1Published in 2002, Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera In Flatland created a stir in many literary circles. Scripted by the author and stunningly designed by Stephen Farrell, the text redefines the form of the novel, in the run-up to the even more experimental DVD novel TOC (2009). As part of that redefinition, VAS dissolves the boundaries between text and image in ways which, even in a long tradition of the American innovative writing involving visual elements, seem very radical. Woven around the post-biological reality of Flatland and the protagonist Square’s decision to undergo sterilization, the book demands undivided attention and very effectively deconstructs the very notions of the “novel” and the “narrative.” In fact, it might be more appropriate to call it a “post-novel,” a “narrative collage,” or the first true text for the much-theorized cyborg subjectivity.
2Compared to its predecessor, The Book of Portraiture, Tomasula’s 2006 novel, at first appears to be a much more humble affair. Its central preoccupation with portraits, or images of humanity in general, and the universal impulse to picture ourselves in paint, dreams, photography, electronic data, and genetic code, are deployed in a series of five interlocked narrative chapters. Appropriately, the novel abounds in graphic elements: from the sketches by Velázquez, the narrator of Chapter Two, to pixelated photos culled from Internet websites. Some of these involve iconic pictures, but Tomasula also uses a whole range of less obvious visual tactics which constitute the underexposed background or asides to the central story of image and imaging in words.
3I would like to argue here that these graphic elements of The Book of Portraiture, which include not only the above-mentioned examples but also elements of textual layout, coloring and framing of pages, do, in fact, function as a crucial part of Tomasula’s project. Their precise placement, recurrence and distribution are not merely ornamental or decorative, but construct highly complex subtexts to the verbal narrative. They constitute an important layer of the narrative, but because of their inconspicuousness and under-exposure, their significance can only be glimpsed when the reader has re-focused his attention from the textual foreground to the visual background.
4On the narrative level, The Book of Portraiture tells of the basic human impulse to picture—both the world and ourselves. With the entire text ultimately showing us “the stakes of making art in the 21st century” (Barrett), each of the five constitutive parts focuses on a moment in the history of portraiture emblematic of the shift in the relationship between the real and the represented. Each of them also stages a different medium or strategy of self-portrayal—the alphabet, painting, dreams, digital imaging and spliced DNA. All chapters are meticulously interconnected with one another—the one whose center is occupied by Velázquez’s Las Meninas seems to be the axis of most of the novel’s preoccupations. Finally, all of them feature either historical or historicized figures, although history may be very recent and the figures anonymous.
5Chapter One re-imagines the invention, or rather stumbling upon, of the phonemic alphabet by the nomadic not-yet-Moses, who conceptualizes it out of the increasingly abstract images of animals and objects. In it, “I” is uttered for the first time, identity constructed, and autobiography written in letters, the most basic of images. Chapter Two gives voice to Diego Velázquez, a Spanish painter and courtier, whose 1656 Las Meninas, a painting in which the audience views viewing and painting simultaneously, is one of the most analyzed images in the history of Western visual arts. As Velázquez faces the Inquisition, he voices the now obvious belief that the artist’s vision says more about himself than about the object of the gaze. Chapter Three—“P Displays R If and Only If S (a modern romance)”—is focalized through the figure of a psychiatrist; it is informed by the early 20th-century psychiatric and psychological discourses and focuses on the fictional case study of a young American woman supposedly suffering from sexual neurosis. The patient, however, becomes a mirror of the doctor’s own sexual repression and dreams as he struggles to treat her for supposed disorders. Set in the contemporary U.S., Chapter Four stages a whole cast of characters, most of whom are involved in image-making, -reproduction and -processing, albeit in vastly different professions, ranging from a graphic designer to a chainstore surveillance specialist to an employee profiler. Chapter Five is the most diverse in terms of its narrative threads, switching between the Western genetic lab and the Near-Eastern setting. Mary, one of the protagonists, performs the genetic identification of the victims of a bombing attack. She is also a genetic artist attempting to design a human egg-cell impregnated with the combination of the semen of many men including, possibly, traces of St. Paul’s genetic material. On the other side of the world, Saroush, whose daughter Fatima died as a result of an ambush on an American Humvee, is preparing a suicidal bomb attack instigated by his imam.
