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 Same River Twice is the most cynical of his books, or, certainly, the least idealistic. Yet Mooney is no preacher, or no mere preacher. His rather up-to-date stylistic concerns, art world experience, and nods to 1980s-style branding lend an indefinable chic to a solid thriller.
There’s a large multinational cast of characters: an American filmmaker, Max, and his French wife, Odile; a Dutch boat owner, Groot, and his American partner, Rachel; Turner, an American art dealer; Céleste, a painter for whom Odile and Turner are sitting; a Frenchman, Thierry Colin, and a few others, linked by instances of synchronicity—a Biber sonata that each thinks of on occasion, a whiff of perfume—and by their complicity in Turner’s plot to establish Soviet banners, semi-smuggled from Moscow, as valuable art commodities.
This causes them to run afoul of the Russian gangster syndicate expecting to control that sort of contraband along with some important stem cell technology. The novel is set in Paris, but Frenchness is not the point; the characters happen to live there. Mooney is urbane enough to imagine Americans living in distant countries, where the foreignness of the place is not the subject but merely a given, and their Americanness is not the point either.
Events proliferate: Max is puzzled and irritated to discover that a pirated edition of his cult film has an altered ending and sets about trying to find out more about who did it; Odile, a typical Mooney woman, independent and impulsively sexual, has an affair with the enigmatic Turner; Max has to deal with his teenage daughter, who is sent to him by her mother for the summer; and he’s filming the restoration of Groot and Rachel’s Seine barge Nachtvlinder. And much, much more, all directed toward a cinematic denouement—a kind of snuff movie—aboard the Nachtvlinder, with the cameras running as the various characters enact their fates with a powerful feeling of déjà vu, all with a nod to the ambiguous finale of Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy.
For the most part, the novel plays by film’s rules, resisting the temptation to do things the written word can do but film cannot, especially in-depth exploration of consciousness. Mooney tries not to be interested in mining the innermost qualities of his characters. We mostly view the action, without being privy to interior voices or to a character’s private motivations and inner compunctions, the presentation of which has always been the special strength of fiction. Instead, as in a film treatment, we have minutely described camera setups and stage directions:
Turning now down rue de Castiglione, he walked the length of the chilly sidewalk arcade, crossed Rivoli, and entered the open ground of the Tuileries. The April light held color and new warmth. He passed a couple changing their infant’s diapers on a stone bench. A boy with a remote was sailing a model boat across one of the reflecting pools…. He crossed the Seine at the Pont des Arts….
Mooney’s particular fascination with the details of landscape enables him to approximate the effects of film, or at any rate the precision of a travelogue:
Taking the number 6 métro from Glacière, transferring to the 4 at Denfert-Rochereau, Odile replayed the breakfast conversation in her head…. She got off at Strasbourg-St. Denis, in a quarter known as Le Sentier, where the night shift of prostitutes had for the most part punched out, and the garment trade, which for well over a century had claimed the daylight hours, was in full swing.
Once in a while we go a little way into the character’s head to visualize the action more precisely:
When she spotted Turner—he was at the computer-peripherals counter, trying to return a pocket scanner—her first thought was to slip downstairs and out to the street. But it was too late for that; she’d already taken a step in his direction, and with it committed herself to the whole encounter and whatever might follow.
We are not specifically told why she wants to avoid Turner, nor do we hear her feelings about it. A detail of someone’s stream of consciousness is quoted only rarely, often italicized: “Max thought, I’ve been paying the wrong kind of attention.” But the effect is like glimpsing lighted rooms from a passing train—quick impressions forever unexplained.
One expression of cinema’s influence has been the durable dictum, beloved of writing classes, to “show not tell,” which decrees that the action must convey everything we are to know, with no authorial interjections or analysis. Knowing us to be experienced readers, the author trusts us to supply for ourselves whatever we may require to know about Odile’s or Max’s inner life, the “real” reason she wants to avoid Turner, or Max’s growing jealousy. But Mooney may give us too much credit. When an action (murder, sex) that must have arisen from some passion does unfold, instead of seeming inevitable, it takes us by surprise. The point of view shifts with the insouciance of film from character to character among Odile, Max, and Turner, but as in film we are left to supply their innermost motivations from the carefully managed extent that we can infer them from their actions. This has the effect of distancing us from all three, impeding any readerly wish to “care,” a process that Freudian critics, at least, would insist is essential to the readerly experience but that is disapproved of by Robbe-Grillet and by some recent critics, the British novelist Zadie Smith for one, who says that old-fashioned caring is just “the bedtime story that comforts us most.”
A couple of years ago, Smith (reviewing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder in these pages) continued an argument that’s been going on among critics and practitioners of the novel for many years, about the virtues of the experimental or “art” novel compared to those of the old-fashioned, “realistic,” baggy monsters of Balzac or Dickens.1 Smith, a writer of the latter sort of novel, which she calls lyrical Realism, argued nonetheless that experiment was the way forward and that the traditional novel is dead or, if not dead, without much of a future, a criticism that comes up with predictable regularity as writers seek and inquire about the methods of their art.
