For better or worse, Ted Mooney's first novel -- "Easy Travel to Other Planets" (1981) -- will be remembered for scenes in which a marine biologist named Melissa makes love to a dolphin named Peter. Never has bestiality been so erotic.

But nothing is as it seems. "Some people are under the illusion that it's about a dolphin. It's not, of course," says Mooney, his voice teetering on impatience. Then his voice shrugs it off. "But there are a lot of people who like dolphins. So that was helpful, just by chance." Helpful, that is, to the small success of the book, an American Book Award nominee nine years ago and winner of the classy Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction.

In bringing up the matter of the possibly metaphorical dolphin, Mooney interrupts his own explanation of how close "Easy Travel" has come to being turned into a movie, of the interest shown by Diane Keaton and then Warren Beatty, and of the number of prominent actresses, he says, who have wanted to play the role of Melissa. As who would not.

But "Easy Travel," says its 39-year-old author, "is really about a young woman coming to terms with her mother. Clearing her life so it can be her own." As for Peter the dolphin, "I'm always interested in finding ways of representing other states of consciousness, so that consciousness, as it were, can peer back at itself -- whether it's cultural, as in 'Traffic and Laughter' {Mooney's new, second novel} or quasi-scientific, as in 'Easy Travel.' "

Those alternate states of consciousness are responsible for the distinctive, almost peculiar realities Mooney creates, for the sci-fi quality of his books. "Many people thought it took place in the future, which is not true," Mooney says of "Easy Travel," which is now in its second Ballantine softcover edition. "In my mind it took place simply in an alternative to the present. Which may be why I thought of introducing a reason for an alternative present in the second book."

That is: "The premise of 'Traffic and Laughter' basically is that the atom bomb was not invented during World War II. It was invented after the war was over in a world that was largely at peace."

In this reconstituted present, two young women, a Los Angeles disc jockey and a visiting South African television star, are spun into a possibly sinister international web at whose vortex are secret negotiations among great powers, circa now, to ban the first test of a fission bomb. As it happens -- cosmic coincidence abounds here -- among the negotiators are two statesmen-diplomats, an American and a South African, who are the women's fathers.

So, a bit of Robert Ludlum, a bit of Ursula K. LeGuin, and a bit of -- well, Donald Barthelme? "I'm struck," Mooney says (saying "struck" instead of "faintly offended," which is closer to his tone) "by the number of people who want to know, even after they've read it, what kind of book 'Traffic and Laughter' is. It isn't a kind of book. Is it a thriller? Is it a romance? Is it a serious book? -- which seems to be a category, 'serious book.'

"It's not ... " Mooney begins, in a small welter of frustration. "It's ... just ... that ... book."

What makes it an original piece of work is Mooney's kinetic art, his skips of consciousness, his juxtapositions of surface and purport -- from the first words of the new novel: "On a certain day in Southern California, beneath a sky that held nothing of emergency or love, a lilac-eyed woman in the middle of life's youth dragged a garden hose across the lawn by its sprinkler ... "

A mighty California fire is burning its way across the hills where the woman lives. Mooney, characteristically, sees the conflagration from unusual angles: "The water evaporating from Sylvia's dress surveyed the scene with the elemental indifference of its vaporous state, while a mile and a half to the north, bits of burning debris blew across the ridgetop road and, landing in a stand of manzanita, set it instantly ablaze with flames as high and fast as a running man."

Love, however, comes before emergency. "Traffic and Laughter's" first scene of intercourse (Mooney is a connoisseur of coupling) isn't quite sex with a dolphin, but it's still pretty exciting: It's human-to-human sex on the living room floor while the fire storms its way to Sylvia's very portals. Talk about hot.

"The world as I view it," Mooney says, "is full of moments that resonate against each other, and are more eloquent than an interpretation of them, discursively presented, might be."

So he perpetrates all kinds of moments, keeping his interpretations oblique. And he plays with shifting scenes, shifting points of view, even shifting formats -- occasionally departing from a prose narrative that's already quite cinematic to insert short segments of cinematography itself. Like this:

"It is a hard thing to lose a home," Nomanzi said.

SYLVIA {reaching across Nomanzi to open the glove compartment}: I needed a witness.


"I said I needed to quit this."

Fun with consciousness. "I like to have available to me a default voice, to fall into computerese, another way of discussing things," Mooney explains, comparing the snippets of screenplay in "Traffic and Laughter" to his intermittent use of little "headlines" in "Easy Travel." And also, he says, "I like to get things going to the point where the reader is reading it transparently as if simply being told a tale, and then break it, break that illusion... . And then seduce again."

His chin rises a little as he grins at that last remark, which he reiterates. "You want to seduce the reader, but you also can gain a further dimension by making the reader stand outside for a moment and see the artifice of it."

"Traffic and Laughter" is set principally in Los Angeles, where Mooney has been a frequent visitor, not least during a stint writing a screen treatment. It is set also in South Africa, where he has never been, and in the world of international diplomacy, where he has also never been -- unless the ambiance of Washington counts.

Mooney was born in Dallas and grew up here, near Glen Echo, in a writing household. His father, Booth Mooney, was an aide to and later a biographer of Lyndon Johnson; his mother, Elizabeth Comstock Mooney, wrote books and for a time was The Washington Post's "Weekend Traveller" columnist.

Ted Mooney left Washington at 15 to go to Exeter. It was there, he says, that he learned that he could write; the record should show that he and his interviewer were in the same English class in 1966-67, where Mooney's writing aspirations and abilities were conspicuous. Mooney went on to Bennington College, then moved to New York to become a writer. "I've never left ... just gradually drifted downtown" from West 110th Street to West 96th Street.

To earn his keep, he works afternoons as a senior editor at Art in America magazine. He's been there 13 years, in fact, not counting a disastrous few days when he was lured away by Conde Nast's reinvented HG, and fled immediately back to his still-warm chair at Art in America. Writing "Traffic and Laughter" was prolonged by his attendance to the long convalescence of his mother, who died in 1986 (his father died in 1977). Mooney was married, fleetingly, and is now happily attached. But he'd rather not get into this stuff on the record.

What he will say is that his life, and the lives of his kind in Manhattan, are not fit subjects for novels.

"There's this erroneous notion that fiction should be about self-expression. That is the last thing on Earth it should be about," he says with a gust of incredulity. Mooney speaks always with emphasis. "There are already plenty of selves around. It's perfectly okay for there to be therapy groups around writing and so on, but this does not produce enduring literature."

He goes on. "A writer has an obligation to know about things that are initially alien to him or her. It is not enough to live in America and go to a shopping mall, get married, get divorced, have problems with the kids, then have them turn out okay -- and then write a novel about it. That is not interesting. That's just a given. That's the background. ... I would be bored out of my mind if I wrote about living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I'm already familiar with my life."

Thus the unfamiliar intimacy of dolphins, and a world without atom bombs.