6Hovering over these stories is Michel Foucault—his analysis of Las Meninas from The Order of Things resonates with some of Velázquez’ reflections from Chapter Two. Chapter Three is informed by his Civilization and Madness and History of Sexuality (although Freud’s Dora: A Case Study also constitutes a point of reference). Finally, Discipline and Punish and the concept of the panoptical control almost continually weave in and out of the text, especially in Chapter Four with its focus on surveillance and profiling. These philosophical readings combined with art history and cultural contexts endow The Book of Portraiture with a depth which makes it more than a novel about images. Given that at least three, if not more sections are set in the past (the chapter devoted to Saroush and the war on terror, although technically contemporary, covers events that have already been historicized), it is also possible to view The Book of Portraiture as a historical novel in general and a novel on the history of human self-imaging in particular. While, traditionally, works in this category foreground their historicity in meaning and message, Tomasula extends it onto the style of his narrative—both in its verbal dimension (which is not the focus of this article), and in its visual one. Thus, the various sections strive to mimic the appearance of texts from the epoch in which they are located. The project can be compared to what John Barth and Thomas Pynchon attempted in The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon respectively. Verbally, Tomasula may be paying less attention to deep syntactic and grammatical structures, concentrating instead on imitating the intellectual discourse of the era, particularly concerning modes of visual inscription. This historicizing of the text is, however, most radically extended in visual terms.
7In The Book of Portraiture, the page becomes a space of numerous complex re-presentations or, to use Bolter and Grusin’s term, remediations. A significant majority of remediations are those of older media by new ones; but Bolter and Grusin note that the process can be effected in the opposite direction—older media can very successfully remediate new ones. Examples provided by the authors for the latter situation include mostly visual media—film and hyperrealist painting—but the codex book has proved similarly flexible in accommodating newer modes of representation. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a perfect case in point. In “Saving the Subject: Remediation in House of Leaves,” as well as in her other work, Katherine Hayles provides an extended analysis of how the novel utilizes a whole range of inscription technologies, including internet hyperlinking or cinematic codes. Tomasula’s text does the same—except that the range of remediation or even of what could be considered a medium (e.g., sand in Chapter One), is even broader than in House of Leaves, thus resulting in an even more intricate web of allusions, references and connections. An additional level of meta-narrativity is also present, as The Book of Portraiture resorts to a range of representational devices to talk about precisely that—representation and remediation. Unlike some of its predecessors, Tomasula’s novel deploys its remediated visual imagery on several levels, at least two of which are at first underexposed, although not invisible.
8The first of these levels comprises various drawings, photographs and illustrations inserted in each chapter. Chapter One includes little drawings of animal heads resembling what will become letters. Interestingly, the way these images progress through increasingly abstract transformations from the iconic to the alphabetical is only visualized at the end of the book, on page 299, setting up a bracketing of the history of human self-imaging, which began in the representation in letters and—in the story—culminates in our reproducing ourselves through cloning, in the ultimate act of mirroring. The fact that the first and the last chapters are both entitled “In a Beginning” seems to suggest both the connectedness of these two phases in the human history of representation and the momentous implications of cloning, the importance of which is thus effectively likened to the invention of the alphabet.
9The Velázquez chapter is richly illustrated with the painter’s drawings and sketches, the most prominent of which are Las Meninas and various sketches for it. The psychoanalytical section features a number of the period leaflets, photographs and drawings exhibiting the psychological and anthropological ideas of the turn of the century, mentioned by, but also mirrored in, the nameless narrator. Some of these merely provide the visual background for the narrative but others are clearly ironical, exposing the sexism, racism and Eurocentric chauvinism exemplified by the narrator. Such is the case with the two images subtitled “The differences between native and civilized courtship rituals are striking” (Tomasula 92)—one portraying a possibly African native couple facing each other in the entrance to a hut, and the other, a Western couple in a living room. While their attires and surroundings are predictably different, the power relations and sexual politics encoded in their poses and facial expressions as well as spatial arrangement are practically the same.
10The multi-voiced contemporary chapter reflects the data-based nature of imaging in the late 20th century—from thumbnails of models displaying lingerie, pixelated almost beyond recognition, to Photoshopped versions of earlier images. Not surprisingly, variations on Las Meninas feature prominently, as does Mark Tansey’s Innocent Eye Test (1981)1, a wry commentary on art criticism. (The painting depicts a gallery room in which a cow is confronted with a painting of several bovines resting under a tree while the whole scene is observed by scientists recording the animal’s reaction to its visual representation.) A disturbing version of drawings can be found in the last chapter, in Saroush’s thread: all of page 322 is filled with empty rectangles that in another context could be yearbook photos or an image gallery, but here could be interpreted as suggestive of the shape of a coffin—both for Saroush’s daughter and the victims of a plane crash Mary is asked to identify.
