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 are new sensations, new feelings. “This was a world in which people were actually talking about a new emotion, one that no one had ever felt before.” Teetering on the edge of nuclear strife, poised on the edge of an evolutionary shift in consciousness, the human species in Easy Travel is having a collective case of the shakes. Even the moon is apprehensive, the footprints left on its surface by the astronauts “the emblem of a disturbing future.”
One of the perils of sketching out a “disturbing future” is that a writer can become too smitten with his own cleverness and begin over-embellishing. Unchecked, a novelist will have mole-like mutants popping out of open sewers, their knuckles scraping the asphalt as they converge upon Yankee Stadium…. The remarkable thing about Easy Travel is that Mooney not only has a hold on his conceits (information sickness, new emotion), but that he uses these conceits poetically, to weave a vision of a world wrapped in vague uneasiness—a world we’re already half-living in. Equally remarkable: Mooney creates an erotics of unease, showing how the stress of future-shock splinters inhibitions and brings forth new desires.
In the novel’s opening chapter, an isolated research tank in the Caribbean becomes the setting for one of the most original seductions in recent fiction. Darting through the tank anxiously, emitting a series of clicks and creaks, is a dolphin named Peter, fed and attended to by a twenty-nine-year-old language researcher named Melissa. As the dolphin speeds around Melissa, rearing up on his flukes and slamming water against the wall like “a miniature tsunami,” he seems to be engaging in flirtatious play: his rough-housing is a courtship dance. Melissa, perplexed and frightened, is not unaroused. “She maneuvered the leotard off one shoulder, then the other.” And in the shallow salt water, dolphin and woman intertwine, softly fucking.
Love with the proper dolphin might have been a cheap affair handled by less capable hands, but Mooney makes this aquatic romance seem inevitable. What follows seems fated as well. Everybody in Melissa’s orbit is a little off-course: her friend Nikki, whose past is a string of abortions; her direly ill mother Nona, who covers her mouth when she coughs (cancer). Only Melissa and her lover Jeffrey are on the same wave length, sometimes eerily so. When Jeffrey is being unfaithful to Melissa with a woman named Clarice, his mind begins to roam. “I never close my eyes, he thought, looking at hers, which were sealed. And then, oh my goodness, he did: Melissa, in the upper right-hand corner of his mind, sitting on a truck and looking at a mirror. No, he thought, certainly not, and opened them again immediately.”
In Easy Travel’s future, then, consciousness will be a video monitor with those closest to us turning up in the corners of the screen like the busy-fingered interpreters on TV who translate presidential speeches in sign language for the hearing-impaired. And sex? Sex—even with dolphins—will be a Freudian tango as Mooney (rather like D.M. Thomas in The White Hotel) has Eros and Thanatos pushing each other vigorously across the dance floor. It’s almost too facile the way sex in Easy Travel accelerates the deathward drive of its characters, and yet there’s no denying that the novel’s taboo-smashing eroticism has a shuddering excitement. As in The White Hotel, sex here isn’t an idle frisk but the very stuff of one’s soul and being.
The one thing that troubles me about Easy Travel is its violence, and it is troubling not because it is sadistic or chic but because it too neatly ties together the strands of Mooney’s narrative. Just as there are too many guns in American society, there are too many guns floating loose in American movies and novels: writers often seem reluctant to end on a quiet note of resolution—they’re afraid anything less than a gunblasting finale will seem like a sissy whimper. Early in this novel a gun appears, and by the end it has been discharged to shattering effect, as the water thickens with the coursing of innocent blood. “Doomed by folly, we murder what we adore,” might be the message of the novel’s final pages, and my quarrel is less with the message than with the melodramatic way it’s delivered.
Perhaps my discomfort is due in part to the fact that Easy Travel’s shock ending really does come as a nightmarish shock—closing the book, I felt a sick lurch in my stomach, as if I had just stumbled past a traffic accident and seen a patch of blood and hair on a shattered windshield. At twenty-nine, Ted Mooney is an almost frighteningly proficient writer; he gets exactly the effects he wants, and my only complaint is with the excessive means he sometimes employs to ring up those effects. The novel isn’t capsized by those excesses, however. In a few years, the high-tech furnishings of Easy Travel may seem as dated as (say) the blank-faced posturing of Gary Numan or Devo, but the book’s poignancies—Nona’s cancer, Nikki’s abortions, the dolphin’s spirited affection—should continue to have an emotional tug.
If a new emotion ever emerges, Ted Mooney is certainly the writer to explore its contours. For all its gore and trickiness, Easy Travel to Other Planets is a novel of immensely tender feeling.
November 19, 1981