Fiction Collective Two is an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction.

The Book of Portraiture

The Book of Portraiture: A Novel
by Steve Tomasula



The Book of Portraiture is a postmodern epic in writing and images. A desert nomad struggles at the close of the ancient world to inscribe himself into life, and centuries later a Renaissance artist attempts to overcome his lowly origins by painting nobility. Throughout Steve Tomasula's arresting tour de force, human beings seek to become what they are by representing it. An early twentieth century psychoanalyst in search of a cure for sexual neurosis discovers the reflection of his own yearning in a female client, and an accidental community of twenty-first century image-makers connects the pixels to bring their group portrait into focus. Across a canvas that spans centuries, the several narrators of this novel look through the lens of their own time and portray objects of desire in paint, dreams, photography, electronic data, and genetic code. Together their portraits comprise a collage of styles and habits of mind. The Book of Portraiture is a novel about the irrepressible impulse to picture ourselves, and how, through this picturing, we continually re-create what it means to be human.

"The once-rare moment of creation in art and writing has become ubiquitous in the digital age. The Book of Portraiture reimagines what the novel, particularly the historical novel, might mean in the digital world, and it does so with verve, gusto, and style."—Bookforum

"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."—Pop Matters

"Think of Swift, Groddeck, Lautreamont, and George Carlin conversing together in a large wastebin—up to their chins in 21st century sweepings—and you will begin to have an idea of Tomasula's very funny, very smart and downright scary epic vision."—Rikki Ducornet

"Tomasula's five interlocking chapters cross continents and centuries and aesthetic sensibilities to build to a dazzling and dizzying whole. The Book of Portraiture is one of those rare books that manage to be at once emotionally and theoretically satisfying."—Brian Evenson

"Once again, Steve Tomasula has fabricated an incisive and sly commentary on art's way of being in the world, and the manner in which it intersects, and conflicts, with our perceptions. Virtuosic in its execution, and sublime in its discernment, The Book of Portraiture is an able continuation of Tomasula's ongoing project to redraw the boundaries of contemporary fiction."—Christopher Sorrentino

"The Book of Portraiture reimagines what the novel, particularly the historical novel, might mean in the digital world, and it does so with verve, gusto, and style."—Bookforum

"...brilliant…the overarching theme of representation and self-portraiture, from cave art to computer code, gives this novel a historical sweep that is breathtaking. Like Joseph McElroy and Richard Powers, Tomasula can make intellectually engaging fiction out of forbidding (to some of us) topics like recombinant genetics, microbiology, computer technology, and other hard sciences, and utilizes the advantages of graphic design to go places even those gifted writers don't go... Tomasula's finest creation yet." —American Book Review

"What Tomasula accomplishes with The Book of Portraiture is exactly the resonance between the history in the novel and the history of the novel. …. 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 basically re-defines the novel..."—Leonardo


Pecker hopping. Bare chest and thighs shiny with sweat. Nothing they hadn’t seen before, thought I__, an Investigator for Family Pharmacy & Foods Inc., trying to make out the face looking at him through the glare of an apartment window across the courtyard, the someone watching him as he jumped rope naked.

     He kept up the rhythm while the someone—a woman?—a man with hippie hair?—settled in, watching. As steadily as a camera.

1011 1101 0110 1111 1100 1101 0101 1100 1101 1....—a choreography of                      bytes....

                   It was like being in a movie….

Family Pharmacy. Standing before glossy models on the covers of magazines, Q__ felt eyes on her. Instinctively she stashed her meds in her army jacket and looked up—a bowled security mirror collaged her own bowed face with the reflections of a store manager, standing behind the cash register, pretending to work though she could tell he was actually scoping her out; he began diddling with his bowtie—the polka-dot bowtie all Family Pharmacy managers wore—companies as bad as the army about making everyone dress alike so they’d think alike—this stooge looking away as quickly as people always did when she caught them watching her. The Creep.

                                What kind of movie?

Odd, thought I__., skipping rope in his living room, that he, an Investigator for Family Pharmacy & Foods Inc., a person who knew how surveillance could turn anyone to glass, could be so untroubled....

                                                My Neighbor’s Affair?


         The View Into Apartment 3-G?

