Mooney (Easy Travel to Other Planets, 1981) returns with a rich, multilayered, powerfully unsettling novel.
The author’s experience as senior editor at Art in America and teacher of a graduate seminar at Yale University School of Art informs this novel’s thematic exploration of the interrelationship between art and commerce. It succeeds on a number of different levels: as a page-turning mystery in which conceptual art meets the scientific vanguard of stem-cell research and as a meditation on the trusts and betrayals of marriage, on truth and illusion and the relation of each to artistic creativity. A French designer named Odile finds herself paired with a stranger by an art dealer who has hired them to smuggle communist flags from Russia, with plans to market them in Paris as objects of art. The book barely touches on “the political ironies of selling communist artifacts in a venue so aggressively market oriented,” though the collapse of the Soviet Union has significant implications for the plot. Odile’s American husband, a highly-regarded avant-garde film director, also finds himself caught in a bit of intrigue, as copies of one of his movies surface with an alternative ending he never shot. After Odile’s smuggling partner disappears, she is threatened by Russians who suspect levels of conspiracy to which Odile has been oblivious. As allegiances shift and Max’s new movie further blurs distinctions between life and art, Max discovers that his own impressions have become “like shards of a broken mirror, each reflecting one or two of the others but refusing to come together into a whole.” But as this literary artist creates art about art, manipulating characters he has created who are manipulating other characters he has created, the whole comes together in a morally ambiguous manner that seems equally surprising, disturbing and inevitable.
“Paris is a small place,” says more than one character, as the reader discovers just how small the city—and the artistic community and the world of international crime—can be.