by Rick Moody
Little, Brown, 567 pp., $25.95
Before it raptures up and wimps out, Moody’s most recent novel, The Diviners, is not only longer and funnier than his previous three but also more accommodating. While he may still rev his motor too much, he is thinking out loud about larger matters than the substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, and sudden death in the northeast suburbs that preoccupied Garden State, The Ice Storm, and Purple America. In developing a Marx Brothers meet Thomas Pynchon plot about a frantic search, in the weeks immediately following the dead-heat presidential election of November 2000, for a much-hyped but mysteriously missing television script on dowsing through the ages, he explores the American thirst for something, anything, to believe in, our national hunger for the latest trumped-up or knocked-off meanings.
Such an exploration, itself unscrolling like a screenplay from “Opening Credits and Theme Music” on page 3 to “Epilogue and Scenes from Upcoming Episodes” on page 549, lets Moody spend satiric time in dream factories that pander to such base faith needs both in “the conspiratorial enterprise of Manhattan” and on the left coast where pop culture’s psychic yardgoods are tie-dyed and haberdashed (“the light that illuminates the world begins in Los Angeles”). Besides elaborating an entirely imaginary history of water-seeking dowsers who make magic like a bunch of druids, and then, as if to trump himself, inventing yet another TV show—about werewolves in Fairfield County, Connecticut—that everybody in The Diviners is said to watch compulsively, he allows himself to care about, even as he ridicules, a half-dozen complicated female characters, a bipolar bicycle messenger, a priapic action-adventure movie star, a network vice-president with multimedia conglomerate problems, and a New England minister who has begun to have his doubts about God. And there is time left over to mourn the November 2000 abduction of the American presidency by bullyboys, dangling chads, and party-hack Supreme Court justices while simultaneously apostrophizing deep-fried sugar with a hole in it:
The great spiritual benefit of the Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut is the sensation of nothingness. The satori that is Krispy Kreme is the obliteration of self, the silencing of the voices that are attached to the oppressions of life.
Like a lot of The Diviners this is both funny and true, as anyone knows who’s ever stopped for a piping-fresh Krispy Kreme when the red light’s on outside the store, or who has zapped a cold one for eight seconds in the microwave. Later in the novel, when a lobotomized band of low-rent urban guerrillas firebombs a Krispy Kreme franchise to protest global capitalism, it’s almost as if Moody intended to do for doughnuts what John Irving did for apples in The Cider House Rules and Milan Kundera for bowler hats in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But somehow the symbolic holes in the doughnuts never connect with the symbolic sticks of the dowsers and the symbolic teeth of the werewolves. And although Moody has cut back on such Rick tics as the em dash, comma splice, and promiscuous italic, and people here talk to each other between quotation marks, and, once past the first breathless thirteen pages, periods show up more or less where they ought to, and the old rants about comic books and rock ‘n’ roll have been replaced by new rants about television (“the medium of shamelessness”), even so, he will abandon his conceits and his characters at the end of the book. Like everything else in the hypermediated culture, from cameras to razors to relationships, they are disposable.
For instance Vanessa Meandro: half Mother Goose, half Mother Jones, a specialist in glazed satori, and an embodiment, as in a television series, of the mystical passage from loneliness to obesity to healing to closure, Vanessa is over forty, overweight, overwrought, and the chief executive officer of Means of Production, an independent film-development company in New York. As befits an arty boutique named after a socialist trope, MOP is high-minded to the Miramax. It has packaged movies about the final remarks of Charles Manson prior to sentencing, the last days of Mark Rothko prior to croaking, Mary Kay Letourneau’s love life—”Lili Taylor’s finest moment”—and Andy Warhol’s Factory, with new music by Lou Reed. And this isn’t counting screenplays being written behind Vanessa’s back by Annabel Duffy, her ambitious African-American assistant, and Madison McDowell, her languid clotheshorse publicist. Annabel’s screenplay is about the abused wife of the Marquis de Sade, “called Fire Eater,” and Madison’s is about Stradivarius, both the lowlife human being and his glorious violin. But a low point in the life of the Republic—with the Oval Office on its way to Bush’s coup d’état—is almost as low in the business affairs of MOP. Even more than Vanessa needs to get her alcoholic mother into detox, or to chase down another Krispy Kreme with another licorice Twizzler, she is desperate for an attention-grabbing hit.
