Traffic and Laughter
Paul Auster is one of those protean novelists who cannot be identified with a recognizable voice or predictable range of subject. There are however common characteristics in his six novels: a fondness for enigmatic situations, a fascination with the ways that chance and destiny may seem to intersect, and an indulgence in symbolism that calls frequent attention to itself but is likely to remain opaque. In the three novels (City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room) that make up his so-called New York trilogy, Auster undertakes a kind of structuralist approach to the detective novel: with the crime left vague and the characters and situations enigmatic, he plays with the conventions of the genre in a rather dry and abstract fashion.
More recently, Auster has tried to reach beyond skeletal forms of fiction. Moon Palace, the work immediately preceding the one under review, is a loosely organized, first-person narrative told by an orphaned, self-destructive Columbia student who has been informally adopted by an eccentric and tyrannical old cripple. Nothing is resolved at the end, where once again the moon appears, the moon that weaves in and out of the book in a myriad guises ranging from the name of the Chinese restaurant that gives the novel its title to the imaginary moon voyages of Cyrano de Bergerac and Jules Verne and the actual moon landing in 1969. Throughout this fluent if not garrulous novel, which contains lengthy stories within stories, one senses the hovering presences of Saul Bellow and Augie March, the fatherless, questing, often adopted young man that he created.
By contrast, The Music of Chance is a carefully plotted work, elegantly spare in its narration as it narrows to a concentrated conclusion of great intensity. At what point, the novel seems to ask, do random events and chance encounters—of which there can apparently be any number—come to assume an inevitable quality?
At the beginning of The Music of Chance, a Boston fireman named Jim Nashe, whose wife has just left him, unexpectedly inherits $200,000 from his father, whom he has not seen in over thirty years. The money comes too late to be of much help to him: there is no way to retrieve his marriage or to reclaim his young daughter, whom he has handed over to his sister to raise. Instead, he decides to surrender to the exhilarating freedom of gratuitous action and drives aimlessly around the country in his new Saab until the money runs out.
If there was any drawback, it was simply that it would have to end, that he could not go on living this life forever. At first, the money had seemed inexhaustible to him, but after he had been traveling for five or six months, more than half of it had been spent. Slowly but surely, the adventure was turning into a paradox. The money was responsible for his freedom, but each time he used it to buy another portion of that freedom, he was denying himself an equal portion of it as well. The money kept him going, but it was also an engine of loss, inexorably leading him back to the place where he had begun.
When his inheritance dwindles to $20,000, Nashe encounters a runty young man named Jack Pozzi (“Jackpot”), a professional poker player down on his luck. Nashe decides to stake Pozzi $10,000 for a game that Pozzi has previously set up with two middle-aged, lower-middle-class men, Stone and Flower, who have won a huge fortune on a shared lottery ticket. Despite this flagrant display of their good luck, Pozzi regards them as easy marks and the poker game as “a piece of cake.” He agrees to split the winnings fifty-fifty with Nashe, who sees this as an opportunity to buy a new lease on freedom.
When they arrive at the isolated estate in Pennsylvania where the two millionaires now live as a very odd couple, Auster’s game begins in earnest. Through a series of disastrous decisions to back Pozzi when the cards begin to go against him, Nashe, instead of winning new freedom, finds himself condemned to slavery: he and Pozzi are forced by their jailer-hosts to build a huge wall from the imported rubble of an Irish castle. In the novel’s conclusion both North and Pozzi die in episodes as violent as any fan of film noir could wish.
While the individual scenes of The Music of Chance rely for the most part on realistic details, its plot, like the plots of Auster’s previous novels, traces a zigzag path between the possible and the improbable without ever quite stepping over into the blatantly supernatural, as in the work of such “magic realists” as Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison. We can visualize the characters, but they lack depth. Nashe is described as a decent, even loving man, whose life has been derailed; Pozzi is a loud-mouthed punk, filled with ineffectual rage; the millionaires, an optometrist and an accountant, are cornballs whose hobbies and eccentricities are magnified to monstrous (and sinister) proportions when they suddenly become unimaginably rich. Apart from a few passages where the millionaires try to sound erudite, they all speak the immediately recognizable language of grade-B movies.
