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In the Desert, Prime Time

In this imaginary Connecticut, the stronger take care of the weaker, the older and richer look after the younger and poorer, and the “provisional family” of the pack becomes particularly important when odd hairy things start to happen to the confused bodies of the truculent young. Note, too, that the metamorphosis of a Homo sappy into something lycanthropish not only sounds and feels like, but is sometimes even caused by, sexual orgasm.

As if consciousness moved from character to character like a virus or a curse, and from east to west like light and Attila, we follow both the dowsing and the werewolf scripts from many different points of view besides Vanessa’s—Tyrone’s, for instance, Annabel’s adopted brother, who by day is a bike messenger with butterflies in his dreadlocks and by night an outsider artist torturing books and painting pictures of thirst; he is unjustly accused of throwing a brick at Samantha Lee, the Chinese-American art historian who will wake up from her coma, as if from Moody’s novel, to ask for a symbolic glass of water. Or Thaddeus, with his short fuse and False Guru. Or Maiser, the network veep who fetishizes crippled teenage girls. Or Vic, the agent who believes that “the introduction of Regis Philbin and his hair into the larger gene pool will result in global calamity.” Plus Eduardo, the home-schooled terrorist who walks his own Shining Path to Walden Pond. And Ranjeet, the Sikh limo driver Vanessa hires to lecture her staff on the evolution of narrative from petroglyphs to pixels. And Ranjeet’s autistic son Jaspreet, Maiser’s obnoxious daughter Allison, the faithless Rev. Duffy, and a three-named lady novelist who throws Botox parties for a fee.

Perhaps we read all these minds at once, as Vanessa’s dipso mother Rosa hears all the world’s cell phone conversations simultaneously in her head, at the Brooklyn hospital where she’s drying out. In fact, Vanessa’s mother is listening in on the feverish chitchat of Young Republicans, those Templar Knights and Hardy Boys who invade Florida to rescue Bush from African-American voters and retired New York Jews. I suppose this fraudulent election is the third narrative in The Diviners, a contra-dowsing. Rosa leaves detox for Florida too late to save the Republic from the born-agains who have ever since held our heads under water.

Maybe Moody means to suggest that free elections are as much a shuck as, say, network television, media hype, radical politics, religious faith, or—another favorite target—the self-help alternative universe of vegan dietetics, clutter clearing, mood stabilizers, antidepressants, rebirth, lucid dreaming, and Alcoholics, Overeaters, Self-Mutilators, Shoplifters, and Pedophiles Anonymous. (“These,” Vanessa tells us, “are the dullest storytellers on earth. They would bore rock formations.”)

This would be quite a lot to contemplate, had Moody done so. But he seems to have used up so much energy writing about bowling, horror movies, trepanation, and tattoos, about Umberto Eco and Edward Said, that he ran out of gas in the southwest desert where The Diviners decides that, instead of tying up its many loose ends, it will strangle the whole idea of narrative. Having whetted our appetite, Rick Moody quits his own kitchen. Rather than tell us what happens to any of the people he has encouraged us to care about, including Annabel’s surprise baby, he drops, kicks, and snuffs them all, moving on with brutal haste to a lazy “Epilogue” where he dumps us into the dreadful mind of a Supreme Court associate justice every bit as theocon-reptilian as Antonin Scalia—a jurist determined, moreover, to stamp out any vestige of magical thinking remotely resembling dowsers and werewolves.

It’s as if Tyrone the crazy artist biker messenger is describing Moody instead of himself, and Moody, the reluctant postmodernist educated at Brown by Robert Coover and John Hawkes, actually believes it:

I was the person who made it possible for meaning to happen. A word, or a tape recording, or a compact disc with some information on it, these were never meaningful on their own because they didn’t go from one person to another. They were never complete until they were transmitted by me, so I was a thing that was always missing. I was the completion of the circuit, a device for meanings to get made, but in this way I’d stopped meaning anything at all, myself.

If this is PoMo, some of us would rather sing the blues.


