I can’t actually remember reading Ted Mooney’s first novel, Easy Travel to Other Planets. I know there was a lot of buzz about the book. I have a copy of the UK paperback, which came out in 1983, so I must have read it around then. The thing is, it is one of those books that once you’ve read it it feels like it has always been part of your reading history: I must have read it long, long ago, back in the 1970s, or the 1960s. That sort of book, the effect stays with you, even if you can’t always remember the details.
So Ted Mooney automatically became a member of that small select group of writers I was going to keep looking out for. Except there wasn’t anything to look for. Years went by; no new Ted Mooney.
Then, out of nowhere, when I had almost given up, I came across a new novel, Traffic and Laughter, (1990). Was this even the same Ted Mooney? It felt very different, and to be honest it didn’t work for me as well as its predecessor. But it was still something to read eagerly and happily.
Then more silence, until a third novel right at the end of the decade: Singing Into the Piano (1998). I think I must have happened across this novel during one of my trips to America early in the new century, because I have a distinct memory of reading it while sitting outside a coffee shop in Oakland. Maybe it was the setting, but this novel hit the spot. My latent addiction to Mooney’s work was reawakened.
Except there was nothing to feed that addiction.
For most of the next twenty years I was convinced that Singing Into the Piano was his last work. There was no more. Had he died? Until earlier this year when a friend mentioned, in passing, that he had come across a Ted Mooney novel he hadn’t known about before. I did an eager, anxious search, and there it was: The Same River Twice (I love that title). And it came out in 2010, for heaven’s sake; why had I not heard about this before now? (After I’d bought the book but before I read it, I encountered Ted Mooney on Facebook, and we’ve exchanged the odd comment since then, so I can say definitively that he ain’t dead yet.)
The Same River Twice is the sort of book you read as a slow, luxurious immersion, there’s no rush, you read slowly because you want to savour it. It is also, I think, perhaps his best novel. (Yes, yes, I know, but I think it may be even better than Easy Travel to Other Planets.)
It is a novel absolutely jam-packed with plot. Yet the plots interweave so subtly between the vivid, engaging characters, the everyday domesticity of their lives, and the startling sense of place, that for a long time you forget how much is going on in this book.
It starts with Odile, a French fashion designer who, for a little extra cash, has agreed to undertake a smuggling trip to Moscow. There, on the black market, she buys a number of gorgeous Soviet-era banners. The Russian government has forbidden their export as cultural artefacts, but Odile has agreed to smuggle them out for Turner, a Paris-based art expert who reckons he should be able to sell them for millions. All goes well, but as she safely crosses the border with her illegal baggage, her companion on the trip, Thierry, disappears.
Back in Paris, Odile returns to her normal life, designing a wedding dress for a non-practising Moslem woman, while Turner discovers that he may have under-estimated how much the Soviet banners would go for on the Western art market. But the even tenor of their lives is unsettled. Odile’s home is searched, while Turner receives enigmatic warnings from a Russian oligarch who is one of his best customers. As the storm clouds gather, Odile and Turner start an affair.
Alongside all of this, but unaware of any of it, Odile’s husband, Max, is an avant garde film-maker with serious, uncompromising intent: he insists on filming only in available light, he prefers to use non-actors, and his work blurs the line between drama and documentary. He has embarked on a film that follows the story of two of his and Odile’s friends, Groot and Rachel, who are busily restoring a century-old Dutch barge on the Seine.
One of Max’s recent films had been an unexpected hit, but he has discovered that there are pirate DVDs of the film in which the ending has been subtly changed in a way that changes the perception of the whole of the rest of the film. This is actually a relatively minor part of the novel, but I found myself intrigued by it because it made me think of something that Steve Erickson might do. Although I suspect that Erickson would take the idea in a very different direction.
Investigating the piracy leads Max to a petty criminal who has just been murdered, and then to a plot to use DVDs to store and smuggle DNA. This, in turn, leads him into the orbit of the Russian oligarch. And the centre of this curious web is Thierry, who resurfaces late in the novel having smuggled an important scientist out of Belorussia.
Yet this profusion of plot, enough to power two or three thrillers, still accounts for only a fraction of this novel. There are details of the way Turner prepares the sale of his Soviet banners; there’s Odile being painted by an old portrait artist; there’s the summer visit of Max’s daughter from his first marriage, the wilful Allegra; there are the anarchists who live in the same apartment building as Max and Odile and who may or may not be involved in a jailbreak from the nearby Sante prison; there are the advances and setbacks in the repair of the Dutch barge that reflect the advances and setbacks in the relationship between Rachel and Groot; there’s the persistent bass note of the making of Max’s film and the troubles finding funding for it.
There’s drama enough all through the novel: a fire-bombing, a police raid, torture, a couple of murders. Yet the drama never overpowers the novelistic virtues of the book. There’s the same crisp, clear prose that has been a hallmark of all four of Mooney’s novels. There are characters who feel real: the grouchy Max and generous Odile; the calm, seen-it-all voice of the portrait painter; Turner’s loneliness; Rachel and Groot feeling their way clumsily through a relationship neither is entirely sure of. There are the incidental details that suddenly make a scene spring into life. The whole book feels like a slice of life in which the thriller elements act as part of the background rather than the artificial focus of the story. And yet, those same thriller elements inject a pace and an urgency into the story that keep the reader entangled. So whichever critical perspective I apply to the novel, it works.
And yet it is a decade since it appeared. Why do we have to keep waiting like this?