Singing into the Piano is only the third novel that Ted Mooney has published in some twenty years, but it makes it clear that he is one of the most peculiar of contemporary American writers. Mooney’s first book, Easy Travel to Other Planets, written when he was still in his twenties, told the story of a group of well-educated urban waifs, rather like those in the stories that Ann Beattie was then writing, though they seemed in their uncertainties not torpid or depressive, but active, intent on discovery, hopeful in spite of themselves. The whole book was oddly open and unpredictable. It began, characteristically, with a scene, much remarked at the time, in which a young woman researcher found herself seduced by a dolphin (Mooney’s inspiration here was the LSD-fueled investigations into dolphin intelligence and communication of Dr. John Lilly). In describing this unlikely, and potentially grotesque, situation, Mooney deployed a casual, almost deadpan prose style to keep sentimentality at bay, and succeeded in conveying something of the strangeness, the unexpectedness and even inconceivability, of a direct encounter with another being.
Part of the appeal and sense of amplitude of Easy Travel to Other Planets also lay in its political backdrop: an obscure international conflict stirring in Antarctica; people all over the world falling mysteriously ill from “information sickness.” In Mooney’s second novel, Traffic and Laughter, a big messy book about the anxieties of the nuclear age, politics was a more immediately topical concern, as it is again in this new one. Singing into the Piano worries over the consequences of globalization—the exploitation of cheap Mexican labor, the deforestation of the Amazon basin—while offering a far-fetched plot about sex and politics, love affairs and international affairs. The book is an idea-heavy pastiche of popular thriller and pornographic romp, with a cast of characters whose emotional and intellectual sophistication, and sheer disposable time, carry an incongruous suggestion of the novel of manners as practiced by Wharton and James.
“The dream of the state is to be one, but the dream of the individual is to be two”: the epigraph to Singing into the Piano comes from Godard, whose idiosyncratic improvisations would seem to make him a model for Mooney. It points in any case to the hallucinatory continuum between individual desires and collective realities, private and public fantasies, that preoccupies him in this book even more than in its predecessors. Mooney’s characters spend a good deal of time contemplating what, with a note of bombast, he refers to at one point as “the worldly disorder that is in public called politics but that in private life has no simple name” (by which he often means what usually goes by the simple name of sex), and in Singing into the Piano he has produced a fantasy in which news of the world, its corruption, violence, and exploitation, reappears, as in a dream, in a distorted but revealing form. Just as importantly, however, the book is conceived, as the title suggests, as a performance. It turns out to be an astonishing one, not only for its extravagance but for its quality of intense self-absorption.
It begins, as both of Mooney’s previous novels did, with a bizarre sex scene. Two smart, elegant New Yorkers who are only slightly acquainted, Edith, a UN translator, and Andrew, an inheritance lawyer and single father, fall for each other at a New York fund-raiser for a progressive Mexican presidential candidate. During the candidate’s after-dinner address, Edith falls asleep. Her hand, though, with a will of its own, finds its way into Andrew’s pants, and Andrew responds by sliding his hand up her skirt. The couple soon draw the attention of the audience and of the candidate as well, whose remarks begin to wander from his scripted speech. The whole event is rapidly drifting out of control when a campaign worker accidentally kills the lights. Edith and Andrew make an escape. In a taxi, and to his own astonishment, he asks her to marry him. “Yes,” she replies. “As soon as possible.”
Santiago Díaz is the name of the Mexican candidate, and after the fund-raiser he keeps thinking about the two Americans. He is a former soccer star and an international celebrity, thanks to his intervention in a terrorist kidnapping at the World Cup—one that not only resolved the crisis peacefully but was televised live. All over the world people saw Santiago unflinchingly stare down a terrorist who had drawn a pistol and shot the soccer ball lying next to his feet. Now, though the opposition candidate in an only notionally democratic country, he is the front-runner in the upcoming election because of his fame.
But he is dissatisfied with himself. In Edith and Andrew’s exhibitionism he sees the instinct and daring that he had always thought he possessed but now fears he has lost, preoccupied as he has been with plotting electoral strategy and packaging liberal bromides for selected audiences. He has become, he suspects, little more than a polished image of himself, an impostor.
Impulsively, Santiago calls to invite Edith and Andrew to have breakfast with him the next day. Their conversation—open, excited, quickly friendly—turns to the question of courage. “You know…probably the three of us…are really kind of alike,” Andrew reflects, and he tries to fill out his thought by referring to Santiago’s famous run-in with the terrorist: “None of the three of us really believes in bravery. What we believe is that certain circumstances produce the look of something we call by that name: ‘bravery.”’ This ambiguous remark points to a kind of modesty implicit in what they recognize as a common willingness—in love, friendship, or in politics—to act on impulse, but it also has worrying implications that none of them quite appreciates. To say that bravery, or any other virtue, is only a matter of appearance is to make all action expedient, and potentially exploitative. How, in that case, can one know what other people’s, or even one’s own, true intentions are?
