The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions
by Rick Moody
Little, Brown, 323 pp., $24.95
“Literature is on a dialectic that has fiction and nonfiction on either end. Together, they form one narrative…. The Black Veil will not be shelved with my [fiction], which is incredibly irritating to me. I want people to read it in the context of everything else I’ve done.”
—Rick Moody to an interviewer
Purple America (1997), Rick Moody’s most recent novel, begins with a remembered family Christmas gift-giving scene. Receiving the gift is Billie Raitcliff, a Connecticut matron afflicted with an incapacitating neuromuscular disease. The excited gift-givers are Billie’s son and husband. The present is a Dell “notebook-style computer” with a voice synthesizer that will enable Billie to “talk” as long as she can click a mouse. As the already pitiably disabled woman watches, her son scrolls A-words, intent on a choice—the “perfect arrangement of euphony and content”—that will do justice to the gift. He chooses adore and hits Go:
Adore, the Yamaha YM262 twenty-voice synthesizer’s disembodied woman’s voice called out from the pile of space junk and wrapping paper on the Oriental carpet in the living room, the disembodied woman’s self-assured and yet clinical voice sang out, as though there were a fourth person in the room, an unexpected overstaying holiday guest. The voice, as Billie recollected it, was like nothing so much as the voice of science, the voice of technological advancement, the voice of lasers and digits and particle colliders, of ultra-frequency transmissions. A woman’s voice as men would design it. There was perfume in the room of dying pine. A rich smell. And there was candlelight. An intimate little fire in the fireplace. And then there was this voice. Louis [her husband] and Hex [her son] circled around her trying to gauge her response. They were expectant. Hex knelt by the computer and clicked on return twice more: adore, adore. The enormity of the machinery was apparent to Billie at last, what science could manage, which, in her case, amounted to using fifty pounds of microchips and motherboards and plastic chassis to enable her to croak out a few mea-ger remarks in a prefabricated woman’s voice, not her own voice at all, which had been rich and full, with vigorous laughter, ample melody—her voice was gone.
As she commences to weep (her tears “simply fell, no sound accompanying them”), her son and husband helplessly continue selling her the gift. Sensing her negative response and willing it away, the son, a mid-thirtyish sensitive stutterer, vows that they “tried to make sure it was a w-woman’s voice.” Gently but sternly, the husband dwells on therapeutic uses. “Billie, honey,” he insists, “you have to make an effort, you can’t just let this [paralysis] happen; we love you, but you have to make an effort.” The son tries to interest his mother in the “upgrade kit” they bought—pleading with her to understand that she can add extra voices, “just the way you can add extra t-typefaces …