I should let artifice create an elegant surface, I should make the events orderly, I should wait and write about it later, I should wait until I’m not angry….


Once I knew this novel was going to have a lot to do with TV, I thought the book itself could be structured that way: episodic…. I really believe an uninterrupted non-continuous narrative is more realistic than American realistic fiction writing.

(Rick Moody about The Diviners, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

All good stories end with a fireball in the sky.

(The Diviners)

They accused him of crimes like musk and leopard-spotted briefs.

(Garden State)

We bargain in good faith, those of us who will read anything, hoping at least to complicate ourselves, at most to save our souls. Because Rick Moody from the beginning has been so playful, prodigal, spendthrift, heedless, and frisky, because he trampolines and pogosticks all over the map in our heads, because he throws such an excess of colors, textures, ideas, smells, and smarts at us, whether we’re ready or not, because he’s a deep reader with a second-story touch, a bookworm on a skateboard, we put up with a lot and forgive even more. This doesn’t seem to me to be such a big deal—and at any rate, it’s the same one we’ve made with pop culture. In return for vitality, spontaneity, and the occasional hot flash, we pretend not to notice what’s skin-deep, addlepated, nasty, brutish, and short.

Take Garden State (1992), Moody’s Bruce Springsteen/William Carlos Williams novel, in which New Jersey stinks and life sucks, especially if you’re young. There is a nice rhetorical balance between the poisoned bodies of some of the characters and the poisoned environment. On the one hand we hear a lot about hashish, angel dust, acid, cocaine, Quaaludes, speed, heroin, vanilla extract, and morning glory seeds. On the other, we are stuck in black soup, fecal muck, chemical contaminants, and burial mounds of shattered glass, with dirigibles overhead semaphoring trade messages and steam pouring from reactors and our ears. The barter here is that if we sit still for these stoned, insolent slackers and their patronizing sneers, for a head blown off when a beer keg’s tapped and the first of a long line of psychiatric hospitals in Moody novels yet to come, we will be rewarded with lovely prose when we least expect it. And we are, as in his riff on “why the rhythm of drill sergeants is like hip-hop and why rock and roll sounds medieval sometimes and why all the great plots are used up and why everyone at the parade feels they have lost something.”

Take The Ice Storm (1994), his John Updike/Franny and Zooey novel with a Joseph Heller/Something Happened hangman’s twist. If we go on reading about the puerile wife-swapping, the pubescent sex games, the Marvel Comics Fantastic Four superheroes, and the gratuitous martyrdom, we will gradually come to see our own suburbia as a desert vastation and our own children as Bedouins subsisting on the shifting sand, as refugees from civil war and famine. We stand there while Moody parades everything he’s worked up about Masters and Johnson, Erich Fromm, Milton Friedman, Eldridge Cleaver, I’m Okay, You’re Okay, and A Yaqui Way of Knowledge to prove he knows enough about the Seventies to appropriate Watergate as a metaphor. It doesn’t occur to some to wonder if there’s really any connection, except in Moody’s mind, between Wendy Hood, his teenager who plays sex games in Peter Panpipe Connecticut, and G. Gordon Liddy, the Plumber in our nation’s toilet.

Purple America (1997), his John Cheever meets The China Syndrome nuclear family fission novel, mixes and matches from Garden State and The Ice Storm. Thirtysomething publicist Dexter Raitliffe, an abject failure and a Young Republican, is summoned home to care for his invalid mother because his stepfather, Lou, will no longer do so. And if Billie Raitliffe’s body is falling apart—“I would like to garden again. I would like to clap erasers together. I would like to play the harp”—so is the nuclear power plant where her second husband works. Since her first husband died of radioactive poisoning at Los Alamos, there may be a curse on men who marry Billie. Or men who sleep with cyclotrons. Anyway, her multiple sclerosis somehow corresponds to the coolant loss, the core damage, the eroded copper, and the Day-Glo red tide dumped by accident into Long Island Sound. While Dex worries that his disabled mother will die when he’s not looking, his stepfather worries that we’ll all die because of the dilapidated power plant. For once, the metaphors seem to hang together. A dark meditation on seduction and euthanasia plays out under a sky that’s purple, not from sunsets but from underwater atom-bomb testing.