Soon enough that problem becomes real. Luis Arévalo, Santiago’s campaign manager, old teammate, and childhood buddy, disapproves of the friendship that has sprung up between Santiago and the two seemingly shameless gringos, and is even more dismayed when the little circle grows to include the candidate’s wife, Mercedes, who regards her husband’s political ambitions as something of an infatuation. As Arévalo sees it, not incorrectly, Santiago’s fascination with his new friends is partly responsible for the confusion, uncertainty, and recklessness that have begun to mark his actions. Arévalo decides to decamp and run for the presidency on his own, thus forcing Santiago to concentrate his energies on the campaign. He leaves for Mexico City to deal with this new crisis, asking Andrew and Edith to join him shortly. With characteristic impulsiveness the pair agrees, taking along with them Andrew’s three-year-old son, Kevin.
Behind Edith’s spontaneity, however, there is a sense of moral unease. A year ago, she had been driving late at night near El Paso with the host of a popular TV show with whom she was having an affair, when they were stopped by a border agent for running a stop sign. While grilling them, the agent turned and shot a boy who was trying to climb the perimeter fence. Edith and her lover didn’t report the murder because he wanted to keep their relationship secret. But the incident has continued to disturb her. A return to Mexico, she imagines, may provide her with an opportunity for expiation. She means, in any case, to push her luck.
“I didn’t know I was going to do it until it happened,” Edith explains (after baring her breasts in the lounge of a fancy New York hotel), and throughout Singing into the Piano Mooney seems determined to take her cue. Plots and subplots proliferate with operatic abandon. The book is a jumble of genres. It is held together, however, and sometimes quite effectively, by a studied, campy elegance of tone. The characters are sharply delineated, flat, slightly stiff, like portraits by Alex Katz. Their conversation is mannered:
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Certainly not. It’s getting harder and harder to enjoy one’s tawdry little vices in this country. I’ll join you.”
The oddest thing about the book, though, is the sex, of which there is a lot. Most of it takes place between Edith and Andrew, whose encounters are nearly always exhibitionistic. They have sex at the UN, in cabs, in Central Park (where they are arrested for indecent exposure), at home, occasionally, but with the curtains open and the lights on. And wherever they are, they perform with aplomb. Thus Edith steps into the hall outside Andrew’s apartment for a cigarette, and he comes looking for her:
“Hurry, Andrew. I can’t wait longer.” She drew her knees up to her breasts and, as his cock slid into her, straightened out her legs so that they were pinned beneath his shoulders.
Oblivious, a neighbor emerges from his apartment to pedal his exercise bike a few steps away. The situation is fantastical but also mundane, like the classic pornographic encounter of plumber and housewife. In pornography, though, things make sense: there is one need events will satisfy. Here the juxtaposition of the image of the man in the sweatsuit mechanically working out with that of the acrobatic lovers is more nerve-racking and farcical than it is erotic.
Sex and sexiness have become so ubiquitous in our increasingly intertwined cultural and commercial life—they are so frequently proclaimed as necessary and important—that it has become harder and harder for a novelist to wrest any particular significance from them. Mooney confronts this problem by treating sex in a way that is both engaged and enigmatic. Like Nicholson Baker in his imperturbable The Fermata, he gives sexual fantasy a free run. Exaggerated as they are, though, the sex scenes in Singing into the Piano gradually assume the character of hypotheses, as if meant to tease and provoke the reader into thought—an ingenious, if risky, way to dramatize the problem of the limits of correct action, of what it means to go too far or not far enough, that has been announced in the novel’s opening scene. To that extent, it is never entirely clear, and least of all to them, whether Edith and Andrew are free-spirited or simply compulsive.
“A man’s first border is his skin… And on the other side of this border is the world…. I think we never get over our disappointment at being stuck within this boundary,” Santiago reflects at one point. For Mooney, sex, the ambiguous locus of love and/or desire, of blind passion and mutual recognition, is the primary, in fact species-preserving, instance of crossing those emotional and political borders which Santiago traces back to our intractably physical separation. It is the motor of history, the origin of obligation, but also, in “a world founded on disappointment,” the object of fantasized escape, not to mention a continuing occasion for rampant confusion. With all their eccentricities, Edith and Andrew are eager to marry, to care for his son, to have other children. And yet at the same time, musing on her work as a translator, Edith can still imagine:
Fueled by lives and flesh, an unfeeling force that she might nonetheless flirt with, rub herself gingerly against, while remaining as invisible, even nonexistent, as she felt when she was alone. It was a scary thought. Sexy.
