannon, and slips her coveralls off for Mao, who gives her a lecture on perception, art, and the solipsism. He worries about the women his famous contemporaries have, hankers for Eva Braun and Mussolini’s Claretta. He harangues his troops on women and marriage, at vast, humorless length, taking pages from Engels and Maine, but is unable to answer a question about how much raping the men should do as they pass through villages on the march:
“That is a good question. But it is late, and we must rest our weary bodies for the morning’s hard march.” And Mao stumbled off into the rising rosy dawn, determined to answer that question the next morning.
Long after the Long March, we see Mao as a confirmed aesthete, an admirer of Godard’s early movies, a reader of, among other things, Art and Artists, Arts Magazine, Art Forum, Art News, Art International, Studio, Poetry, The New York Review, PMLA, Wisconsin Studies in Criticism, Norman O. Brown, Barthelme, Mailer, Hawkes, Styron, Ginsberg, Auden, Jules Verne, Dumas, Melville, Hemingway. “The sure way of knowing nothing about life,” he says, “is to try to make oneself useful.” The Long March leads not only to Wallace Stevens but to Marius the Epicurean. Mao, once he becomes the object of our speculation and fantasy, disappears among our projections, becomes just one more location in which the American mind can place its overstocked cultural lumber rooms.
It is all too tidy, though, too thoroughly worked out and brooded over; the book has lots of gloss but hardly any verve. Tuten has a fine sense of the world as a place to be rendered by a deadpan, even boring documentary tone used in an unmistakably comic setting. Life is caught between the dreariness of its necessary facts and the equally necessary perception of the ludicrous nature of the whole business. The trouble is that Tuten’s perception of the ludicrous is not as sharp as his theoretical perception of the need for such a perception. Which is a complicated way of saying that his book is not as funny as it tries to be, that its jokes tend to come out as references to jokes, outlines for jokes rather than the things themselves. The passages I have already quoted suggest what this failure looks like, I think, suggest a serious glibness and flatness behind the genuine gift and skill, but here is another:
“Is this a revolution?” Mao asked himself as he sat on his hams to write a poem about The Long March. “Revolution? This is the shits, kiddo,” he whispered to the wet grass.
Reality, in The Adventures of Mao, is a world that disappears on inspection, or rather disintegrates into frivolity. For Violette Leduc, and for the long French tradition of which she represents the thin, dwindling end, the reverse is the case. Reality is inert until it is cast into language, celebrated in a literate consciousness. Mme Leduc can thus admit that words often kill what they are meant to frame (“What has been said has been assassinated,” she writes in Therese and Isabelle); she can recognize that there are all kinds of human occasions that just won’t go into language (“Let’s get rid of all these words that mean nothing,” a character says in The Taxi), but still write on, torrentially, undeterred.
Where language for Beckett, say, is a poisoned gift, a set of vicious circles, the possibility of infinite lies, for Mme Leduc, as for Genet, it is freedom. You are and you can have whatever you can name. By a kind of magical nominalism, you possess whatever you can think of in language. “Let’s talk,” we hear in The Taxi. “Let’s be everywhere at once.” And the two characters here, as in Therese and Isabelle, chant in metaphors, sing songs of each other:
You are the swiftness of my sunsets.
Is that all?
You are a little medallion on the moss of the forests.
You are the poplar leaf on the leg of the gray and powdered woman at the end of the path….
I am you, my movements are yours.
Turn your face into the hurricane.
A lunatic sky shines on your shoulder.
I hear the caves of the wind.
Let’s take off like dead rats on a toboggan.
It will be gathered that neither translation nor selective quotation does anything for The Taxi, and I can only assert that it reads well enough, at least in its cumulative effect, in French, and that Helen Weaver’s English version is a mixture of brave onslaughts on the impossible and very crude errors of understanding. It is a translation that is either lame or ludicrous and the reader should hasten to enjoy the plot. Two children, brother and sister, sixteen and fourteen respectively, decide, one day on a merry-go-round on the boulevard de Clichy, to take three months of lessons in sex from a pimp and a prostitute, and then to dedicate themselves to each other for one whole day, in a taxi driving around Paris. The book is composed of their dialogue on this day.
The point, I take it, beyond the trickery and dainty pornography (incest thrown in for those who like their vicarious kicks lightly spiced), is a gamble with language: you speak the unspeakable, you have two characters talk when what they are up to is seemingly beyond talk. Indeed, the book is all talk. The children lapse into significant silences now and then, while they get down to other things, but they are out of them like lightning. There is something desperate here, which Mme Leduc’s technical virtuosity releases but cannot hold. Language is being used not only to quicken an otherwise dead reality, and not only to suggest how incapable we are of silence, but to make do somehow in reality’s total absence.
Here and in other works, Mme Leduc suggests that mediocre lives can have their intensities, their fine moments which will not die on them. We can even organize our intensities, in the way that the children in The Taxi set up their day as a glory to remember, a provision to see them through a tedious normal life to come. We have to make demands on life, claim our due of passion, as the lady in Lady with the Little Fox fails to do—she is so old and so little worn, we read, that even beauty seems moth-eaten by the side of her. She has “had nothing and asked nothing.” And to preserve these treasures, we need language, of course—“Talk,” a character says in The Taxi. “It will be music for later.” But a glance at some of Mme Leduc’s early books (L’Asphyxie, L’Affamée, Ravages) and her later work suggests that language for her is less a record of lived passions than a substitute for them, a literary insistence on something that has no life outside literature. We hear the sound of an echoing solipsism, the voice of a person alone in a prison of exciting words, and again we think of Genet.
The way out of the prison of words, as well as out of Tuten’s dead end of frivolity, is to make smaller claims on both language and reality, to make a deal with both. But that calls for a special modesty, perfectly embodied stylistically in the throwaway, and well represented in Mrs. Drexler’s tone in the quotations at the top of this piece. “Squish” is violent enough to be funny, but not so violent as to break the frame of comedy: the comic mot juste. “Scurvy,” in the second quotation, creeps discreetly into hotels by means of the analogy with ships, but stays there; and the cliché of memory lane, in the third, is given edge by the tolerant scorn it is made to express, and by the short term of tenure it implies, the speed with which the past recedes from the young.
This is language that has confidence in its capacity to render precisely the perceptions it is supposed to render; and not to replace them or stand in for them, as in The Taxi; and not to fail them, or fake them, by definition, as in The Adventures of Mao. Another instance:
The ring lay elevated in the arena like a piece of stale toast; its rancid surface spread with the remnants of an old feast: blood, Vaseline, resin, and sweat.
There is just the right amount of allusion, put-down, and quiet metaphor there: old feast, stale toast, rancid surface. I take it we are familiar enough with the wrestling world, from a distance, to recognize that this feels right; the description in turn is fresh enough to make our recognition work for us, yield new knowledge, what seems like a sense of things from within. And all that controlled by light irony and good timing. Why despair of literature?