Forty years ago, in a world that has long since disappeared, a writer who was no longer exactly young—he was 35 and, by the standards of the day, five years past untrustworthy—published a startling little book called The Adventures of Mao on the Long March. It was fiction of the sort that even now makes the novel as a form feel like something delightfully and bewilderingly new, which is, if you put any stock in the meaning of words, what a novel is supposed to be. Frederic Tuten’s book was a peculiar, fragmentary thing: all jump-cut and pastiche and deadpan mimicry. It was about Mao, but via the rabbit hole of pop assemblage. Tuten spliced a straight history of the Long March with paragraphs and whole pages culled from Jack London, James Fenimore Cooper, Melville, Hawthorne, Ruskin and Wilde, and he folded in parodies of Malamud, Faulkner and Hemingway ("You knew that if you said it all truly there would be enough there for a long time. Enough of the olives and Baked Alaska when the air conditioner blew at you hard in the fine little room behind the zinc of the bar at Sardi’s"). Mao discourses on art and poetry and "sex-love." He talks about Godard and Dalí and Wallace Stevens. Greta Garbo seduces him from atop a flower-strewn tank: "Mao, I have been bad in Moscow and wicked in Paris…but I have never met a MAN whom I could love."
Today, with all the indolent advantages of hindsight, we might file away Tuten’s first novel on that high shelf of heady oddities labeled "the postmodern," alongside the fiction of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme and Gilbert Sorrentino, and perhaps a soundtrack of early Brian Eno. But in 1971 The Adventures of Mao on the Long March was no curio. Roy Lichtenstein designed the cover image: a smiling, stippled Chairman in a cartoon burst of color. (Warhol wouldn’t get to Mao for two more years.) Susan Sontag blurbed the book as "violently hilarious." Dame Iris Murdoch recognized Tuten as "serious." John Updike reviewed the book in The New Yorker. "We are confronted," he wrote approvingly, "with something truly other than the reasonable liberalism and sentimental romanticism that have shaped our radically imperfect world." That world would quickly fade into another, and then another, each more imperfect than the last. As for the "truly other," it would soon be exiled—if not from the culture entirely, at least from the local literary mainstream, a creek that would grow narrower as the decades passed, and less welcoming of the novel.
Tuten would not publish another book for seventeen years. The Adventures of Mao on the Long March fell out of print and became a strange, secret treasure, one whispered of by writers in the know. For years, it was easier to find in French than in English—Raymond Queneau was an admirer, and Les Aventures de Mao pendant la longue marche is still in the Gallimard catalog. But it grew alien with age. Mao had been an intensely optimistic work, written, in Tuten’s words, when China’s revolution was "still fresh and seemingly uncorrupted." Formally, it was not so much a rebellion against the inherited strictures of literary realism but a celebration in their absence, a gentle roast turned all-night dance party. By the time Tuten’s next novel, Tallien: A Brief Romance, was published in 1988, the insurrectionary playfulness epitomized by Mao had long since gone stiff. In the first world, at least—if we can allow ourselves the nostalgia of that term—postrevolutionary ecstasy had been poisoned by kitsch, commerce and too much bad faith. Mao had become an artifact.
Tuten would write of his first book, "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." Tallien is warmer and more personal, if less brash and less bold: a sad, sober book, a stubborn ode to disillusion. It takes the form of a story told by a son to his late father, who, like Tuten’s own, had been a Southern gentleman turned radical labor organizer and who, like Tuten’s father, had left his wife and only son in the Bronx when the boy was still a child. When the novel opens, the father, Rex—a name that will reappear in Tuten’s work—has just died alone in Jersey City. The narrator wishes he could have told him about the life of the French revolutionary Jean Lambert Tallien. He can’t—so he tells us.