This summer Knopf published Ted Mooney’s fourth novel, The Same River Twice. It’s the best novel I’ve read this year, and it sent me back for another look at his three previous works: Singing Into the Piano (1998), Traffic and Laughter (1990), and Easy Travel to Other Planets (1981), a novel I fell in love with the first time I read it, nearly thirty years ago.
I couldn’t connect with the characters of Singing Into the Piano. The other three are exceptional but under-rated, and in my next several posts, I’m going to tell you why they are so good. They are suspenseful, well paced, stylistically original, well-plotted novels about intriguing characters and provocative ideas.
Mooney’s first, Easy Travel to Other Planets, is on several levels his most experimental (not in this case a euphemism for unreadable, by any means). Melissa has been living in a “flooded house” in the Caribbean and teaching Peter, a dolphin, how to talk. On the morning of her departure for home to visit her terminally ill mother, Melissa and Peter become lovers, in every sense of the word.
Easy Travel takes place in a slightly different world than our own, or perhaps a few years into the future (beyond 1980). The world is about to go to war over control of natural resources in Antarctica, including the “last set of relatively quiet airwaves on earth” (77), and a new illness is feared: “information sickness.” Its symptoms include “deliriously disconnected speech,” the “desire to touch everything,” and an inability to “tell where one thing left off and the next began” (34). But pay phones are still used, and while reports claim that “seventy-two billion new pieces of information were created yearly” (80), no one has a personal computer. And there’s not yet travel — easy or otherwise — to other planets. So why this title?
“…isn’t there, I don’t know, something people do for each other?” “Sure there’s something. …They stay alive.” “That’s all?” … “It’s not as simple as it sounds…” (234).
According to the dolphins’ oral history or sagas, humans strive endlessly to find “ways of traveling farther and faster and with greater ease” (225). Melissa and her friends and family are all travelers. Melissa travels between New York and St. Thomas, shuffling the needs of her boyfriend Jeff and mother Nona, and her work with Peter. Her best friend Nicole won’t marry Diego because she’d lose her TWA employee’s child unlimited travel pass. Jeff’s brother Kirk is a photojournalist headed to Antarctica.
The dolphin sagas also say that humans are “afraid of the shortness of life” (19, 219), and in Easy Travels, death is very much on these characters’ minds. Diego mentions briefly that his mother believes that the “souls of the dead resided comfortably on other planets” (157). Nona’s death is anticipated, but the unpredictability of life leads Kirk to tell his brother that Jeff “can’t protect other people from their lives” (234). Any one of them could be killed in war or shot by a lover, make an error skydiving or auto racing, step out of a moving car into oncoming traffic, or die in a head-on collision. It is all too easy.
“I am going to die from the strangeness of this.” (1).
Melissa is suspended between two worlds, one of water, and one of air and sky. When she and Peter make love, “both hear with new intensity their quiet splashing as the sound of air and water mixed” (11). She can survive briefly but not thrive in Peter’s world; the dolphin cannot survive in hers.
Liquidity and dryness are one of the dualities in the novel, as are sound and quiet, inside and outside, concrete objects and mental abstractions, human and inhuman.
“I’ve tried and tried and tried to understand, but sometimes a person just never comes back” (256).
Next to death there are departures. Jeffrey realizes what he fears is things ending, like his romance with Melissa, and Melissa is haunted by “all these people disappearing on me” (255). After Melissa leaves St. Thomas, Peter reviews everything that happened between them, trying and failing to understand why she goes away. He stops vocalizing and ignores Melissa’s coworkers. Twice in the first chapter Peter is described as “what else if not patient” (2, 29), but after her second departure, he stops eating and doesn’t go to his deep water tank but simply swims from room to room in the house’s shallows. When she listens to tapes of Peter, Melissa is “saddened and exhilarated” by their “burden of beauty, longing, distance” (95).
This I hope gives enough idea of the characters and conflicts to allow me to write about style and ideas without detracting from your own discovery of the story.
Repetition & “the shifting ribbons of connection”
“If you are handless, you do not fill the world with expressive objects but instead turn your attention to the shifting ribbons of connection which produce music, emotions, mathematical formulas” (95).