11With very few, if any, exceptions, these images function as visual supplements to the ongoing narration, both providing historical context and demonstrating the dominant attitudes and perceptions of portraiture in the respective periods. As such, they require little interpretation and their relationship to the textual layer can be described as what Scott McCloud, in his theory of comics, called “additive” (154), in which words and images amplify and elaborate on one another.
12The second level of imaging references, including some that are technically verbal, consists in more oblique allusions to various works and concepts connected with art history. The painter Orbaneja, mentioned in Velázquez’s section, is mentioned to have signed his painting of a rooster with “This is a Cock” (Tomasula, 30), which clearly resonates with Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” although inversely—Orbaneja was presumably such a poor artist that he needed to confirm what his work showed while Magritte’s work de-establishes the seemingly obvious perception. The quasi-genealogical tree from the same section, in which the roots map the history of the Western representation from cave paintings—with Velázquez himself as the trunk and the subjects of his paintings as the branches—is strongly reminiscent of Ad Reinhardt’s “How to Look at Modern Art in America” (1946). The latter was already a response to Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s poster “Cubism and Abstract Art” circulated a decade earlier (and re-appropriated by Steve Wolfe in his 1997 untitled mixed-medium work).
13In the same chapter, the Inquisition interrogates Velázquez about his thoughts on a chamber pot and an entirely black canvas as possible works of art—respectively clear references to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and Ad Reinhardt’s minimalist paintings respectively. In Chapter Three, the psychiatrist’s young patient refers to a certain aura missing from the photographs she saw exhibited—eighteen years ahead of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in which the philosopher endows historical objects and manually-produced art with aura, a unique phenomenon of distance. In Chapter Four, the sentence “Cover Models were often composites of several women, or different shots of the same woman: separate photos of hair, face and body, all seamlessly combined, Frankensteins without the stitches” (Tomasula 195) seems to invoke Shelley Jackson’s influential hypertext Patchwork Girl (1995), which invokes a female version of the Frankensteinian monster and whose visual hub is a collaged image of a female body. Finally, Mary’s work from Chapter Five is strongly reminiscent of Eduardo Kac’s genetic work as the author acknowledges in the afterword; and the stained-glass windows are likened to Petri dishes. Not entirely within the realm of purely visual arts, but still relevant in the discussion of the text-image integration, is the reference to “Dolores Danielewski” (313), a deliberate allusion to Mark Z. Danielewski, the author of House of Leaves (2000) (one all the more obvious given the infrequency of this surname, even among Polish-American immigrants).
14Most of these associations are contemporary—from inside the narrative moments of the 17th or the early 20th century, these references are yet to be created. By invoking the past whose future has already happened, Tomasula both reminds the readers of what is not always remembered—that almost all formal innovation of the 20th century had earlier historical reference—but also presents that past as something that was always already determined to produce certain kinds of representation. The constant recurrence of such aesthetic echoes establishes a special relationship between the past and the present, in which the cause-and-effect lineage of “influence” and “inspiration” collapses—a concept one finds in Borges, and which is typical of postmodern art in general.
15The third category of graphic presences in the novel is the most discrete and underexposed, but also, arguably most crucial to its meaning, as it includes various elements of layout, coloring and typography, whose significance may be easily lost on the readers focusing on the already very innovative imaging contained in the text. In the Moses chapter, the first attempts at drawing letter-like images in the sand are punctuated by extensive empty spaces on pages, and sentences broken in the middle, possibly imitating the elusive material on which the nomadic inventor is writing—sand likely to be blown away. While the color spectrum of the entire book is limited to blacks, grays and browns, the color of this section’s pages calls to mind one of the colors of the desert—brownish sepia or beige. Simultaneously, given the materiality of the book, even when it attempts to represent sand dunes, the same color may also suggest strong yellowing due to age and the chronological position of the story in the volume.
16The same color seems to be carried over to the following chapter, but its careful inspection reveals that the text, which in fact poses as the restored manuscript of Velázquez’s The (Sketch) Book of Portraiture, is placed on a background one shade lighter, which immediately suggests the hue of old manuscripts but also implies that this text is more recent than the previous narrative. Ivory, the background of the third, psychiatric narrative is even lighter, color-wise, further establishing the chronology marking by the page color. Its epoch is also marked by the font-face—strongly reminiscent of early 20th-century typewriters. Other forms of remediation include underlining which consists in short, non-continuous underscoring, and occasional lines running over the margins, where the typist supposedly forgot to move the carriage. Consistent with this remediation of typewriter-produced text, each entry of the diary of the psychotherapist begins on a new page.
