Books

Antoine Wilson's novel Mouth to Mouth is a tale of morality, mortality and meaning

Mouth to Mouth is a novel that explores themes of money, fate and morality through the eyes of an art dealer named Jeff who confesses the real story behind his success.
Mouth to Mouth is a book by Antoine Wilson. (Avid Reader Press)

Antoine Wilson is a Canadian American novelist, editor and short story writer born in Montreal and based in California. Wilson's work has appeared in The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, Best New American Voices and the Los Angeles Times. His novels include Panorama City and The Interloper.

Mouth to Mouth, his third novel, was on the former U.S. president Barack Obama's summer reading list of his favourite books of 2022.

Mouth to Mouth is a novel that explores themes of money, fate and morality through the eyes of an art dealer named Jeff who confesses the real story behind his success. In a first-class lounge at JFK airport, the book's narrator listens as a former classmate he vaguely remembers shares the story of his adult life — a life that forever changed course when he saved a man from drowning.

"Being both on the Giller longlist and on Obama's list came as a total surprise. I feel deeply moved about the Giller nomination — I am being recognized by my homeland," said Wilson to CBC Books.

Below, Wilson explains about how he wrote Mouth to Mouth.

Origin story

"It was 1997, and I was visiting Seattle with a couple of friends. We were down by the waterfront and there are freight train tracks that run right through it.

"I saw a guy who was walking — he was air-drumming and paying no attention to anything with his headphones on. And I realized he was about to step in front of the train that was coming. And so I got his attention and stopped him from doing it.

How do you repay someone for saving your life? And what can someone extract from you, once they have saved your life?

"And then he looked at me and said, 'Oh my God, you saved my life.' Then he said, 'I'm gonna buy you a big steak dinner.' The train finished going by and he commenced air-drumming and walked away. My friends made fun of me for a long time for never getting my steak dinner.

"Years later, I was interested in doing a story around a rescue and I switched it to drowning in a pool.

"How do you repay someone for saving your life? And what can someone extract from you, once they have saved your life? That initial story I was creating didn't work at all but consistently from that point forward, I was working on a story about somebody saving someone from drowning."

Morality & manipulation

"Something that interests me and continues to interest me is our inability to accurately narrate our own lives — or accurately reckon with our own actions.

"Starting in the 1970s, there were some split brain experiments done by Michael Gazzaniga and some other neuroscientists. They were looking at epileptic individuals who had their corpus callosum surgically severed to prevent seizures from happening. They discovered that these people who had a split brain had some interesting effects. And one classic experiment was someone had their visual field split: on the right brain side. They showed the word 'walk' and the person got up to walk.

Our brain generates language and it doesn't care about truth; it only cares about plausibility

"And then they asked the person, 'Why did you get up to go walk?' And they said, I just wanted to go grab a Coke. And that comes from the left brain side. So they posited the existence of this thing called 'the left brain interpreter,' which is a part of our functioning, but essentially comes up with reasons for everything. 

"Our brain generates language and it doesn't care about truth; it only cares about plausibility. And you can see this: you talk to a six-year-old about something they've done that they don't want to cop to, you can see the wheels turning. I'm just fascinated by how deception exists alongside sincerity.

"That's interesting because I believe in sincerity —  but I also believe that we're limited in our ability to obtain any kind of truth."

The nature of fate

"There is a line in the novel where the narrator points out that intervening is as much a part of fate as letting nature take its course. That's because we can't separate ourselves from nature; we are a part of it. I think of fate as a retrospective construct, a repackaged serendipity.

"You look back at your life — and this book does have almost a high school or college reunion aspect to it — where the characters, mainly Jeff, are looking back. You look back at your life, you look at the things that got you to where you are, and it's about the story you create about your own life. 

I think of fate as a retrospective construct, a repackaged serendipity.

"There are all these forks —  and you took one direction or another. Some events are very significant and some are not, but they only seem like fate in retrospect."

Antoine Wilson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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