Tomasula's multifaceted mélange urges us to ask: Why do we have the need to recreate ourselves in images? And how do these images identify us?
"[E]very portrait tells more of its creator than its subject; every portrait is and can only be a self-portrait ..."
-- The Book of Portraiture
Steve Tomasula's The Book of Portraiture is an intricate collage of desires, perceptions, and creations, reflective constructions of the hungers that make us human. Comprising five chapters that span from the birth of the phonetic alphabet to that of genetic engineering as an art form, the novel investigates the evolving nature of the act of representation. Tomasula's multifaceted mélange urges us to ask: Why do we have the need to recreate ourselves in images? And how do these images identify us?
Tomasula slides smoothly from one setting to the next, shifting with ease from the voice of a desert nomad to that of a 17th century painter, then swiftly transforming into an early 20th century psychoanalyst, and so forth. The breaks between sections of the novel are sharp and abrupt, but Tomasula morphs from character to character, across countries and centuries, without missing a beat, always retaining his distinctive splashes of humor and perceptive irony. The chapters, though starkly discrete, coalesce in their collective purpose -- to provide diverse commentary on the role of portraiture, in all its forms, and the conflicts our creations may cause us.
The novel begins with the desert nomad's tale. Portraiture in this chapter takes the form of written language, as the nomad designs the first phonetic alphabet -- and in doing so establishes writing as an art form. For the first time, individual sounds translate to individual symbols; for the first time, the word "I" is written. And with that "I" follows the first written creation of an alter-ego: the nomad invents a personality for his fictional autobiography, renaming himself Moses and stealing a story he heard about a baby found floating in a basket on the Tigris. The nomad's illusive account introduces representation as a means of reinventing identity -- one of many themes interlacing the novel's separate parts.
The novel continues with the sketchbook of 17th century Spanish painter Diego de Velazquez, who examines human perceptions in painting and the ways artists' desires filter through their portraits. Velazquez fervently reshapes his theories on the mission of the artist, filling his sketchbook with musings like, "It is only by paying strictest attention to the techniques of representation that we can discover a subject grander than representation." As an example, he exalts Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling as the transformation of human form into emotion. But in Velazquez's quest to achieve similar effects in his own work, he begins modifying biblical scenes in order to express the figures' invisible qualities -- such as adding a smile to Moses's face to depict the "pleasure" he imagines the prophet felt at receiving the Law. Velazquez's habit of alteration results in a confrontation with the Inquisition, forcing him to defend -- to a society in which the Church rules all -- the supremacy of the bond between the artist's vision and viewers' perceptions.
The novel's third section traces the longings of a psychoanalyst during the early 20th century. Intrigued by a young woman who begins attending sessions with him, the psychoanalyst unwittingly projects his own secret desires, his own sexual conflicts and obsessions, onto the dreams his client recounts. This form of portraiture, the reshaping of another person's dreams into mirrors of one's own yearnings, explores the molding of human desire at a subconscious level. This apparent contradiction poses one of the novel's most perplexing questions: Can the process of re-creation occur without the awareness of the creator, the "artist" himself?
The next chapter involves the stories of nine present-day characters: a computer programmer, a model, a digital photograph retoucher, a video-graphic designer, an army veteran who now works as an employee profiler, an investigator, a pharmacy manager, a pharmacy technician, and a pharmacy cashier. The characters observe each other through camera lenses, hidden surveillance videos, and computer screens, capturing the human form digitally, then reconstructing it -- cutting and pasting -- sometimes to the extent that the original model can barely recognize the new, "digitally manipulated" images of herself. In U_'s case, "With someone else manipulating her shape, her face, her art, it was as if her ability to use her body was being stripped from her". Through the digital medium, Tomasula questions artists' abilities to reinvent a subject's identity against his or her will.
In the final section of the novel, Tomasula pictures the technological possibilities of the future. In this setting, human representation may begin at the genetic level, where it's possible to create the human form by literally, physically, creating a human form. With an egg cell, a sperm cell, and some extra DNA, Mary and Paul endeavor to produce a masterpiece entitled "Self Portrait(s)" -- the fertilized egg, the supreme self-portrait. Of course, the religious ethicality of the situation is brought into question, and Tomasula returns to the issue of an artist's capacity to reshape a subject without the subject's consent. Paul discovers that Mary has a secret collection of sperm -- from all the men she's slept with throughout her life -- which she's maintained for years without the men's knowledge. Yet to Paul's complaints Mary responds, "It's not exactly like you guys were so concerned about what happened to your sperm when you came over here." In other words, if these men willingly gave her their sperm, can she not use the sperm any way she likes -- to remold the human form as she desires?
Whether questioning the ways we represent ourselves in writing and painting, exploring the act of reconstruction both at a subconscious level and a digital level, or presenting the possibilities of genetic creations, Tomasula's The Book of Portraiture interweaves art and science, the tangible and the theoretical, in a search to explain human desires and how these desires drive us to create and re-create the human image. After all, to be human is to be -- at once -- both the creators and our own creations.