The settings and actions are reinforced by meticulously and quietly observed details, and we are left with the sense that events and objects, even dialogue and characterization, have been thematically ordered to create a kind of fable or allegory to which the key has been mislaid. What, for instance, are we to make of the episode in which we are shown the City of the World—a huge detailed model that Willie Stone has constructed in his wing of the house?
“Willie’s city is more than just a toy,” Flower said, “it’s an artistic vision of mankind. In one way, it’s an autobiography, but in another way, it’s what you might call a utopia—a place where the past and future come together, where good finally triumphs over evil. If you look carefully, you’ll see that many of the figures actually represent Willie himself. There, in the playground, you see him as a child. Over there, you see him grinding lenses in his shop as a grown man. There, on the corner of the street, you see the two of us buying the lottery ticket…. But all these things are put in a larger context. They’re merely an example, an illustration of one man’s journey through the City of the World. Look at the Hall of Justice, the Library, the Bank, and the Prison. Willie calls them the Four Realms of Togetherness….”
When Flower goes on to say
“If you look at the Prison, you’ll see that all the prisoners are working happily at various tasks, that they all have smiles on their faces. That’s because they’re glad they’ve been punished for their crimes, and now they are learning how to recover the goodness within them through hard work…”
his words, in retrospect, have an ironic application to what later happens, but is that all? Are they too to be put into a larger context?
How are we to understand Nashe’s decision, while the others are deep in the poker game, to go back to the City of the World, to break off the tiny figures of Flower and Stone from the model, and to put them in his pocket? We are told that Nashe “was not sure why he had done it, but the last thing he was looking for just then was a reason. Even if he could not articulate it to himself, he knew that it had been absolutely necessary. He knew that in the same way he knew his own name.” We could, if we wanted, read a variety of interpretations into the act, or regard it simply as an acte gratuite or as the magical cause of the misfortunes that follow. But perhaps the very last thing we should be looking for is a reason or explanation. It is more profitable, I think, to read The Music of Chance as a fictional poker game in which the bemused onlooker is invited to observe the interplay of free choice, necessity, intuition, calculation, experience, and blind luck as the cards are played, and to do this without fretting about the metaphysical implications of the game. There is pleasure to be had not only from Auster’s prose but also from the odd mixture of detachment and suspense that the novel induces.
T. Coraghessan Boyle’s third novel, World’s End, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1988. It is a long, complex work, a kind of mock history of a Hudson River community that jumps backward and forward from the 1660s to the 1960s. Often satirical, full of grotesque and comically horrendous incidents, World’s End is reminiscent in tone of John Barth’s densely written historical pastiche, The Sot-Weed Factor, though Boyle’s prose is far more readable. His new novel, East Is East, is shorter than World’s End and more topical, dealing as it does with the cross-cultural blind spots afflicting a hapless Japanese and his American protector-persecutors. It is also, I think, funnier.
The victim is Hiro (hero?) Tanaka, the overweight, food-obsessed, red-haired offspring of a Japanese mother and a hippie American father who was “so dirty and hairy…that he could have grown turnips behind his ears.” Hiro, whose father disappeared before his birth and whose mother died six months after, has had a miserable childhood in Kyoto, taunted by his schoolmates as “a half-breed, a happa, a high-nose and butter-stinker—and an orphan to boot—forever a foreigner in his own society.” To compensate for his feelings of inferiority, he becomes a devotee of the heroic and rigorous seventeenth century Samurai code of Jocho Yamamoto and its latter-day interpreter, Yukio Mishima, who committed hari kari in protest against contemporary degeneracy. But Hiro also yearns to see America, to “see the cowboys and hookers and wild Indians, maybe even discover his father in some gleaming, spacious ranch house and sit down to cheeseburgers with him”:
If the Japanese were a pure race, intolerant of miscegenation to the point of fanaticism, the Americans, he knew, were a polyglot tribe, mutts and mulattoes and worse—or better, depending on your point of view. In America you could be one part Negro, two parts Serbo-Croatian and three parts Eskimo and walk down the street with your head held high.
Such is the poor naif who signs on to a Japanese freighter and then jumps ship off the coast of Georgia.
