Self Portraits: Fictions
 by Frederic Tuten

W.W. Norton
First collection

" In all my years of my climbing and descending those steps I never had the same count going up as I did down. "

Reviewed by Scott Doyle

Every reviewer has a set of biases. And maybe those who are also writers more so, bringing to their criticism their own creative preoccupations. In my reviews, I often find myself focusing on whether a story’s dramatic tension has been developed and pushed sufficiently. But I had to toss aside my usual criteria as I took in Frederic Tuten’s charming Self Portraits: Fictions, a collection of stories loosely linked by character, place, and motif.

In these stories, "plot" in the traditional sense is usually beside the point. Sometimes the "action" consists of little more than a couple talking over dinner or drinks. But such a modest dramatic set-up serves as a springboard for the real action of the story: the digressive play of memory, dream, and storytelling. Past and present are conflated, as are dream and reality, fiction and autobiography. In Self Portrait with Sicily, for example, a train ride through Sicily morphs elegantly into the narrator’s childhood memory of living with his Italian grandmother in the Bronx:
“We were moving so slowly that I could see my grandmother through our kitchen window as she was spooning snails into a boiling kettle.”
One moment the train is in Sicily, then it is in the Bronx, then both. Here we have story less as narrative than as dreamscape and thoughtscape. I say thoughtscape because extended meditations on philosophy, and on art, painting and film especially, are integral to the book. Its characters (most often a reoccurring couple who sometimes seem to be the same, sometimes not) banter about art and ideas in highly stylized dialogue such as this description of a bullfight in which both matadors failed to dispatch their bulls: "Those matadors were in a dream today that did not include us or the bulls.” Another character speaks about traveling "to where contraries finally meet and burst into dreams." This kind of dialogue would be annoying were the author not so upfront and consistent about its artifice, and were it not broken up with moments of singular humor, such as a man clarifying to his wife a comment about their wedding having been a large one:
“Not a large wedding in the pejorative sense. Large, yes, but in a polished way, like the Taj Mahal or a bowling ball.”
Still, the dialogue will test readers who prefer realistic or gritty fiction.

This collection certainly isn’t for everyone. At first I thought it might not be for me. But I was won over by, among other things, a huge tenderness in the writing. This is a writer unafraid of large emotion, and unapologetic about expressing it. That tenderness is nowhere more evident than in the closing story, The Ship at Anchor. It begins quietly with the narrator talking with his aging mother and young son, but later morphs into a dream-like encounter with a band of pirates who steal and trade souls. It’s a moving meditation on mortality and the passage of time.

These stories are at times whimsical, with the occasional appearance of talking animals; and, at times, Tuten flirts with a certain preciousness. But the whimsy is balanced by touches of darkness. The Park on Fire is particularly dark. It starts out as a story about a man going on a walk in the park while his wife remains in their hotel room reading. Gradually, the story and his walk grow ominous. A poet is nearly beaten to death in the bushes. The sky fills with planes, and later with crows, screeching and "leaving the sky picked clean like a child’s skeleton." A group of children playing early in the story later reappear as a small mob holding aloft blood-soaked banners. It ends apocalyptically, with dark skies and museums and libraries in flames.

There is also a deep, cumulative melancholy to this book. Departure and loss weave in and out of this collection.

The stories are linked, loosely, but on many levels, and in a way that gathers substance as the collection proceeds. A man, usually Louie, and his wife/lover, usually Marie, appear in many of them. As do various relatives and friends. Waiters figure centrally in several. The stories return to locales such as Sicily and the Bronx, and, even more so, Manhattan, in and around Tompkins Square Park. There is an ongoing tension between wanderlust, and the contentment offered by a few city blocks. Recurring motifs include the circus, fire, clouds, painters (Poussin is an obvious favorite) and film. The resonance these elements throw off is, again, cumulative, and helps lend the book a dream-like and surreal spell.

What is perhaps most appealing about Self Portraits: Fictions is the clear sense of Tuten enjoying himself. This is an author in his 70s, who has traveled and lived in many countries, had a productive career—and is now writing what he wants to write, how he wants to write it, unapologetic about his affections and preoccupations, and with no interest in catering to literary fashion. As A.M. Homes says in her book jacket blurb, these stories are "at once experimental and deeply old-fashioned." And they are very much their own thing, utterly unlike anything I’ve read.

Watch the author read a story from this collection on

Scott Doyle lives in Los Angeles and writes mainly short fiction. In print he has stories in New Madrid, River Oak Review, and Confrontation. Online he has stories in 580 Split and Night Train. He is at work on a novel-in-stories.

Scotts other Short Reviews: Alix Ohlin "Babylon and Other Stories"

Axel Thormahlen "A Happy Man"

"Visiting Hours" edited by Dan Wickett

"Dead Boys" by Richard Lange"

Deb Olin Unferth, Sarah Manguso, Dave Eggers "One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box"

Barb Johnson "More of This World or Maybe Another"

Suzanne Rivecca "Death is Not an Option" 
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Frederic Tuten grew up in the Bronx, has lived in several countries, and taught in New York, Paris, and Morocco. His novels include The Green Hour, Tintin in the New World, and The Adventures of Mao on the Long March. He has been recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letter.