17The fourth, digital-age narrative abounds in the manifestations of electronic media and imaging: snippets and extracts of various data feeds, some of them much like the journalistic “newsreels” from John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy (1930-1938) or digital transcripts from Greg Bear’s Slant (1997). They include diverse sources culled from surveillance logs, corporate networks, price tags, catalog items from online stores, and web clippings. Their frequently random appearance on the pages strengthens the sense of contemporary life awash in the electromagnetic soup and information overload, and reflects the inherent chaos of the world the section describes.
18Chapter Five is the most complex in its use of this category of images. Its title “In a Beginning,” the same as for the first chapter devoted to the invention of the alphabet, suggests the onset of the next great leap for humanity—perhaps into post-humanity envisioned in Tomasula’s earlier VAS. In it, elements present in and representing all previous chapters collide, most emblematically on page 297, perhaps suggesting the collapse of all time frames in what Francis Fukuyama has theorized as the end of history. The chapter’s two main stories—the Western one of Mary the geneticist, and the Oriental, of Saroush and Fatima—are consistently juxtaposed: the former is inscribed against a white background, while the beige of the latter suggests its ties to handwriting and manuscripts. Interestingly, the color remains very close to that of the first chapter, which allows at least two interpretations: that its referent is the sand so characteristic of the region; and that compared to the parallel digital narrative of the West, Saroush’s homeland shares much with Moses’ place in terms of modes of inscription and representation.
19Viewed as a timeline, all five chapters seem to become increasingly noisy in terms of the density of visual information, reflecting the direction and character of socio-technological change in general and of the modes of representation and self-representation in particular. Naturally, over time these modes have acquired complexity and so have the intellectual discourses reflected in the novel. From the invention of the fundamental principles of writing, to the clash of religion and aesthetics, to the roots of modern psychology entangled in Victorian prudery, to the contemporary cacophony of voices and stories, the sequence of chapters marks the dissolution of unified cultural foundations and the emergence of a multiplicity of voices, concerns and loyalties.
20The graphic encoding of the narrative also makes it possible to view the whole as The Book of Portraiture—though not the “external” text authored by Steve Tomasula, but one that co-exists in a tangential relationship with Velázquez’s fictional The (Sketch) Book of Portraiture. The predominant brown/beige of the pages and the constant recurrence of Velázquez’s sketches beyond his own section seem to position his time frame and his voice as central to the novel’s preoccupations. In fact, a possible reading emerges in which Tomasula’s Book of Portraiture is palimpsestically inscribed onto Velázquez’s Book of Portraiture with the post-Velázquez chapters pasted onto empty pages of the Spanish master’s notebook.
21This reading becomes especially relevant in Chapters Three and Five. In the former, while the typed text appears directly on paper, most images and leaflets seem to be have been added (see pages 107, 125, or 139); in the latter, entire sections of Mary’s narrative, perhaps printed on white paper, seem to overlay the “original pages,” with the background of the original sketchbook visible underneath, in some cases even with Velázquez’s drawings (see page 291). Furthermore, Tomasula’s presumed pasting onto the empty sketch book pages is not done chapbook-style, betraying presumed manual cutting or gluing, but appears to be marked by techniques of modern remediation—the darker shadows around the edges of late 19th-century illustrations and leaflets, and of the white pages of Mary’s narrative strongly suggest color-xeroxing onto the original beige cards or photographing them for later digital reproduction. This results in the curious ontological status of the two books of portraiture—ostensibly, it is Tomasula’s text that contains Velázquez’s sketchbook; but in four out of five parts, the visual elements suggest that the former is a palimpsest inscribed not so much over as into, and also held together by the imagery from, the latter. This complex relationship is finally stressed on the colophon page, whose coloring maintains the pretence of being added onto the historical original, in much the same way as, at the end of House of Leaves, the technical credits appear to be incorporated in the text itself.