Tupelo Island, where Hiro comes ashore, is swampy, insect- and reptile-infested, and inhabited by rednecks, Gullah-speaking blacks, and a community of well-to-do retirees. More important, Tupelo is the seat of Thanatopsis House, an artist’s colony very much like Yaddo, which has been established by a patrician Southerner, Septima Lights, on her late husband’s ancestral estate. The catastrophic relations between Hiro, the inhabitants of the island, and especially one of the artist guests at Thanatopsis House produce the baleful comedy of East Is East. Misunderstanding is piled upon misunderstanding, and the luckless Hiro, who longs only for a square meal and some way to reach the mainland, finds himself a fugitive from justice, accused, among other things, of arson and murder, and hounded by idiotic immigration inspectors and brutal southern sheriffs. Finally Hiro is allowed to escape from the swamps of Tupelo (in the trunk of Septima’s Mercedes) only to find himself deposited in the greatest swamp of them all, the Okefenokee. Can this really be, he wonders, the “mainrand” of America?
As important to the novel as Hiro himself is a writer at Thanatopsis named Ruth Dershowitz. Thirty-four but admitting to twenty-nine, Ruth has put in time at the creative writing programs of Iowa and Irvine, has spent a summer at Bread Loaf, and has published four “intense and gloomy” stories in the quarterlies. La Dershowitz, as she is called, is consumed with envy and ambition; she is only too aware that she owes her presence at Thanatopsis not to her literary achievements but to the fact that she is the lover of Septima’s son. It is through this striving, insecure woman that we meet the other residents of Thanatopsis in their little world of status-seeking, sexual manipulations, and one-upmanship. And it is to her woodland studio (called Hart Crane—all the studios at Thanatopsis are named after famous suicides) that the hunted, starving, filthy, insect-lacerated Hiro makes his way, thereby joining the novel’s two centers of interest and providing one of its major misunderstandings.
Boyle’s approach to literary satire is clearly broad rather than subtle, more farcical than witty. Boyle obviously has a good time setting up and knocking down the resident artists of Thanatopsis. One of the things La Dershowitz most eagerly pursues is the approval of Irving Thalamus, “whose trade-in-stock” is “urban Jewish angst,” and what she most dreads is the arrival of her rival, Jane Stine, whose flamboyant good looks and sex-dripping fiction have led her to a series of triumphs both literary and romantic. Another resident is Laura Grobian, described as “the doyenne of the dark-eyed, semi-mysterious upper-middle-class former-bohemian school of WASP novelists, famous for a bloodless 209-page trilogy set in 1967 San Francisco.” Unfortunately artists’ colonies, like academic communities, have lately been the butt of so much heavy-handed ridicule that one shrinks from yet another account of the petty-mindedness and sexual sloppiness of supposedly gifted people. Eventually, the series of humiliations to which La Dershowitz is subjected comes to seem more mean-spirited than amusing.
The strength of East Is East lies in the story of Hiro, where Boyle’s previously demonstrated talent for comic-grotesque invention comes into play. One of the funniest episodes occurs when a rich, garrulous, Japanophile old woman, Ambly Wooster, takes Hiro into her beach house under the impression that he is Seiji Ozawa. The cultural confusions multiply, as do the vigorously narrated mishaps that befall Hiro in his desperate attempts to leave the island and reach the City of Brotherly Love. While there is a considerable degree of Waugh-like cruelty in the fate Boyle metes out to his antihero, who follows the example of Mishima to its bloody conclusion, Hiro himself is engaging enough to provide a pathos at the end that in no way clashes with the comedy that precedes it. This is an exuberant reworking of the innocents-abroad theme that goes back at least as far as Voltaire’s L’Ingénu.
Ted Mooney’s previous novel, Easy Travel to Other Planets, achieved some notoriety from its opening sequence, which depicted, in fine detail, the copulation of a young woman and a dolphin. Sensationalism apart, the novel struck me as ambitious and gracefully written, as well as shallow in characterizations and somewhat flashy in its preoccupations with pop science and pop culture. Much the same can, I think, be said of Traffic and Laughter.