It was like being visited by a shade, U__ thought, naked except for matched black panties and bra (Without-a-Trace™). Ghostly shades, she considered, that were everywhere and therefore nowhere even if night by night they made her a little more like them. She shifted her weight from one spiked heel (Armani) to the other, waiting for the photographer to finish adjusting the flood lights shining into her eyes. They would take her picture—she was sure it was her that they were photographing because her body was there—then one of them would come, make her a little more—a little more obscure—and by the time she saw her other self, the self that appeared in catalogs, on packaging, in brochures and the ads she modeled for, she was different: duskier skin, softer silhouette, anime eyes. Different her, yet her.

    "Raise the key beam,” Photographer told his Assistant. Or at least she assumed it was Photographer. With the lights glaring in her eyes, the people beyond came to her as disembodied voices, fussing about whatever it was that they worried before they took her picture.

     She shifted to the other foot. Odd, how something as tiny as a tired muscle or a paper cut could remind a person that the world was solid and too real all around though you yourself could seem so— What?— Not there? And this is how U__’s story began: wondering how the stone walls of the wine cellar she posed in could have such gravity while most of what made up who she was was lighter than the web of stories and negatives and pixels that modeled her career out of thin air. As Stylist put a wrap around U__’s shoulders to keep the cool, wine-cellar air from goose-pimpling her flesh, U__ took inventory: this morning, her bathroom scale said she weighed one hundred and seven pounds; mail addressed to her was delivered to the apartment she inhabited. And of course her driver’s license listed a name (Organ Donor?—NO!).

     But in an age of interlocking subdivisions and identical restaurants, in a world that each year generated 100,000,000 Miracle Slacks™, each of which had to be filled—HELLO! MY NAME IS:_______________—in a country of actuary tables, of ZIP codes, of an endless supply of service manager uniforms (filled out by Service Managers), census forms (filled in by Citizens), personalized mail-order catalogs, identical parking garages and their tiers of look-a-like vans (Forest Green or Goldenrod) bearing vanity plates (2HOT4U) stamped out by some 51 prisons (a form of living to be sure), of Neilson ratings, and Frequent Flier Memberships—an age when the Japanese went through thirteen Prime Ministers in nine years without blinking, when every American City greeted tourists with local versions of the same Sports Heroes, News Teams and other types—Bag-lady, Alderman, Shopper, Cop—that is, for the purposes of a story of her time, did the particulars of name matter?

     What was important was that the world at this time required Models, just as five hundred Fortune 500 companies required five hundred CEOs, just as airports required Airplanes, just as Hollywood always required about six Action Heroes, four Teenage Heart Throbs, and one, but no more than one, overweight Funny Guy. Just as most divorces still required at least one Jerk, Top 40 lists required forty Top Songs, best-seller lists required Best Sellers to be best sold and talk shows required Hosts to talk, Guests to talk to, and Viewers to call in; Teachers required Students, History required Revolutions, Economies, Wars and Peace to fill it—and Historians to make it mean. If you light up fluorescent lighting over an expanse of office cubicles, everyone knew, Accountants and Phone Solicitors, Web Designers and Xs and Ys and Zs would soon fill those cubicles, as surely as a crossword puzzle invited Letters or vending machines promised to dispense Product. Thus, if some Photographer set up floodlights, sooner rather than later, a Model would appear to stand in their glare as was U__, dressed in black Lycra, Without-A-Trace™ Panties and Bra (seamless shaping!), shifting limbs heavy with boredom while she waited for him to take his meter readings, adjust his light umbrellas and do whatever it was that photographic apparatus required a Photographer to do.

    A movie others were making.

This is stupid, Q__ thought, the store’s Manager’s eyes weighing on her in that old exhausting way as she brought a magazine up to his register. Even though he probably thought she was shoplifting, she kept the meds she’d paid for back in pharmacy hidden in her army jacket because— Because she didn’t want every Tom, Dick & Harry knowing about her meds. Because she didn’t want him to think she was only buying a magazine because—

     Because she hated having to ask.

     X__ said his Family Pharmacy nametag, the rest of his name hidden by the lapel of his blazer. She placed the magazine—Look—on the counter, fished around in her purse—the Manager’s ratty, piss-holes-in-the-snow eyes unbuttoning her blouse?—

1011 1101 0110 1111 1100 1101 0101 1100 1101 1....—to and fro                           and up into the card reader of the cash register.

On the monitor below the counter, Queenie Qunt, and other info linked to the credit card X__ had just swiped appeared across a live video of her face. Most customers didn’t notice the decal on the door giving Family Pharmacy permission to videotape them, he knew, but so what? If they weren’t doing anything wrong they had nothing to hide.


After paying, Q__ stared straight ahead as she asked, “Do you have a public restroom here?”

Store 046616


...firm melons....