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The Book of Portraiture: A Novel

by Steve Tomasula
FC2, Normal/Tallahassee, FL, 2006
327pp. Paper, $17.95
ISBN-10: 1-57366-128-7.

Reviewed by Eugene Thacker
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology. Atlanta, GA 30332-0165


As a form of fictional writing, the historical novel has always struck me as incredibly boring. I recall, as a student, having to slog through Dickens or Scott, all the while wondering why I didn’t just go and actually read a history book. In other words, it was the "historical" part of the historical novel that proved troubling for me.

The inverse of the historical novel is, as Frederic Jameson reminds us, science fiction. Now, science fiction is something I’ve always liked — I’m more willing to give a pulpish, Cold War-era SF novel about mutant plants that attack human civilization a chance that I would a historical novel (Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, if you’re wondering).

I won’t claim that this is the case for most people; arguably, both the historical novel and science fiction have always had small, "geeky" audiences. And, indeed, part of the pleasure of each of these kinds of writing is in their engrossing details — historical accuracy in the former, futuristic accuracy in the latter. A concern with progress is often the domain of historical novel, whereas the imagining of utopia is often the domain of science fiction. But science fiction also has its own history, what Jameson calls a "future history." Every vision of the future is conditioned by and is indicative of the historical, political, social, and economic moment in which that future is imagined. Put simply, every future has a past, just as every past articulates its own version of the future, often through the ideological lens of progress.

What would it mean to write a novel about this relationship between the historical novel (the past) and science fiction (the future)? In a sense, Steve Tomasula’s novel The Book of Portraiture is an answer to this question. The book stitches together different narrative threads, all of which are, in a way, consumed by the idea of portraiture and the face, language, and the desire for alterity. A desert nomad in ancient Egypt, the 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez (whose famous Las Meninas is itself a book of portraiture), a male psychiatrist treating a female patient for sexual neuroses in the early 20th century, and a post-9/11 hacker, a drug store manager, a Muslim husband caring for his sick wife, and a geneticist with an interest in art, are just some of the voices that constitute Tomasula’s thoughtful, innovative, and often humorous study of the vicissitudes of language.

Which brings us to another aspect of The Book of Portraiture worth mentioning. If, indeed, there is an overlap between the historical novel and science fiction, does this follow for their form as well? Historical novels are often quite epic, elaborating in great detail all the aspects of a given period in time — a "real" place through which fictional characters move. Interestingly enough, science fiction novels often do the same, especially in the works of the great dystopian authors of the 20th century (Huxley, Orwell, Burgess).

But neither the historical novel nor science fiction actually enframe their own status as writing. The historical novels of the 19th century, for instance, presume the literary conventions of the time, as do the science fictional dystopias of the 20th century. While the historical or futuristic datum in the novels are presented in elaborate detail, little attention is paid to the historical or futuristic aspects of the novel itself. A truly historical novel would, in this case, actually be written in the style of the period - likewise for science fiction.

What Tomasula accomplishes with The Book of Portraiture is exactly this resonance between the history in the novel and the history of the novel. Tomasula has already done this for science fiction in his earlier novel, VAS: An Opera in Flatland. What VAS does for the genre of science fiction, The Book of Portraiture does for the historical novel.

But in doing this, The Book of Portraiture does more than simply mime narrative style. In a sense, to say that The Book of Portraiture references the historical novel is not entirely accurate. Certainly, its concern is with different historical periods, and, certainly it offers itself as a reflection on those periods. But the context of the Spanish Inquisition or 19th century psychopathology is not simply "re-created" through the transparency of narrative prose. Instead, Tomasula assembles, cites, appropriates, and collates heterogeneous documents of the past. Historical documents, scientific articles, travelogues, diaries, advertisements, and familiar narrative prose all constitute part of the historical settings of The Book of Portraiture.

One does not so much read this book as one sorts, sifts, and wanders through it. There is no unmediated, transparent telling of a story here — every telling requires an appropriate form, in which what is told is rendered as both contingent and artificial. I think this is a worthwhile endeavor, especially as many publishing houses continue to create expectations for standardized, novelistic forms. Tomasula basically re-defines the novel as less a narrative and more a dossier. If VAS conceived of science fiction as a biotechnological field of data, lineage, and memory, then The Book of Portraiture conceives of the historical novel as a dossier of discarded and preserved artifacts.



Updated 1st November 2006

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