By Frankie Lopes
This is a good book. This is a really good book. This book pulls off more in 179-pages than books twice or even three times its length. At its core it’s a story within a story. Two guys hanging out in an airport lounge, one of them telling the other his life story. It’s a simple enough A to B narrative, with a few cuts in between the exposition to remind you that you’re reading a narrator who is retelling someone else narrating. Is that totally necessary to make this story work? I mean, no, not really. It’s only structured this way so that the last line in the chapter of the book can exist and give you the finishing blow, but the rest of the book is so tightly wound, so precise, so surgical, so God damn good, that this grad-school-esque cloak and dagger ending technique is acceptable, at least to me.
It’s hard to not spoil anything because well, it’s an A to B narrative, but the loose idea here is that a recently broken up with white dude (classic protagonist, I mean c’mon) saves the life of a random guy and then becomes obsessed with whether or not he did a good thing; so, he basically stalks him and becomes involved in his life in order to discern whether the man he saved was “worthy” of saving. This has been looked at in a bunch of literature before. The idea of playing God, interfering with fate, if a life is worth saving, blah blah blah. That’s not what is really interesting here. What is interesting about this book is that completely out of nowhere, it becomes about modern art, the art industry itself, and whether or not modern art is “good.” Just like if the guy he saved is “good.” see where we’re going here?
I like modern art. I don’t have any qualms with people selling an 8×10 painting that’s just a single blue line for 3 million dollars; I think that’s badass. Although a lot, and I mean, a lot of people hate modern art. “Anyone could’ve done that, they just splattered paint on a canvas,” or “Give me a million dollars and I’ll paint a red square for ya,” etc etc. And they’re not wrong, anyone can splatter paint on a canvas, but not everyone can sell a paint splattered canvas for 7 figures. That’s where Mouth to Mouth gets interesting. The man the protagonist (or antagonist I guess if you want to get all lit-theory about it) saves is a gallery owner and art broker who is “shady” but successful. He makes his fortune off of selling modern art, and the Pro/Antagonist gets swallowed into the world of modern art as an outsider and slowly grows to learn that art isn’t art because it is artistic, art is art because someone is willing to pay for it. Antoine Wilson (the guy who wrote this little bomb of a novel) describes the art as something that is created in order to provide an occasion for buying and selling (I paraphrased that from memory because I can’t remember where exactly it is in the book to quote it but you get the idea.) And that is the singular best way to describe modern art to people who “don’t like” modern art and will never take the time to learn about it. So, if nothing else, this book is worth reading just for that section.
Besides this, there are some more philosophical ideas floating around in the book. There’s an excellent question of what secrets really are, and how secrets die. If you have a secret and you tell it to someone else, you’re relieved from “carrying” this secret and now the other person is burdened with it. This idea of secrets and double lives and all of that has been explored so many times in other fictional works that it’s not really groundbreaking, but it is structurally sound here and done well enough that it does the topic justice. There’s also some theory-crafting about human potential and corporate structure; how in order to succeed you need to be ruthless and glass ceilings and, actually here’s the excerpt:
“It’s a standard-issue ladder, like a wooden thing you’d lean up against a house, and it stands in the center of the room, but it’s not leaning on anything. It just goes up and into the ceiling. He secures it to the beams above, then plasters over everything, so it looks like the ladder disappears into the smooth whiteness. In performance, he climbs up, rung by rung, and bumps his head on the ceiling. Then he comes down and does it all over again. And when the performance is over, the ladder stays up in the gallery, and you can see on the ceiling where he was bumping his head, an oily spot on the otherwise white surface. The piece conures up the glass ceiling, of course, and the limited opportunities for black men in America-he’s black–but in my view it also represents the American tendency–the human tendency– to turn everything into fucking ladders, to take the wild, untethered world, always a blink away from chaos, with death staring us down, and instead focus on and put faith in a so-called career path, you know, résumé building, that garbage. I don’t mean to diminish the power of experience, experience is essential, but how are you getting it? That’s the problem with people who have worked in too many galleries, climbed their way up, not by any brilliance, but by not getting fired, or by making a move–they’re all the same person. They think that the ladder keeps going, all the way to the top, but it doesn’t. Of course, some types are satisfied to do their little part, stop and perch on a rung for the rest of their lives, and they’re valuable as hell, bread and butter. But the ambitious ones, they’re pathetic, the ladder doesn’t go there. It goes into the fucking ceiling. It’s no way to live, Jeff, Frankly, I don’t understand it.”
Francis took a few breaths, aware that he’d gone off on a rant. He didn’t apologize. Instead, he trained his eyes on Jeff.
“We get one life. One. And then that’s it. There’s nothing after. Who wants to spend it on a ladder?”Antoine Wilson, Mouth to Mouth
So that gives you a good idea of the breadth that this little novel covers: playing God, if anyone can ever do a good thing, modern art, natural born talent vs experience, if you need any ambition in life or if simply not going backwards is good enough, etc etc.
This is a good book. A really good book. It’s short, it’s fast, it’s got a green cover (green is my favorite color), and it’s written well enough that you’ll highlight or underline or whatever you do to a bunch of witty lines and passages that you can quote and post on Twitter or your Instagram story. By all accounts I recommend this book, all $26 of it when it comes out.
Unrelated because I couldn’t really find anywhere in the review to fit this, but this book has an excellent quote that really stuck with me so I’m going to share it here:
“I had an ex like that. Wasn’t happy unless my head was full of her words.”Antoine Wilson, Mouth to Mouth
This line has absolutely nothing to do with the story, isn’t said by any important character about any major plot point. It’s just mixed in the prose and it’s perfect. Just wanted to share it.
Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson is available today at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.