For all the excess baggage in these books of music groups like Moby Grape and Vanilla Fudge, of Warhol Factory workers and gay dance clubs, of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, there is in Moody’s work almost always a grace note, a keepsake, and something indelible. In the stories collected in The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven (1995) and Demonology (2001), we put up with nose studs, ostrich farms, prep schools, liner notes, and palindromes, even a list of “surplus-value” books that includes his own Garden State, in order to get to two rending accounts of the dead sister we will meet so sadly and briefly later on in The Black Veil. In such tales, for a moment, another Moody seems to displace the smart-aleck, ad-libbing satirist—a loser at love, an intimate of death, as if, inside his Marvel Comics costume (Don DeLilloMan!) Charlotte Brontë was trying to get out. So he isn’t yet up there with Richard Powers, Mary Gordon, or Kathryn Davis. Neither am I. Neither are you. Why is everybody saying all these terrible things about him?


It should have been possible to find The Black Veil (2002) merely disappointing instead of personally offensive or morally outrageous. A gifted writer, with five books already achieved, looks back at age forty to wonder how come, at age twenty-five, he had done time in a psychiatric hospital. Yes, there had been heavy drinking (mostly bourbon), heavy drugging (including cocaine), heavy reading (Michel Foucault), and apprehensions of a shadowless transparency (“I no longer possessed mass and volume”). But if Rick blames himself, in flagellations rather too ecstatic, he also blames the white race in general and American history in particular, from the slaughter of the indigenous peoples to the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb, plus his Puritan New England ancestors and his own Connecticut father, who insisted on quoting Moby-Dick every Thanksgiving before he carved the turkey: “better is it to perish in the howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!”

The Black Veil warns us in its preface that it was written in fits, “more like epilepsy than like a narrative.” Yet there is an artfulness as it circles around Rick’s patrimonies to describe a cul-de-sac. And skeleton keys to closets in the fiction. And edification, too: Who wouldn’t want to know how Ralph Waldo Emerson took his leave of a woman trying on a new shroud? (“I wish you joy of the worm!” he said.) Even its play with alternative meanings for “veil” is suggestive—mask, curtain, sail, cover, and screen, like “superstructure” in Marx or “manifest content” in Freud.

Nevertheless, the black veil is a red herring. We are led to believe throughout that Rick himself is a descendant of Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody, an eighteenth-century clergyman who did something so shameful he chose thereafter to hide his face from his parishioners—and so inspired an odd Nathaniel Hawthorne story, “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Rick even uses this relationship to justify devoting so many pages to a deconstructive bone-scan of Hawthorne’s story. And, true enough, there really was a “Handkerchief” Moody. What we are not told, however, until page 284 when the story must at last be spoiled, is that… Joseph was not a Moody related in any way to Rick.

Aesthetically and symbolically speaking, this is a big hole in any veil. But not an insult to decency or God. Even for a culture that gets its jollies from anathema—a bloody-minded Gong Show with bullies, border guards, and bounty hunters deployed to dictate orthodoxies of style, enforce parochialisms of genre, stomp on insouciant behavior, and pull down uppityness—the overkill on The Black Veil was crapulous. Famously in The New Republic Dale Peck lifted a leg to leak on “the worst writer of his generation,” while James Wolcott in the London Review of Books called him “a cheeseball” whose “bat-winged frenzy” and “hoogah-boogah” added up to a “voyage to the bottom of the sink.” A sodality of soreheads under the black flag of the Underground Literary Alliance had no other apparent purpose than to complain at tentshows that Moody and his whitebread buddies, a circle-jerk of class entitlements with names like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem, and David Foster Wallace, had gobbled up all the royalties and review space, all the MacArthur baubles and Guggenheim buzz in Bookie World.

