One can never step into the same river twice.
In the novel of plot, man is represented as made and ruled by circumstance, he is the victim of change and the puppet of intrigue.
The Gay Science
I felt the ominous Future, coming close, chilling me with an unutterable awe, forcing on me the conviction of an unseen Design…I began to doubt now whether we are not advancing, blindfold, to an appointed and an inevitable End.
The Woman in White
The Genre: some philosophical reflections on mystery novels
In 1866 the now largely forgotten Scottish critic, E.S Dallas, in his unfinished but brilliant study The Gay Science, compared genre novels – mystery and sensation novels in particular –with more ‘serious’ literary novels. The former are novels in which plot predominates over character, while in the latter, character predominates over plot. Dallas saw in plot-driven novels an analogy of the individual’s relationship to chance, fate and free will.
In genre novels, especially the mysteries of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the unfolding awareness of a huge overarching design, into which all previously unnoticed incidents and details are gradually revealed to have had a place, the individual is ultimately seen as powerless in the hands of fate, and free will is at best an illusion.
In these kind of plot-driven novels, the ending acts as the last piece of the jigsaw. Once the ending has been reached, the reader’s relationship to all the forgoing content changes, and it is impossible to reread the novel with the kind of innocence we had as we read it for the first time. Character and Reader come together in a corrupting knowledge of the End in which the Illusion of Free Will is shattered for ever by an Awareness of a Design. The archetypal poetic symbol for this irrevocable loss of virginity is, of course, the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and the consequences of the eating of the Forbidden Fruit, but any kind of knowledge is the destroyer of innocence. One can never step into the same river twice.
The Plot: a quick summary with no spoilers
Ted Mooney’s novel is essentially a mystery in the Victorian tradition, incorporating modern thriller elements and updated to the contemporary world of international art smuggling, movie making, and the Russian mafia. Max is a forty-something American in Paris, an independent movie maker going through an artistic crisis, having difficulties securing funding for his next project, and at something of a loss as to what that next project will be. Meanwhile he discovers that DVDs of his most well known movie have been pirated and are on sale illegally. He decides to investigate.
His second wife, Odile, some 10 years his junior, and a dressmaker, makes money on the side as a courier for an art dealer. On a mission to Moscow to collect old Soviet flags, her travelling companion Theirry mysteriously vanishes and does not reappear in Paris to collect his fee. On her return, her apartment has been ransacked, but nothing has been stolen. Fearing the worst, she returns to the art dealer who sent her to Moscow, to investigate.
These two separate plots gradually link up in the good old mystery tradition to embrace all aspects of Max and Odile’s life together as well as their friends and family and the people they encounter. There is plenty of sex and violence for those who prefer to read superficially, and some highly evocative descriptive writing conjuring up images of the Paris of Haneke, Atget and Brassai. The characters are well drawn, clearly distinguishable from each other, and even manifest a degree of inner complexity. There are moments of breathstopping beauty, poignancy and wit, and it is all handled with cool aplomb. On one level, it is a page-turner.
There is, however, more going on here than meets the eye. The novel is constructed with such ingenuity and careful attention to detail, all the parts and details fit together within the overall pattern so well, that the novel becomes symbolic of the meanings Dallas saw in the genre, and of some of the eternal questions about the role and nature of human creativity.
The Symbolism: What it all means: in which we further speculate on the role of the end, chance, the frame, creativity and light
Max is attracted to the pirated DVDs because they have been issued with an alternative ending, an ending that has obviously been very well conceived and crafted, and which makes total sense based on details buried in the movie, but which changes the whole meaning of the work. These alternative endings reveal new possibilities of interpretation, foreground previously insignificant details, illuminate new perspectives and undermine the inevitability inherent in the original. In the same way the ending of the novel reveals the pattern into which the details neatly fit.
However, the text is also littered with details which act as interpretative red herrings: Max’s friend Veronique has an eye-catching tattoo, Odile sees a woman berating a little boy who is holding a black dog: are these details significant, or are they simply empty signs? We begin to wonder as we read, and the overall design emerges. With a different ending, would the pattern of details change?
What looks inescapable can be replaced with something else that looks just as inescapable, just as foreordained. In other words, it’s all about perception, sight and looking, framing, lighting and perspective.
A key image in the novel is the frame. Max reflects as he watches the day’s rushes: what his camera framed, others would recognise; the banners brought back from Russia become expensive art works once they are framed and hung in a gallery; Max and Veronique marvel at the way the photographer Brassai frames his subjects; the quotidian life of Paris is often viewed framed by a window. The reader is reminded here of the last shot in Michel Haneke’s movie Caché, in which children leaving a school are filmed, and random details framed and thereby given some mysterious significance.
This calls up the question of serendipity. Max’s new project which he is working on throughout the novel is a documentary about his and Odile’s friends’ renovation of an old pilot boat moored on the Seine. He has no script, no story in mind, but is just filming to see what will happen. Gradually, a drama – a sub-plot initially separate from the main plot, but soon to be subsumed into it- emerges from the details chance has recorded on video. Max and his non-actors improvise art, as Odile improvises life at the plot’s climax. This is a metaphor for the role of the fortuitous in the process of artistic creation, the sudden flash of inspiration which results from the random coincidence of stimuli.
In the face of the knowledge of our helplessness against fate, we human beings nonetheless assert our right to creativity: art, invention, science, procreation, renovation, love. The novel is full of creativity: Max’s movie, Odile’s dressmaking, Celeste’s portrait of Odile, the renovation of the engines and the boat, primitive sculpture, genetic science, musical composition and the performance of Biber’s Mystery Sonata: all the human arts are represented.
And finally, as an agent of perception, as an archetypal symbol of (corrupting?) (liberating?) knowledge, light itself is a key image throughout the novel. Max loses his main actress at the start of his project because she refuses to be filmed in natural light; he worries frequently that he will run out of light as he films; the projection of the cinema’s beam in the darkness; the weird crepuscular light of Paris, ‘City of Light’, in the final climactic scenes; the utter darkness of the catacombs; and the ending, when, in a summer storm, the lights of Nice and Cannes are suddenly extinguished.
Max couldn’t help feeling that he had overlooked some crucial element or tendency … that, when finally laid bare, would upend his understandings and reduce all his labours to insignificance.
With this novel, Mr Mooney can fairly claim to have created a new genre: the intellectual thriller. One hopes he will write more of them.