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Guilt Stalker

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 for your computer.”

A proud and intelligent woman, Billie Raitcliffe feels “the relentless predictability of disabling traumas… stretched out around her, hemm[ing] her in.” Finding her voice with great effort, she speaks defiantly: “I will not,” she said, “I will not use it. I will not.”

The scene, like much of the balance of the book, is both contemporary in circumstance and in touch with the past of the form that shapes it—the literary form, that is. With clarity and without harshness, the novelist evokes place, person, feeling, and distance between intimates, placing his reader for a minute inside the gaps of understanding that separate people bound to each other—gaps not famous for narrowing as lives wind down, and not expressible in conventional moral vocabularies.

The author of three novels and two collections of stories, Rick Moody is notable among American fiction writers forty and under for an unusual ability to enter imaginatively into fears and frustrations relatively remote from those of his own generation, and for an equally unusual preoccupation with issues of conscience and guilt. Purple America focuses on longings for escape from the responsibility for care of the incapacitated. Earlier and later books are much concerned with adultery (The Ice Storm), breaches of druggie ethics (Garden State), inhuman detachment (key stories in The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven and Demonology). Moralizing is rare. In an essay on “the contemporary hegemony of the religious right,” Moody once described himself and some fellow writers as representing “pockets of culture baldly ‘sinful’ according to our orthodox [fundamentalist] brethren,” and he spelled out his enthusiasm for a joyous religion that offered “grace in spite of the way you lived your life, grace in spite of your crimes or peccadilloes….” Distaste for moralizing conjoined with a nondismissive attitude toward right and wrong, quickness of sympathy together with impressive powers of evocation, the absence of droning self-promotion and frat-house irony—all these sharpened the sense of his promise.

The Black Veil, the autobiographical memoir at hand, is informative about the origins of the author’s sympathies and his preoccupation with issues of conscience, and it has other strengths as well. There are chapters that imagine—successfully—the insides of lives lived two centuries ago by Puritan clergy who were thought to be among Moody’s ancestors. An account of a period Moody himself spent as a patient in a Queens psychiatric hospital includes memorably observed scenes—a card game, for example, “between” an acid head and a Haitian catatonic. Cecilie, the Haitian, sits at a table completely motionless and silent, as usual,

while Stan [the acid head] tried to play both sides of a hand of gin rummy. He was riffing, with nearly perfect alliteration and rhyme and prosody, about the way the game worked: This is a face card, but it’s not an actual face, it’s a two-dimensional representation of a face, and ace isn’t a face, and a face isn’t from space, and the game isn’t a race, and I’m going to be the one to deal, because I got a feel for the deal….

Social detail elsewhere comes in for precise notation—as in a list of a father and son’s subjects of conversation during a five-day motor trip:

how seniors in the old days were the only boarding-school students allowed to walk across the lawns; Latin as a required course of study; strip development, lamentations upon; the proper way to eliminate starlings from an attic; the yen versus the dollar; the collapse of the gold standard; characters of various presidents with particular attention to the fortieth and forty-second presidents; bonds versus securities and real estate in a balanced portfolio; particular lawyers and the undependability of lawyers in gen-eral; literature, including especially women writers; blood pressure; mitral valve prolapse; cinema; neighbors, their inevitable tendency to disappoint; contractors, difficulties controlling; routes,…including routes to and in the state of Maine; the American justice system, just can’t trust it; Tchaikovsky as minor composer; why Brahms would bother to write variations on a theme by Handel; multiculturalism, pro and con: family trips past; family calamities past; family addresses past; the past; the inevitability of rain; and so on.

Moody’s wit and range of observation are, in short, in frequent evidence in The Black Veil, and the book as a whole is much richer in its discourse than most recent work in the confessional genre. The distance between the writer and his subjects is, however, rather wider—chillier, too—than in the works of fiction that preceded it, and the book is marked throughout by abrupt cutoffs of sympathy. Well before the end, moreover, following an experience presented as a turning point—a liberation from torments of conscience—Moody falls into arrogant mockery of his fellows, and, at length, into a denunciation of all Americans as murderers. (Much abuse heaped on his work by reviewers was aimed at this badly judged outburst.)

The Black Veil stirs reflection on a complex literary subject—the novel as a moral discipline demanding engaged responsiveness to other minds, and the emergence over the past quarter-century of memoir as an escape from the pressure of that discipline. It also stands as an oblique, inadvertent comment on this country’s culture of guiltlessness—a culture that functions, arguably, as a barrier to sanely proportioned dealings with personal shame. But the chief problem the book presents is that of a significant talent at odds with itself.

The Black Veil has two major narrative strands. The first traces the development in the author of recurrent panic attacks and extremes of shame; the second traces his search into family history for biogenetic causes of this condition. The story of shame begins with memories of saddening but banal deprivations following a parental divorce:

We had five different addresses in five years. With my mom. I was shy to begin with, wary, disappointed by human interaction. I took months to get up the pluck to start a conversation. I refused to be photographed. I was sick a lot. After a couple of relocations, I gave up worrying about it all. I crossed off the days on a calendar, waiting to move again. My brother and sister were untroubled by this, or so they have said, but for me what was broken was irreparable. I hungered for company and this famishment was my first perception in the morning and my last before bed, and I couldn’t remember feeling any other way, although there were people who loved me all around and there had always been.

Hunger to be “good at something,” worthy of “the bright light of parental affection,” sets in early and literary aspiration comes in its wake. (“Where I found that one reliable thing, that other thing, that elsewhere, that space unavailable to me in contests for masculinity and prestige and social standing, was in books.”) Moody is sent off to St. Paul’s for five years and graduates from Brown, but the pages in this book about formal schooling—few in number—nowhere speak of praise, prizes, teacherly approbation. Driven seemingly both by rebelliousness and by self-contempt, he begins drinking heavily and experimenting with drugs while still a schoolboy, and the habits quickly worsen in college. Afterward there’s a succession of go-nowhere jobs—selling instructional tapes in a California art museum, bottom-tier editorial work in a New York publishing house (too many “brilliant”s in his jacket copy). Car accidents and failed relationships with women become a norm, and the conviction of worthlessness deepens.

At age twenty-five Moody wakes up one morning certain “not only that I was going to be raped, which could have engendered only panic, but that I deserved to be raped.” He seeks help from friends (“Do you ever get the feeling,” he asks one of them, “that the history of your family is somehow written on your body?“), and from a mental health professional who prescribes a mild antidepressant and assures him that “all of my patients have suicidal ideation.” Moody weeps in the men’s room at work, sits in the bathtub at home debating whether today or tomorrow is the right day to open his wrists, lies on the floor of his bedroom face down mumbling “Can’t live this way” and tells himself that “I was shameful, my past was shameful, my future was shameful, any bad end that I might come to was an appropriate bad end, and this was best suffered in silence.” Hallucinations arrive:

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