The late Frank Kermode just recently wrote about arch lyrical Realist E.M. Forster’s disapproval of James’s excessive preoccupation with “art,” and especially of radical experiments with point of view.2 Certainly the novel’s future was James’s preoccupation in his day, with his complicated defense of his “methods,” and also of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad—writers whose novels, which now seem traditional, were then thought of as experimental. Among the most notable and most recent were the influential writings in the 1950s of Robbe-Grillet, especially his concern with the elusive issue of “depth”—fiction’s methods of depicting the interior life. Narrative is conceived of as “layered,” the deepest layer being a literal transcription of a character’s thoughts—the so-called “stream of consciousness,” as in “god what a handsome man.” Closer to the surface, the author steps in and presents his or her interpretation of a character’s thoughts, as in “Poor Molly mistakenly thought he was a handsome man,” with a whole range in between these extremes of authorial absence or presence.
Once, an account of a character’s subjective experience was taken for granted as the imperative as well as the prerogative of fiction; now critics have come to dispute to what degree it is possible, authentic, desirable, or even interesting to attempt to trespass into interior consciousness. The traditional novel that presents the innermost thoughts and fears of its characters along with the author’s comments, implied or explicit, comes in for particular derision in the modern view, enclosed as such a novel must be in some particular and debatable psychological, political, sociological, or metaphysical system that seems hopelessly square to the modernist, whose each innovatory theory tends to advance the novelist toward a method of description without interpretation, as in film, as Robbe-Grillet urged. “From day to day,” he wrote, Mooney’s characters themselves reminisce about the old-fashioned concept of the inner life. “When I was growing up,” [Max] replied, “the big dream was to become yourself. You had to work at it.”
“Yes, the age of psychology.” She smiled politely. “That must have been interesting.”
“Not the way you might think. Anyway, it’s all over now.”
Instead, writes Robbe-Grillet,
we witness the growing repugnance felt by people of greater awareness for words of a visceral, analogical, or incantatory character. On the other hand, the visual or descriptive adjective, the word that contents itself with measuring, locating, limiting, defining, indicates a difficult but most likely direction for a new art of the novel.
What’s being singled out, then, is the “destitution of the old myths of ‘depth'” (Zadie Smith quoting Robbe-Grillet), of psychologizing about the interior life of a literary character.
But the opposite of deep is, of course, shallow or superficial, adjectives that have assumed their own pejorative cast. When it comes to books we may be a little daunted by the august defenders of the flat surface. What if our wish to know the characters is “wrong,” square, and a violation of the author’s intention to be superficial? In the absence of an author, and a sense of what the author’s beliefs and temperament are, do we feel a little bit at sea? Such is the elusive, withheld quality that the reader of The Same River Twice may feel, as at an art movie like, say, Last Year at Marienbad.
Meantime, despite their respect for innovations by remarkable writers like Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon or Tom McCarthy, readers have continued to be faithful to narratives they can understand within one of those systems (psychological, religious, etc.) they already know, showing themselves reluctant to abandon the pleasures of a good story—an appetite some theorists hold to be innate—and it’s as a good story that The Same River Twice succeeds. Think of the welcome being given to a traditional novel like Jonathan Franzen’s recent Freedom, or some of Zadie Smith’s own work (e.g., White Teeth).
Luckily Mooney is saved from maximum artiness by some flaw or tic of geniality or romanticism. He’s really a softie, and can’t seem to help himself from combining an austere style confined to photographic detail and the descriptive adjective—eschewing metaphor—with satire, a lively plot, and a talent for social observation. Sometimes he even breaks down and tells us about inner thoughts, and we’re perfectly happy about it; for instance, close to the final sequence, here is Turner, under pressure, being pursued by the gangsters:
If, as he sometimes suspected, there would come a day of deliverance for people like himself, people so rabid to live that they knew neither up nor down, right nor left, then maybe fear wasn’t the survival mechanism he’d imagined it to be. Maybe, instead, it was the problem. A hindrance to what would otherwise happen. But how could you tell?… Odile seeped back into his thoughts until she eventually displaced all others. He grew more confident…. He believed she loved him, even if she wished it were otherwise.
Of course, this is telling, not showing, but we’re grateful for this descent into depth from time to time. Meantime, the novel as a form totters along, absorbing experiments and appropriating some of them in the service of rendering life, deeply or not, and as readers we gain the skills we need to read them; Ulysses does not now seem as difficult as it did at first, and The Same River Twice is more fun than it might have been in a purer form (and maybe somewhat less fun than if Zadie Smith had written it). Mooney’s dilemma is like that for other contemporary writers. If it’s a matter of two paths for the novel, Ted Mooney’s book is poised bravely at the crossroads, bringing to mind the old remark by Yogi Berra: when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Which way indeed?
October 14, 2010
“[Two Paths for the Novel](/articles/archives/2008/nov/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/),” The New York Review, November 20, 2008. ↩
Concerning E.M. Forster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009); [see the review](/articles/archives/2010/oct/14/em-forster-story-affection/) by Andrew O’Hagan on pages 18–22 of this issue. ↩