Singing into the Piano
by Ted Mooney
Vintage, 357 pp., $14.00 (paper)
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 …