I believe Edgar Allan Poe wrote somewhere that a poem shouldn’t be so long that it couldn’t be read in one sitting. Most of us don’t have the leisure to read a novel thusly, of course, but there is something about the way Ted Mooney uses repetition that makes it seem almost possible to hold the whole story in your head all at once. The repetitions evoke what has come before as they draw attention to what is happening now. Repetition and refrain are mnemonic devices, and so particularly suitable for this story because, the narrative voice tells us, “since . . . they moved from land to sea millions of years ago, dolphins have relied heavily on their memories, which are limitless — growing more elaborate and agile with each generation” (29).
Words and phrases (two are noted above) are repeated. Three times, once in the beginning, middle, and end of the story, Melissa thinks, “I’ve tried and tried and tried” (10, 128, 256), the third occurrence of tried in the sentence accentuating her feeling of defeat, the cause of which initially eludes her. Kirk, skydiving, decides to land on his feet: “he simply wonders what it would look like” (195). Melissa, working a crane to transfer a dolphin from a case to a pool raises the case high because she “simply wants to see what it looks like up there” (44).
We’re told twice that “In deep water, dolphins pass into a meditative state caused by the weight of the water upon their skin” (29, 131), “In shallow water, a dolphin will sometimes fall to dwelling on the shortness of life and will seek to make the most of it with amazing feats of attention” (2, 230), and “In shallow water a dolphin thinks about the danger to his skin, which is twenty times more sensitive” than “a man’s” (2) and “a woman’s” (28).
I particularly liked all the blue-ness, the “two-valued blue of sea and sky” (96) of the novel. What comes immediately to mind of course is that blue is the color of Peter’s ocean world, but it is as well the color of the sky in Melissa’s dry world where she lived ”an unfinished life in air forever” (220). When distressed, Melissa likes to pretend her finger is a raygun. She takes aim, and turns her world blue (16, 74). With Melissa on his mind, Jeffrey keeps seeing “swatches of brilliant blue out of the corner of his eye” (30).
There’s the blue of common objects, like rugs, sheets, curtains, pool chalk, dresses, shoes, gas burners, silk, even a lizard (18, 19, 177, 37; 64, 241; 152, 239; 140, 213, 237). At the racetrack the cars zoom by in a “blue haze” (47) of “blue smoke” (204). In Antarctica there is “warm blue ice” and “warm blue snow” (54, 46). There’s something comforting in this accumulation of blue; it suggests calm and coherence, even when Jeff is anxious that the world is “exploding away from him in all directions” (35) and Melissa is frightened by her sense of “time running out, circuits switching off one by one as they counted down toward an ending” (203).
A way of seeing
“Dolphins are students of the sonic, the tidal and the gravitational. Through ear and skin, the dolphin receives forty million bits of such information per second and organizes them spontaneously into a changing musical replica of the world” (59).
The dolphin sagas teach that “humans were without memory, that their starfish-shaped flippers took the place of memory, that the dry world was filled with monuments large and small to what had been forgotten.” While “many objects could be named in the woman’s language . . . nothing held them together” (130).
But after Melissa and Peter become lovers, she seems to take on some delphinic ways of perception. Jeff accuses her of becoming “inhuman” (117, 158); her “memory for the past eight days had become absolute” (205). She, and later Jeff, begin to perceive telepathically, just as Peter has been able to see what she does when she is away.
Peter in turn comes to realize that “there is a way of seeing him to which he can never be party. The desire to protect [Melissa] and the desire to be seen in this way are indistinguishable” (147), and he is disturbed by “a dry dream in which that which was lost could after all be forgotten” (145).
There’s a lot else going on in this novel and many intriguing observations contribute to the sense of a world fully imagined. There are schoolchildren’s observations on Antarctica: ”It would be so quiet that we could read each other’s minds, and talking would be like singing. . . .No one would need to sleep anymore” (97), and reports of a new emotion, never before experienced by people: …“it’s like being in a big crowd of people without the people. And you’re all traveling somewhere at this incredible speed. But without the speed” (105; see also 145, 235-36).
But by now you should know whether Easy Travel to Other Planets is likely to appeal as much to you as it does me.
Easy Travel to Other Planets was first published by Random House in 1981. Page references here are to the 1983 Ballantine paperback.