Van Gogh's Bad Cafe: A Love Story.
"Art finally undecorated by sentiment, free from human rhetoric--art pure"--such is the ideal espoused by Ursula, photographer, morphine addict, and lover of the Dutch painter in Frederic Tuten's fourth novel. The hallucinatory, anachronistic form of the narrative allows Ursula to be displaced from the French fin de siecle to late-twentieth-century New York, where she experiments with modern cameras (and crack) and trades in her 18909 utopia for a postmodern one: "the final democratic ideal, everyone his/her own work of art, the body as canvas, the body as sculpture, the body as an arena in process, a show, a spectacle, one among the millions of spectacles." The novel intelligently contemplates the validity of the aesthetic in an age that has threatened to strike art silent: "Ursula had no words for it, the twentieth century; it was beyond horror, and comprehension." Like Tuten's recent Tintin in the New World (1993), where Herge's pastoral was engulfed by historical reality, Van Gogh's Bad Cafe explores the seductions of escapist and utopian art, but without passing judgment, recognizing instead the humanity of the impulse to seek a refuge, whether in "sentiment" or intoxicants (or, in the case of Van Gogh, both).
The impressionist movement is denigrated these days for its complicity with bourgeois leisure: Pissarro, Gauguin, and Manet stand accused of absconding from class politics to the false idyll of the countryside, the primitive, and the picnic. The postimpressionist Van Gogh, with his fields and sunflowers, could be similarly categorized. Tuten's novel holds in balance cynical and romanticized versions of the Dutch icon. "Vincent did not paint light, he painted his hysteria, which just happened to be interesting as painting"; "He flaunted goodness as a principle in art'"; "He was the best, but he thrived on rejections,'" Ursula says, and the contradictions ring true.
Tuten's style is a masterly blend of gritty speech rhythms and the prose equivalent of cherry blossoms. He treats Van Gogh's devotion to beauty with honesty and tact, revealing horror, like a geological seam, beneath the radiant haze of the canvases. If art is an escape from such, so much the better: there are worse things than sentiment. Ambitious, original, benign, Tuten stakes out a place for human rhetoric in art pure.