22The word “pretence” is appropriate, though, as despite the period mimicry of individual chapters, Tomasula consciously undermines any easy categorization of the text, in a manner quite similar to that used by historiographic metafictions and postmodern narratives of history, as defined by Linda Hutcheon. Unlike typical texts in this category, which often rewrite the past or problematize historical authenticity, the historical narrative of The Book of Portraiture as conveyed by the verbal layer does not manifest “provisionality and indeterminacy” (Hutcheon 111) in the narrative itself. Instead, the above-mentioned indeterminacy remains coded primarily in the visual layer of the text. Some of its instances can be interpreted, but others seem to be resolutely irresolvable.
23Saroush’s story in Chapter Five does not appear to be pasted onto Velázquez’s sketchbook in the way the rest of the chapter is—perhaps as one that can be connected with the West (the war veteran from Chapter Four is the person who runs Fatima over in Chapter Five) but that can never be subsumed in the Western discourse of portrayal. In Chapter Four most data streams are presented against a light brown background, almost identical with the background of both Books of Portraiture—Tomasula’s and Velázquez’s. This naturally confounds the color-coded chronology suggested earlier, unless beige data fields are the actual background page, and it is the white areas with the main narrative threads that have been overlaid on top of the “original.” Such an assumption could help explain the inconsistency in Chapter Five mentioned above—Saroush’s account could then be considered to have been written directly on the brown pages of the Spaniard’s sketchbook.
24Other visual aporias cannot be consistently interpreted, which makes them more akin to the spirit of historiographic metafictions. One of the scientific insets in Chapter Three, on page 89, includes an instance of visual metalepsis, in which the late 19th-century excerpt is illustrated with an image of a distinctly late 20th-century subject. In the same chapter, on page 148, the reproduction of an early 20th-century advertisement for vibrators lacks the darker shadow around the edges that all other images possess—whether this suggests a different status of this particular image in the narrative appears difficult to determine.
25Most of all, the visual historicizing of the text is undermined by its implicit digitality. While the main impulse of The Book of Portraiture appears to be to foreground the history of self-representation in a historically accurate or, at least, compatible form, the text also constantly reminds the readers that its codex version, and particularly one so lavishly designed, is only made possible by electronic technologies of production. This double enunciation is precisely what Bolter and Grusin call the double logic of remediation (5), in which immediacy, a desire to erase all traces of mediation, and hypermediacy, a focus on the presence and multiplicity of media, co-exist. In most instances of remediation, the disappearing act of immediacy is made difficult either by the apparatus that the medium requires (Bolter and Grusin 21) or our awareness of the origin of the artifact.
26In TheBook of Portraiture, the emblematic reminders of this double logic are the paragraph signs in the Velázquez chapter, which are both highly stylized to resemble elaborate 16th-century lettering and yet, by their very presence, point in the direction of computer text editing and digital typesetting. The same concerns the subsequent psychiatric case, in which occasional lines running over the right margin mimicking inattentive typing, effectively obscure the fact that the text is almost perfectly aligned—a feature possible only in electronic editing. Prominent among the signs of digital culture are also the representations of hypertext links scattered throughout the book. In the Velázquez chapter these links are marked by square brackets and a conspicuously white background; in the psychiatric story, as underlined words and phrases. As in a hypertext, it can be deduced that some might lead to commentaries (some do), including those appended later than the presumed dating of the text (e.g. notes concerning the fate of some of Velázquez’s paintings in his chapter), analog equivalents of roll-over (appearing when one hovers over the linked phrase) translations of foreign phrases, or further explanations, which, however, should not be confused with the “traditional” footnotes present in the text.
27The Book of Portraiture functions not only as a fascinating survey of several thousand years of (mostly) Western self-portrayal, but also as a text that problematizes the materiality of contemporary story-telling, so much of which has been evacuated into the electronic, paperless domain of contemporary media. The text’s dialogue with visual tactics of portrayal constitutes a part of a larger engagement with all media. Within it, Tomasula’s text, like Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, firmly re-establishes codex-based literary texts as capable of conveying modes of story-telling and sense-making which one tends to exclusively associate with new media.
28Implicit in this restoration is the role of the author—especially in a text in which so much material has been borrowed, appropriated, or stylized. While postmodern historiographic fictions, or postmodern fictions in general, often dethrone or even bury the author as the voice behind narratives, The Book of Portraiture appears to resolutely mark his presence. Placed even before the title page, an illustration of a fingerprint—presumably Steve Tomasula’s—reminds the readers that ultimately the text has only one author. The print also suggests a strong metatextual (or reflexive) dimension—the entire text that follows it becomes a fictional treatise on self-portrayal as much as a self-portrait of the author.