Some of this doubtless reflected a genuine dismay with Moody’s rococo style and his memoir’s disorderly pretensions. (How dare he indict himself for the black crimes of white privilege, then botch the prosecution?) And some of it had to have been personal: golden boys should suffer for their pedigreed privilege, lazy luck, and unconscionable ubiquity. Moody, we always have with us, like a streaming video or a viral link in the indiscriminate archives of the World Wide Web—a signifier, a chatterbox, and a pipsqueak. Bad enough that in his prefaces, afterwords, book reviews, and interviews, in his position papers about prize-giving, valedictories to critical theory, and notorious PoMo lists, he has recorded at least one opinion and often several on practically everything from violence in Flannery O’Connor to the secret meaning of The Feelies. Even worse, everything he does or says shows up everywhere in the blogosphere, as if he were a one-man Open Source. He also plays in his own rock band. And there he is telling The Huffington Post umbrella blog that “no one…has done anything interesting with the electric guitar since Sonic Youth recorded Daydream Nation,” advising readers of The Guardian that the new movie Brokeback Mountain is “almost as affecting and classically sound as Romeo and Juliet,” and telling the Times Book Review that he wants stories “to save lives.”

This is a lot to mulch. But some of the resentment was obviously social and provincial—a clenching of fists and a stamping of feet at the very idea of Rick Moody and his cool-dude buddies, young white male writers from whom books seem to fall like peaches from a tree. (“I am Envy. I cannot reade, and therefore wish all bookes were burnt. I am leane with seeing others eate,” Marlowe explained in Dr. Faustus.) Never mind that cohorts of scribblers have always herded together like zebras on the African veldt, the better to dodge the great white hunters and hyenas; that, for mating purposes, protective cover, style tips, and stuff to write about, Lost Generations, Partisan Reviewers, angel-headed hipsters, and ninja hacker cyberpunks have bundled with and blurbed one another. Surely it’s better that these cohorts should gather, like Rick and the Jonathans, in arboretums like McSweeney’s, than fester in Brat Pack Manhattan nests like Nell’s.

Yet McSweeney’s, as a clubby concept and a category of cool, riles people most, as if this loose-limbed collective were some kind of giant squid. So they publish their own literary quarterly, McSweeney’s, their own monthly magazine, The Believer, and their own books, including titles by William Vollmann and Michael Chabon, besides maintaining a droll Web site with daily updates. Not to mention sponsoring fund-raisers where, just the other evening, Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace interviewed each other in San Francisco in order to benefit a nonprofit workshop and drop-in center, 826 Valencia, for grade-school children and teens. It is true that the McSweeneys laugh too much at their own jokes. They seem to be having much more fun than the rest of us. This must be against some law. Inform your local faith-based nutbag. But it has nothing to do with whether what a writer’s written is worth a reader’s time.

Then Rick Moody decides not to tell us what becomes of Vanessa, Annabel, Rosa, Madison, Ranjeet, Thaddeus, Zoltan, Andros, Nurit, and the werewolves. Nor does Moody bother to justify this dereliction with the usual scrimshaw about Heisenberg and indeterminacy. It’s as if, like the Ancient Basketmaker People of the Arizona West, he just up one day and vanished. Not that he hasn’t vamoosed before, in previous novels, fleeing from a final reckoning into bad sex, suicidal ideation, hysterical aphasia, transactional analysis, bourbon and mushrooms, the Fantastic Four and Original Sin, “history and remorse and loneliness and madness.” But he seemed to enjoy the characters he created in The Diviners, and to have been absorbed in their locomotions toward a meaning they might articulate, but don’t. And then he rode away like Shane. So I find myself slipping by night across the lines to the other, resentful side. Were we mugs to care in the first place? Isn’t all play and no payoff verging on the glib? When, from 826 Valencia, are we going to get a novel of adult love or a story that saves lives? Maybe the cool dudes smirk too much.


Joy of the Worm March 9, 2006

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