Frederic Tuten, Van Gogh’s Bad Café

Van Gogh's Bad CaféVan Gogh’s Bad Café by Frederic Tuten

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(originally posted to Tumblr)

You should read this book. Especially if you enjoy Tumblr, or my corner of Tumblr anyway, where lyrical literary quotations by the modernists and their precursors, selections from the history of painting and sculpture, pictures of gorgeously desolate cityscapes, fierce left-wing denunciations of state and corporate predation as well as the minor oppressions of everyday (especially erotic) life, and photographs or drawings of long-limbed beauties asprawl on mussed mattress or lolling in bathtubs all arrive in indiscriminate proliferation with every red-lit alert that a new message has been sent. This is that, in the (pretty loose) form of a novel.

The plot, such as it is: our narrator, a drunk photographer living in pre-gentrification Alphabet City, meets a 19th-century time-traveller, one Ursula, lover of Van Gogh, aesthete-decadent-socialist, ambitious early photographer, 19-year-old morphine addict. (How much historical fact this novel contains is in question; I myself couldn’t care less, sharing another late-19th-century aesthete-decadent-socialist’s disdain for “careless habits of accuracy” in writing.)

Recollections of Ursula’s time with Van Gogh are then interleaved with her 20th century experiences—she shaves her head, gets a tattoo, becomes a Dworkin-style feminist (“She was one of the Indians exterminated by white men, and she was a Jew, too, murdered by white men”) and is generally unimpressed with modern art. This is all supposed to be mordantly funny, a sad, affectionate joke for disappointed old (male) leftists, and at times the novel does veer too close to the Carolyn Forché School of Aesthetic Atrocity (“My century…the fecal sunsets over the crematoriums, the mustard gas billowing like cotton candy over the body-jammed trenches, the pistol-shots in the ear for those who proclaimed that poems were flowers and not engines of revolution”). This tendency is always ironized rather than self-serious, though, and thankfully does not disturb the poor bones of Walter Benjamin, as usually happens in this genre.

Moving on to my praise for this novel: first and last, the prose. This book is an astonishing sequence of precise images expressed through euphonious metaphor.

She walked toward me smiling, at ease among shards and rubble, as if treading the sweet moss of her private green pasture, ruling the turf and all life below its sky, her narrow shoulders pulled square and high, her hair a tangled cinnamon-red thicket.

Second, the historical intelligence. It is a book of correspondences between two fins de siècle, between all the betrayed dreams of the first and all the desolating freedoms of the second.

Third, the people. Unforgettable, hapless, saintly Vincent, just a little condescended to, as must be expected in the churning wake of feminism and postmodernism. Unforgettable, hapless Ursula, doomed heroine eventually on heroin, lost like old Anna Karenina on her way to find God through the forest of symbols that reality is. And the unforgettable, hapless narrator, who wants to be their peer but whose needs and interests are ultimately somehow too tawdry, too stuck inside not a forest of beautifying symbols but a hall of uglifying mirrors (this being the difference between romanticism and postmodernism).

This is the last philosophical romance, the last thing of beauty. This novel is an enactment of the following conclusion, which we cannot any longer believe with any confidence, for a variety of reasons, most of them truly unable to justify themselves, not that we ever demand it of them:

Experience itself is nothing, she thought to herself, just raw earth.  Only experience transmuted by the imagination gives significance to the experience.

I press it in your hands. I don’t, really, but, c’est vrai, I wish I could.