A Conversation with Antoine Wilson,
author of Mouth to Mouth

Photo: Noah Stone

What is Mouth to Mouth about?

Jeff Cook, a successful art dealer, bumps into a former UCLA classmate at JFK, invites him up to the first class lounge, and unspools the story of his rise, beginning with his rescue and resuscitation of a drowning man on the beach in Santa Monica, a man with whom his fate becomes inextricably entangled. It’s a kind of impromptu confession. What he’s confessing I won’t spoil here.

Some days I think this is a novel about fate, other days I think it’s about deception. Beyond the details of the plot, what is Mouth to Mouth about to you?

Well, fate is a kind of deception, isn’t it? We talk about fate as if it works its magic into the future, but in reality, it’s a construction based on the past. Jeff’s story hinges on one of those moments (the rescue on the beach) when, had things gone differently, his life would have turned out completely different. It’s one of his life’s forks. I’m fascinated by these moments. A chance meeting, choosing one job over another, taking one class instead of another, and so on. These seem especially important in your early 20s, when you’re making choices that both narrow your options and potentially determine the path of the rest of your life. The fate piece of the puzzle comes when we look back on those forks. We assemble them into a narrative of how we got here, which is to say that what we call fate is often repackaged serendipity. Jeff’s narrative pushes this idea to its limit, which made this book fun to write, and, I hope, even more fun to read.

Jeff’s decision – to save a life or not – changes the course of his own life when he becomes obsessed with the man he saves, Francis Arsenault, one of the world’s most powerful art dealers. Why is this event so galvanizing for him?

Jeff’s saving Francis is a traumatic experience, an event especially impactful against the nothing-going-on backdrop of his life. And shortly afterward, he’s left alone again, as if nothing happened. His interest in and pursuit of Francis is an attempt to reckon with the developing sense of his own agency.

Have you ever saved a stranger’s life?

Back in 1997, while visiting Seattle with some friends, I stopped a man from unintentionally stepping in front of a train. He was wearing headphones, walking along, air drumming, lost in his own world, and I got his attention just in time. Once he realized what had happened, he thanked me with an effusive and slightly unhinged “You saved my life!” As reward, he said he was going to buy me “a big steak dinner.” Then he kept walking. For years after, my friends made fun of me for not getting my steak dinner. I tried to write a fictional version of that story years ago, then set it aside. It’s probably the ur-seed of this novel, but frankly, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between rescuer and rescued.

As a surfer, I’ve helped out people who were having trouble in the ocean, nothing too extreme, but situations which could have easily gone upside-down. The only consistent thing in those encounters? The rescued people didn’t thank me. Not that I was asking for it, but it’s something I’ve noticed. Being pulled from the ocean puts people in a strange state of mind. And, if you’ll forgive me one more example, in college I worked occasionally in the neonatal and pediatric ICUs. Once, I participated in the resuscitation of a young organ transplant recipient who was coding in the ICU. Basically, I took over chest compressions for a while. The patient was revived, but ended up dying later in the day. It underlined for me how saving a life is really only postponing a death. And how emotional reactions to powerful events can take decades to surface. I don’t think I had the emotional depth to understand what was happening. Now that I have kids of my own, I can hardly bear to think of it.

These guys, Jeff and the narrator, have arrived at middle age in two very different places. Jeff is a successful art dealer, flying first class, and so on, whereas the narrator is struggling financially and headed to Europe on the cheap in search of a tenuous career boost. I was reminded of the encounters people have at school reunions.

Yes! I love high school reunions. Where else do you get the opportunity to watch people’s lives unfold in time lapse like that? In ten year chunks? It’s like a real life version of Michael Apted’s 7 Up documentaries.

You, the author, don’t say why Jeff would relate his life story to a near stranger — what was your intention in having him do it?

I don’t want to step on the reader’s toes here. From my perspective, Jeff is initially sincere in revisiting his life story, prompted by the presence of the narrator, an acquaintance from the past. His narrative starts as a kind of confession, but as he tells it, he bends the story more and more to his advantage. Whether he does so out of self-deception or outright deception is a matter of interpretation.