Hence the big idea of a thirteen-part, twenty-six-hour miniseries called The Diviners which she is trying to phone-sell to Jeff Maiser, the senior vice-president for programming at a fledgling West Coast television network. On and on Vanessa goes about the connection between dowsing, Abraham, Bob Dylan, deserts, and thirst. She throws in anything she can think of that might make water shortages seem epic, like Roots with a forked stick—eleventh-century clay pitchers from Marrakesh, the mystical texts of the Turkish conqueror of Byzantium, Alp Aslan, and the Kabalistic know-how of footloose Sephardim. She even resorts to merchandising tie-ins, soundtrack spinoffs, and metaphors of hydrophobia. There is, says Vanessa, a huge sapless aridity in the world out there that needs slaking:
I mean hundreds of millions [of people], I mean the kind of audience that doesn’t know how thirsty it is, until the pitcher full of meaning is presented to it. Just think how many kinds of thirst there are in America right now, Mr. Maiser. There is the thirst of the fundamentalists in the southern part of the nation. Tired of feeling like the government and the media elites of the Northeast and the West Coast are dictating to them the terms of their culture. …And the project I’m describing, Mr. Maiser, will not disappoint them because it deals with ancient times, and the possibility for apocalypse. What about Mormon viewers, adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? They are out there in the Great Salt Lake, on the salt flats, they have journeyed a thousand miles and created mythologies about the American Indians, the twelve tribes…and they are thirsty, regionally, topographically, and they desire a clearly prophetic voice…and this project that I’m proposing does this exactly, Mr. Maiser, when it depicts the Mormon exodus and, later, the founding of Las Vegas. The project delivers a story that the Southern Baptist Leadership Conference can get behind, since there are no homosexuals in it and no abortion providers, and it delivers a story that the Mormon elders can get behind, and the yogis and Buddhists of California; what could be more appropriate for their thirst, Mr. Maiser, than a story of diviners?
The trouble is there’s no such story, at least on paper. The Diviners began as a joke on the raffish part of Thaddeus Griffin, a dissolute B-movie star who signed on at MOP because he wants to emerge from the shallows of his own celebrity, and who’s been sleeping his serial way through all the women in the office until he gets to Annabel. Before long, the two adopt a code word for “all things romantic”: dowsing, borrowed from a barely coherent rant by Vanessa’s alcoholic mother about her family’s gift for finding water underground. When Vanessa demands a treatment for a TV show that Annabel has misplaced, unread, Thaddeus tries to cover for his lover with a lie: “Vanessa, give it a rest…. It’s on my desk. I read it. It’s hilarious. It’s the one about dowsing.” Thaddeus will then ad-lib an epic spiel, to which Annabel will add curlicues, until what we get is something roughly like this:
Just imagine, two thousand years ago, a great drought, with Asian tigers, starving yaks, and Mongol hordes, on a vast steppe of salt deposits. Enter not only Attila with much to be angry about, but his second cousin Zoltan, a peace-loving, rain-making shaman whose father had been killed by Attila. Even as Attila, on horseback, with a sword, spills blood, his cousin Zoltan, with a dowser, slakes thirst. So the stage is set for a westward movement of dichotomies, of fire and water and death and balm—a series of two-hour TV movies about the life-taking warrior versus the life-giving diviner—across the Gobi and Sahara deserts, unto Rome, Jerusalem, Budapest, and Fez.
When the heirs of Zoltan among the Magyars meet up with the equally nomadic Roma from India, “the great, unbroken string of Gypsy diviners” begins. Say hello to heartthrob Babu, the true-blue son of the Gypsy Andros. And to hardbody Nurit, the hottie daughter of a Sephardic jeweler. There will be missing fingers, howling wolves, a multiculti cast of thousands, and thrilling mythic passages from the Danube to West Africa for the slave trade, from West Africa to the American South for the Underground Railroad and the Civil War, and from the Civil War to the Irish famine, the Russian Revolution, the Armenian genocide, and the founding of Las Vegas. Always though, “the way of peace and magnanimity is the way of water” and diviners, like private eyes, “are on the side of the oppressed and the downtrodden.”
Whispers about The Diviners will turn into office scuttlebutt about a hush-hush project, which will then become an industry rumor about a “lost treatment,” a nonexistent script that excites agents, actors, producers, screenwriters, network executives, gossip columnists, PR agents, pop tarts, and hip-hop artists, all of whom lust for a piece of the chimerical action. And the more they think somebody else has an inside track on the mystery script, the greater their famished panic to acquire it.
Meanwhile, as distinct from the TV series that everybody in Moody’s novel wants to make, there is another series that everybody actually watches. In The Werewolves of Fairfield County, the unlikeliest of stockbrokers, tennis bums, soccer moms, English teachers, barmaids, internists, and interior decorators bay at the moon. This is not the result of an infectious bite. It is instead a spontaneous evolution, a genetic mutation for the new millennium, perhaps a way of seeing one’s own vulnerabilities in the eyes and aspect of the Other—and also, of course, a return to the terrain of Moody’s first three novels. “Naturally,” he tells us, “each episode has its narrative crisis that can only be faced by the pack as a whole.”
In Fairfield County, stronghold of the affluent and powerful here in the northeastern megalopolis, the human species has spontaneously come to express a genetic crisis. In Fairfield County, the human species has mutated, such that the tennis stars and swashbuckling fiscal experts of the county number among them those who grow hair on their knuckles and howl for blood at every full moon.
The werewolves have formed themselves into a pack. Season two, in particular, was organized around this principle. The pack protects the individuals from being pruned by the police or by the unscrupulous hunters of the area. The pack keeps its members from needlessly taking human life. And so, in season two, the werewolves began to exhibit a certain crude moral rectitude. For example, during the second episode, the werewolves happened upon the mayor of Waterbury, who had embezzled funds from his education budget, and they tore him limb from limb in a sequence that was considered too violent for the hour at which it was broadcast.