You’re well into Ted Mooney’s second novel, Traffic and Laughter (1988), before you realize that its world, which feels so familiar, isn’t ours. The time is the mid 1980s; the post-WWII babies are in their 30s. But only now has the atom been split and the A-bomb invented. Diplomats from Germany, the US, and the unrecognized state of Azania in Southern Africa are brokering a deal about when and where to test this weapon. Meanwhile, the daughters of the US and Azanian diplomats, Sylvia and Nomanzi, meet and form their own alliance in Los Angeles. Various mysteries and muddles featuring a jilted fiancé, green sedan, car wash shoot-out, samurai sword, immobility artist, single diamond earring, arms trafficking and an interrupted wedding culminate in the production of a movie based on the Great Infatuation, a bizarre event in the history of the African Xhosa people.
“To trust and not to know, to know and not to trust –”(222)
In Easy Travel to Other Planets, when Nicole deceives Diego, Jeffery considers that her “well-placed lie” “could cause multiple fractures in the bones of everyone who happened to be standing around it” (87). In Traffic and Laughter, lies compound betrayals and deceptions multiply. Its epigraph, “If it were not true, I would have told you,” an allusion to John 14:2, is recalled by a narrative voice that insists the story being told is true (4, 143, 261, 388).
But the novel’s characters don’t know what to believe. To them, truth is an “underpopulated place” (96); as Sylvia puts it, “I am very far from the province of truth” (167). Nomanzi and Sylvia conclude that they have “only the stupidest reasons to trust” (263) one another, and Nomanzi and her father on different occasions “have worked out stories that do not make a lie” (293). Although Michael recognizes that “probably the truth meant very little once it had entered the hearts and minds of men and women” (249), he needs to trust Sylvia. Yet he also believes that when he tells Sylvia he loves her, “the truth of what he had just said depended, subtly but inalterably, on her believing him” (57), a sentiment echoed by her uncle William, an operative who changes sides during the treaty negotiations: “You don’t have any idea how much depends on what you, Sylvia, believe” (150).
When Michael admits to his friend Jabez that he has lied to his fiancé about some things but not others, Jabez characterizes the truthful bits as “perception coinciding with fact” (98). But perceptions vary, making even this definition of truth far from simple. After all those present at an incident at a car wash are interrogated separately by the police, Sylvia wonders whether their stories jibed. Michael says he doubts it, “since we were probably all telling the truth” (241).
Is it possible to tell the truth? Even those with the best intentions are compromised by incomplete information provided by people similarly limited, some trustworthy and some not. And when you factor in chance, accidents, destiny, the “change reaction” (205), and when “civilization itself was based on convenient thoughts” (96), the German diplomat’s pompous announcement, “even we cannot know the full extent of what we have accomplished” (366) seems simply self-evidently dull-witted.
Style and Substance
As in Easy Travel to Other Planets, one of the best ways to get a sense of what Mooney is doing in Traffic and Laughter is to pay attention to the repetition of thematically significant words and phrases.
In Easy Travel, water dominates, followed by air or sky. But fire and air are the elemental forces to watch for in Traffic and Laughter. Water is important, too, but its absence is what matters. Earth is land, and land is home, but for some the future of even a “rhetorical” (88, 136, 254, 376) homeland is doubtful.
Fire: Traffic and Laughter begins with a raging fire of unknown origin sweeping through a suburb of Los Angeles and ends with the possible detonation of a bomb with the “power of a thousand suns” (39). Sylvia announces, “I am the burning place” (169) and an Azanian rock band sings, “fire burns the water” (208). Lovers “play with fire” (99) while diplomats deceive themselves that the power of the bomb can be likened to man’s discovery of fire: “around this danger — this heat and light — we can be safe together” (188). Consider too the multiple mentions of two suns — or a thousand –, a river over the sun, the light in a dead stag’s eye and of a diamond earring. Diamonds “[throw] points of fire out into the world” (95); they are thrust from Earth’s fiery center. Sylvia wants to believe that “Nothing that is solid ever really melts into air” (94), but there are forces that will dissolve even a diamond.