So Jeff’s not a sociopath?

It really depends on how you read him. I don’t think he is, but you shouldn’t listen to me. There’s plenty of evidence that he might be. That said, if you want to indict him for the story he tells about his past, consider how we all make stories of our pasts, and how we might highlight some parts and elide others. He’s a salesman of the self. But he kind of has to be, to say to his interlocutor, this may seem strange, but I assure you, it’s not like it sounds. Sociopaths engage in this kind of charm offensive, but so do the rest of us. If anything, I think Jeff blurs the line between sociopathic behavior and so-called normal behavior. We do what’s in our best interest all the time, whether we want to admit it or not.

Why did you want to set MOUTH TO MOUTH in the art world? Not to be cynical, but the way everything plays out in the novel “art dealer” seems like the perfect profession for people skilled at deception and exploitation.

The subjective nature of art, especially contemporary art, means that value is mostly dependent on a complex web of social agreement. A friend of mine regularly sells his paintings in the tens of thousands. He has a friend whose paintings sell in the hundreds of thousands. And, honestly, their markets could be swapped. The valuation seems arbitrary, but people create justifications to prop up the established values, and the more collectors buy in to those values, the more they become invested in maintaining those levels. This isn’t news to anyone, and while it may seem silly from the outside, it does support the making of interesting art, in my opinion. But it’s a market subject to gross manipulation by anyone wielding any real power, if they choose to be unscrupulous about it. In my novel, that person is Francis Arsenault, the dealer Jeff resuscitates on the beach.

To hear Jeff tell it, Francis Arsenault is not a good guy, and yet he wants to emulate him.

When Jeff saves Francis, he doesn’t yet know himself. He’s like a tuning fork that’s never been struck. Much of what he observes in Francis repels him, but it’s only a superficial reaction. On a deeper level, he encounters in Francis a kind of sympathetic resonance. They’re more alike than he would ever admit. As their fates converge, this becomes more evident. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling the reader’s fun.

Was Arsenault’s life worth saving?

In the novel, when Jeff deliberates over this question, he engages in a belief that the decision was his. (It was never his.) In my opinion, the answer is yes, but only because in my mind the alternative doesn’t exist. Again, this is something I’d rather hear about from readers.

An early reader said Mouth to Mouth was The Talented Mister Ripley meets Don DeLillo meets Donna Tartt. Agree or Disagree?

I love to hear stuff like that, because it illuminates the reader’s experience in unexpected ways, and being the one person excluded from the experience of reading this novel, I welcome reports of all kinds. Specifically, the center of the Highsmith-DeLillo-Tartt Venn diagram is a place I’d be very happy to find Mouth to Mouth. DeLillo somewhere describes writing as “a concentrated form of thinking.” I definitely identify with that statement. I don’t know what I think about practically anything until I start writing about it.

Are there other novels you are aware of that take place in one location that inspired you or just that you like?

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is one of my favorite short novels of all time. The whole thing takes place during an escalator ride on a lunch break. With lots of flashbacks, of course. I love the implication that the present moment can contain multitudes.

This is your third novel, and your third book with an unreliable narrator. Why do you keep returning to this mode?

Hey, now. The narrator in this book is actually reliable. The guy Jeff’s talking to, I mean. That said, Jeff is center stage, and, yes, he qualifies. I keep coming back to unreliable narrators because I’m perpetually interested in investigating the interplay of our intentions, our behaviors, and our after-the-fact justifications. Not just why we do what we do, in other words, but how we talk about it. Allow me to share a favorite anecdote: In the 1970s the scientist Michael Gazzaniga did a series of experiments on people who had split brains—their corpus callosums had been severed to stop epileptic seizures. In one experiment he presented the word WALK to the right side of the patient’s brain, by only showing it to the left eye. The patient would get up and start walking. Then, when asked why he did this, the patient would say, from the left brain, where language is generated, “I wanted to go get a Coke.” Where’d that come from? That invented motivation? From something called the left-brain interpreter. It’s like a little program we have in our heads that comes up with justifications for everything we do. It doesn’t care about truth, only plausibility. It is our own built-in first person narrator, and it is unreliable.