Perhaps too much.
Touring Mexico with Andrew and his son doesn’t offer Edith expiation for her guilt, but the novel, as it proceeds, does grow scary, and the problem of reading other people’s true intentions becomes increasingly acute. Andrew’s best friend, James, a gallery owner and a disappointed lover of Edith’s, and Marisa, a beautiful young photographer from Brazil whose work he exhibits, now become central to the narrative. In New York, Marisa had asked Santiago, Mercedes, Edith, and Andrew to pose for a group portrait on the Mexican border. None of them had seen the point at the time, but now that Santiago is heading north to compete with Arévalo, who has succeeded in attracting large crowds by denouncing the abysmal treatment of Mexican workers in the US-owned factories along the border, they see little reason not to oblige.
What they do not know is that Marisa is the daughter of a ruthless developer who owns a company that is “logging and burning the Brazilian rain forest on a semiexclusive basis,” and that the Mexican ruling party’s candidate is deep in her family’s pocket. James, too, is involved in the scam, since he has been laundering the profits from the logging enterprise through his gallery. One of the reasons Marisa is so eager for her photo shoot is that she knows that the ruling PRI can use it as an opportunity to eliminate Santiago, whose popularity threatens them.
And yet Marisa’s stake in all this is not so much selfish as professional. She approaches people and events as images, and distress and disaster make for more spectacular ones. Her aim is to remove what she sees from the stream of life, freeing it up for consumption. She represents an unholy alliance between aestheticism and capital, while also serving as Edith’s shadow self. She too crosses the borders of the acceptable (she sleeps with both James and her brother, a notorious Mexico City playboy, and also, it’s intimated, with her father), but coldly rather than passionately. To Edith, Marisa describes the “basic belief from which all her work flows” as “We’re all skulls.” The camera, in effect, shows a world where life is already over, and one is free at last of obligation. “Surely,” Andrew disconcertedly muses, “you can’t have any quarrel with that?”
The carnivalesque showdown at the end of the book is too protracted, and in some ways more confusing than conclusive. Santiago tours a factory and is shocked by the conditions he discovers (“I had forgotten,” he lamely explains), so much so that he commits himself to a platform designed to bring the unions and the Zapatista peasant rebels together with international finance capital under the banner of La Transparencia. At this point Arévalo agrees to drop out of the race (in a book that asks so much in the way of suspended disbelief, this asks far too much). Marisa takes her photographs. The assassins stalk their prey, get drunk, and botch the job.
In the end, though, Mooney is content to leave things in suspense. In a book about the unreliability and necessary fluidity of human action there can be no final reckoning. James, having been set up to serve as the gringo fall guy in what we are to understand is a breaking scandal about the government’s ties to Marisa’s father, is beaten up and jailed. Marisa escapes. Abruptly cut loose from their friends, and somewhat chastened by their brush with human duplicity and violence, Edith and Andrew, together with his son, are last seen lining up at the border among anxious foreigners, all of them caught between the world and home.
Home of course is the magnetic pole of the novel, but Mooney’s extravaganza has taken his characters, and readers, far from it, before leaving them to straggle back as best they can. Whether in life or in fiction, Mooney suggests, the ordinary is hard to come by; things are not what they seem. Like so many American writers of the last quarter-century and more—like Mailer, Pynchon, DeLillo, and Roth—Mooney has a paranoid streak, along with his own Looney Tunes sense of foolery. Singing into the Piano doesn’t set out to take the full measure of a crazy, or crazy-making, world so much as to entertain a range of alternative prospects, scary and benign, from those commonly assumed. The book is a tale, old-fashioned in a way, for a winter’s night, an escapade, and at its best it displays something of the humor, conviction, and spirit of an impossible adventure for children.
Elsewhere, however, Mooney seems all too earnest, and then it’s hard not to wonder whether a fantasy about a pair of true-hearted sexual exhibitionists can really hope to set the realities of rampaging global capitalism in perspective. As his book approaches its conclusion, Mooney intervenes didactically, telling us that freedom comes from respecting boundaries (emotional, intellectual, etc.), and one imagines that even Brazilian lumber barons might find this worthy point congenial, so long at least as one respects their boundaries. It is a mistake for Mooney to protest his intentions so loudly. But perhaps his moralizing is offered with the insouciance that marks so much of his book, confronting reality, as Santiago confronted his terrorist kidnappers, with a “look.” Perhaps, in the end, Singing into the Piano is best seen as a kind of gesture, expansive, bien pensant, perverse—and inscrutable.