Air: There’s no fire without air, and Sylvia’s element is air (14). She works as a disc jockey, spinning songs into the airwaves. As her house burns, she is rescued by a helicopter, and rising above the flames of a life “being undone in a hundred thousand tiny ways” (13), she feels “as though a door has opened in the sky” (28).
Water: Nomanzi’s Xhosa name means “mother of water,” but her land is gripped by a prolonged drought, while in Sylvia’s neighborhood water is piped over 250 just to fill swimming pools. The Blues standard “Take Me to the River” by Al Green and Mabon Hodges repeatedly comes on the radio (4, 70, 216; also 144); Nomanzi’s screenplay about the Great Infatuation is called “River Over the Sun” (268), and one of our first views of her is in LA’s traffic, feeling “set loose upon a river of casual intentions casually intermeshed and by degrees transformed — it was this that touched her — into matters of life and death” (21). Meanwhile, diplomats discuss bomb developers’ tests with heavy water.
Easy Travel is a blue book, but in Traffic and Laughter oranges abound (278, 282, 299, 307, 333, 364, 368-9). The shop where Nomanzi works receives an order for a bouquet with white flowers at the center, and rings of orange anemones and red roses. It should, that is, look like a detonated bomb.
In our world, at 8:15 A.M. on August 6, 1945, the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. In Traffic and Laughter’s world, a bored soldier at a remote post in the Kalahari notices a bird atop a tower one morning at 8:13 (397). But it is 8:16, or 816, or 8, 1, and 6 that occurs with ominous frequency. Clocks stop at that hour (113, 126, 139, 169, 198, 275, 351), on different continents hotel clerks assign characters to room 816 (288, 369), and the one, three, and six balls are all that remain on a pool-sized mock pool table through which Sylvia dives headfirst (207).
Most of the novel is set in LA, and so the characters spend a good deal of time speeding along or waiting in traffic or hearing its “semipurposeful hum” (150). Michael reflects that “he had for some time now incorporated the sound of nearby freeway traffic into his notion of silence” (250).
Laughter, “compounded of bitterness, love, and hope,” is the “sound of history” (402). It’s used to diffuse tension between, for example, diplomats (253, 258, 302, 337, 386-87) and estranged parents and children (289, 296, 350). It is also the sound accompanying the fierce attraction and guarded negotiations of Sylvia and Michael’s romance. For Michael, Sylvia’s laugh “becomes a word, the word an exhortation” (10).
Reinvention and Premonitions
The first thing we learn about Sylvia is that as she surveys the fires coming toward her home, she “helplessly reinvented…everything” (3) and midway through her story she wonders “if everything had indeed been reinvented” (150), just as a Xhosa girl once “reinvented everything” (399).
Sylvia and Michael have the same premonition. The night after her house burns, Sylvia “felt herself split open by a premonition”: “She saw a place on the earth simply cease to be. . . .The things that could move had been moving. . . .She had observed a woman with a bucket. . . .Then there was nothing. Exactly nothing” (27). Michael’s is of “a day in which this place, this house. . .would simply cease to be. . . .Things would move about it for a while. . . .Then, all at once: nothing. Desert, sun, silence. Exactly nothing” (126). Michael begins to tell Sylvia a story about the two of them walking toward a river in Southern Africa, both swinging buckets, but her reaction to the mention of buckets causes him to veer into a different story.
Traffic and Laughter was first published by Random House in 1990. Page references here are to the 1990 Vintage paperback.
Images are from the National Archives’s DocuAmerica project and are in the public domain [ARC Identifiers 548932 (aquaduct) and 553018 (freeway)
“Everything on the Verge of Becoming Something Else: An Interview with Ted Mooney” by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory. In The Write Stuff: Alt-X Interviews, Forums and Chats. Edited by Mark Amerika.
This interview includes Ted Mooney’s description of the Great Infatuation of 1856 and its role in the origin of Traffic and Laughter (“I found something profoundly moving in the depth of belief this event implied, and I became preoccupied with the notion that out of hope comes disaster and out of disaster, new hope and belief”), as well as his interest in dolphins and other inspirations for Easy Travel to Other Planets.