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Tintin in the New World.

Whether in a ruled panel or in some alien environment, a comic strip character isn't merely a fixed image, it's a fixed image that acts predictably. A Pez dispenser, no matter how much it looks like Popeye, is only a piece of plastic (Popeye is cantankerous, Popeye is sentimental), and Dick Tracy with Warren Beatty's smooth profile is Warren Beatty, no matter how deadly his aim with a tommy gun. Blondie, the monogamous housewife, fellating the plumber in a Tijuana bible, was clearly an impostor; so was Little Orphan Annie, the arch-Hooverite, pirouetting around the Oval Office singing "Tomorrow" to FDR. And so too is the Tintin at large in Frederic Tuten's long, strange, and eerily hermetic "romance." Although physically recognizable as the forever teenaged journalist (his hair is blond with a stubborn cowlick, and he travels with a white terrier and a rummy sea captain), scarcely anything about his behavior jibes with the famous creation of Belgian cartoonist George Remi (Herge).

When we first meet him in the novel, he's moping (Tintin--mopping?) around the cavernous halls of Marlinspike, his seaside estate. It's been a full year since his last adventure, and he's "tired of reading, tired of long strolls, tired of tranquil evenings before the fire." A letter finally arrives in a cream-colored envelope. We're never told the identity of the correspondent, but the Brussels postmark suggests that it's from Herge himself, dispatching Tintin, without explanation, to a little hotel in Machu Picchu, close by the Inca ruins.

Expecting to find there some grand adventure involving the usual assortment of crooks, he finds, instead, a contingent of querulous--and to readers of Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain, thoroughly familiar--European expatriates. The same companions who once endlessly argued politics and philosophy at a sanatorium in the Swiss alps are at it again. Unlike Tintin, however, these characters are rendered scrupulously true to Mann's originals: Herr Naptha is still a totalitarian Jesuit, Signor Settembrini still a democratic humanist, Herr Peeperkorn still a loquacious bore, and Clavdia Chauchat still a beautiful egotist ("To be with any less than the exceptional is a form of extinction") and a faithless lover.

As Tintin (filling in for Hans Castorp, Mann's protagonist) patiently follows the group's heady (to him; prolix to me) discussions about human passion, discord, decadence, and violence, his former career as a freewheeling adventurer and righter of wrongs seems altogether and all too suddenly pointless: "How little I understood the workings of the community I had wished to serve, how less I knew of the human heart, the least known of all, my own." With the growth of his cognitive life, not to mention his vocabulary and melodramatic syntax, comes an awareness of his sexuality: "Each hour I discover a change," says Tintin, "a deepening of my voice, an increase in height. Yesterday, I'm embarrassed to speak so plainly, I woke in bed to find my penis stiff and tall, rising up like a pole, and I rotated it against the cloth sheet. How good it felt at the root and the top."

Eventually, Tintin is seduced (Tintin--seduced?) by Madame Chauchat, who doesn't seem to mind at all that he wears boxer shorts. His talk of matrimony, however, is entirely unacceptable. "You were delightful when innocent," she tells him before going off with another lover, "but you've grown too solemn." And she's not kidding--Tintin (though Mr. Tuten would probably not agree) has, by now, turned into a solemn bore, criticizing his "stunted, skimpy life," making long lists of environmental crimes worthy of severe punishment, and recycling literary platitudes: "What wrong and what wrongdoer are there left to stalk when now I know I would need to stalk the tracks of every living human, for all are guilty, even as they sleep, guilty of mischief done or yet to be done? The human womb breeds monsters."

Constituted of dialogues, and aphorisms ("One bottle of Coca-Cola contains more spiritual microbes than all the boatloads of Marx and Engels"), and a protracted postcoital dream (in which Tintin sheds his last vestiges of heroism and settles down to a long unhappy cuckold's life), the plotless, uninflected narrative drones on and on, like a tedious lecture in a hot classroom. And yet--the entire enterprise, this invention, is so bizarre in its plunderings (why Tintin? why Mann?), and so unapologetically itself that even as it exhausts your goodwill and patience, it somehow fascinates.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:De Haven, Tom
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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