Easy Travel to Other Planets
by Ted Mooney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 278 pp., $11.95
Not long after the Sex Pistols told the Queen of England to sod off in their 1977 single “God Save the Queen,” a spate of punk novels began to appear—novels featuring sneer-lipped punks in slashed clothing who pogoed in sweaty, packed clubs, engaged in knife play, and collapsed on all fours in rubbish-strewn alleys, retching like dogs. (The titles of these novels were as tersely to the point as the books themselves—The Punk, Death of a Punk, Punk Novel, etc.) In their lurid swelter, the punk novels resembled the pulp paperbacks about bohemian life which appeared in the late 1950s: “Her combat uniform was blue jeans, her vicious weapon a beer-can opener…” (blurb for The Young Punks, 1957). Once the Pistols broke up and their bassist Sid Vicious became a drug casualty, the defiant glamour of punk was overtaken by the cool ironic braininess of “new wave” artists like Ultravox, Devo, Talking Heads, and Gary Numan.
Unlike punk, new wave wasn’t a scene but an attitude, a fashion, a succession of poker-faced poses and elliptical phrases set to the hum and ripple of an electric synthesizer. New-wave sensibility has found expression in magazines like The Face and Wet and Revue, in English movies like Radio On and Breaking Glass, but it hasn’t made itself felt as a force in American fiction. Until now.
Set in the near future, Ted Mooney’s deft first novel Easy Travel to Other Planets has an erotic new-wavish dissonance. References to real and imagined new-wave bands pepper the text: one character breaks a string on a song about “buildings and food,” a discreet homage to the title of the Talking Heads’s second album, More Songs about Buildings and Food; and another listens to the latest stuff on her car radio (“At first she hadn’t liked the new trend in popular music—away from melody and lyric, toward complex rhythmical figures—but now, when they played ‘Incorrect Thought’ or ‘Amazonian Ghetto’ she just…she felt sort of…”). But the influence is most evocatively caught in the novel’s mood of overstimulated fatigue and foreboding, a tone that might be called fin-desiècle techno-pop. In Mooney’s brave new world, the air is never still, feelings are never true and uncomplicated. Static buzzes around the edge of every scene. “Information in waves like birds startled into migration filled the transistor radios, televisions, imagination of the crowd as the one o’clock news broadcast itself.” And the news isn’t reassuring, either: conflict over control of Antarctica threatens to push the world over the nuclear brink. As in 1962, the media are showering America with missile-crisis tension.
Indeed, so many waves of static and news are carried through the air’s currents that people in Mooney’s novel are coming down with a new disease called “information sickness,” an illness that conjures up an image of citizens slumped in doorways, with newswire ticker-tape dribbling like saliva from their mouths. Accompanying these new ailments …