The new novel is organized cinematically, its action relying upon a montage of fast cuts from brief episode to brief episode while it makes use of interpolated voices and symbolic interludes to underscore its themes. The opening scene depicts, again in much detail, the copulation of a young woman named Sylvia and a young man named Michael at the very moment when Sylvia’s house and Michael’s pickup truck are about to be consumed by a raging brush fire sweeping down a Los Angeles canyon. They are rescued by helicopter just as everything goes up in smoke:
Strapping herself into the back seat, Sylvia wonders briefly who’s at her own controls. From between her legs, love’s soft leakage darkens her dress, wetting it where the water has already soaked it. Michael slides into the seat beside her. The helicopter—hummingbird that was and dragonfly to be—rises into the air, thunderously, perfectly, casually.
It is her medium.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t get you out,” Michael shouts. But Sylvie cannot hear him. She is watching her house, yard, life disappear beneath her, and to her shy astonishment, she is thrilled.
Sylvia is a disk jockey with a large following for station KBZT-FM. Michael, her new lover, creates “special effects” for the movies. We soon meet a large cast of other Los Angeles characters, among them Sylvia’s ex-husband and Michael’s current fiancée, and a little group visiting from Africa: a black TV star named Nomanzi and her half-brother Chentula, who, with his white pal Johnny, leads a controversial African rock group called Tsotsi.
First appearances to the contrary, this is not primarily a novel about the entertainment world in Los Angeles but rather an international thriller in which the stakes are unimaginably high. The chronology of the novel is subtly skewed. Sylvia and Nomanzi, we learn, are both the daughters of career diplomats, American and African, who are working to prevent the detonation of a fission bomb capable of destroying all human life on earth. Working against them are agents of the US Defense Department and white supremacists from South Africa. Danger lurks everywhere. Sylvia’s tires have been slashed. Someone breaks into Michael’s house in the desert and steals his samurai sword. A bomb goes off in front of the US consulate in Geneva. And then there’s a sinister man with a crew cut who keeps popping up. Can he be Sylvia’s supposedly dead uncle? In pursuit of a maddeningly complicated story which never becomes clear, the camera-novel zooms back and forth from LA freeways to a quiet corner of France, to an interrupted wedding in Paris, and then to Capetown in time for the cataclysm. And almost as regularly as commercials interrupt a television show, timeout is taken for yet another doggedly described copulation.
In its calculated slickness, Traffic and Laughter seems almost a parody of its genre—a novel written for the movies. The young women are shallow starlets, while the noble blacks, the wise old diplomats, and the bad guys recall far too many television shows of the last twenty years. The Los Angeles scenes are familiar from a score of films shot along its freeways and its restaurants, sound studios, and shopping malls. Periodically, there are even passages written in screenplay dialogue, accompanied by stage or camera directions. As a novelist-director, Mooney seems to belong more to the school of David Lynch than to that of, say, Hitchcock. Though he attempts to pull the various strands together at the end, the novel is too fragmented, it has too many incoherences and loose ends, to achieve real suspense, excitement, or terror.
The surfaces, however, are sharply described: Ted Mooney is a deft and clever writer, with a good ear for off-beat verbal rhythms and an eye for unexpected detail:
The toy department was jammed with women and children; Michael walked among them in glad sauntering espionage. Small dramas of acquisitiveness swirled about his legs in a flurry of pointing fingers, avid eyes, and excited appeals, while the mothers sailed on above, their half-distracted authority barely concealing all this evidence of their own desires grown consequential, of their own girlish selves grown ripe and womanly and one or more times pregnant, though of course every story is different.
Traffic and Laughter is clearly intended to be more than entertainment. It deals, after all, with such weighty subjects as racial oppression in South Africa and the possible extinction of the human race. As if to underscore this weightiness, the novel contains a number of inserted passages, some briefly disconcerting, others lyrical or visionary, that seem to proclaim the interconnectedness of all things through precognitive or telepathic phenomena. Coincidences abound. Odd images—swinging buckets, for example, or a single, stud-set diamond earring—recur in widely varying settings and hint that deep forces are at work. In places the language becomes discouragingly oracular: “If you are a ghost,” begins one section, “you are a place that has already been vacated by yourself but not yet occupied by someone else; what’s more, you are exactly the difference between memory and history; which is to say you are, in short, the very stuff and substance of trouble.” Unhappily, these attempts to establish a serious tone detract from what is genuinely effective in the novel and become a pretentious and annoying distraction. Ted Mooney’s second novel confirms his talent and virtuosity, and it also suggests that he has yet to find a convincing way to display them.