Paying the Right Kind of Attention

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Astor Pictures/Photofest
Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi in Last Year at Marienbad, directed by Alain Resnais and with a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1961

When it began, cinema was the stepchild of fiction, adopting its subjects and strategies of formal organization: screenwriters still think in “acts” (three or five), prologues, epilogues; they write in fiction’s genres—westerns, thrillers, romances. But by now, inevitably, since several generations of writers have been brought up on movies, the process has also become reciprocal or even reversed, and cinema has come to influence books, unconsciously if not explicitly. It’s sixty years since Robbe-Grillet declared the word “literary” a pejorative, and insisted that the surface of things, as in a film, is all we can authentically know; and that presenting the psychology of the characters is somehow meretricious. Instead,

what affects us, what persists in our memory…are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines…. As for the novel’s characters, they may themselves suggest many possible interpretations; they may, according to the preoccupations of each reader, accommodate all kinds of comment—psychological, psychiatric, religious, or political—yet their indifference to these “potentialities” will soon be apparent.

The Same River Twice, Ted Mooney’s fourth novel, examines this cinematic aesthetic. In his second novel, Traffic and Laughter (1990), a character observes the relevance of the film-like novel “in an age in which people describe the sense of their deepest hopes’ and dreads’ [sic] imminent fulfillment as being ‘like a movie.’” The Same River Twice could almost be filmed straight from the page, as some early films more or less were—The Maltese Falcon, for example. And as you would expect from Heraclitus’ observation, quoted in the title (to the effect that because a river never stops flowing, it’s a different river each time you step into it), Mooney’s novel plays with issues of temporality, the frame, and specifically with filmmaking, subjects discreetly contained within a lively thriller set in Paris. It would earn Robbe-Grillet’s interest, presumably, even if he disapproved of Mooney’s underlying romanticism, satirical eye, and storytelling instincts.

Mooney’s books focus on things that disconcert. From his first novel, Easy Travels to Other Planets (1981), with its human–dolphin sex and shattering ending (when the protagonist shoots her beloved captive dolphin—an event remembered as something of a landmark in animal rights consciousness), he has had an eerie prescience about what will soon become highly topical concerns. Besides marine mammals, Easy Travels to Other Planets worried about drugs, the environment, and abortion; Traffic and Laughter was concerned, broadly speaking, with ecology, diamonds, the bomb, and Africa; Singing into the Piano (1998) had some of the same concerns and also prefigured today’s Mexican violence.

The Same River Twice has Russian gangsters, now as omnipresent in fiction as in real life, art market manipulation, filmmaking, reproductive and stem cell technology, and the replacement of reality by media, fashion, and art. In some ways, The …

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