“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:
Out of the margins of peripheral vision, I began to see assaultive couplings, the most grotesque postures, everywhere around me, in midtown, in the park, in the ticket-holders line at the movie theater, and upon turning to verify the credibility of my glimpses, I would see a woman walking a dog,…I would continue on my way, while across the street or on the next corner more of the same. Rape. Prostitutes were everywhere,…rolls of corpulence overspilling waistbands, bruised faces, blackened eyes, even on the most populated corners,…and then when I looked carefully, it was a delivery guy with a hand truck…. The landscapes of the city that I seemed to inhabit were delirious with ungratified sexual want, with desire for the most desperate barbarous acts.
Desperate himself, Moody signs into an institution—a psychiatric hospital in Queens.
Threaded into the account of these events are chapters tracing the writer’s pursuit of possible biogenetic causes for his condition. At the center of the pursuit, and contributing significantly to the richness of the book’s discourse, is the author’s fascination with a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne—“The Minister’s Black Veil,” a piece about a clergyman who puts on a mask early in his preaching life and can’t be persuaded, even on his deathbed, to remove it. Hiram Frederick Moody III—a k a Rick—knows as a child in suburban Connecticut that he belongs to “an old family.” When he hears from his Dad about a forebear named Joseph Moody, an eighteenth-century clergyman who’s “in” a story by Hawthorne—in fact, a footnote to the tale observes that a possible original named Moody existed for Hawthorne’s Reverend Hooper—the news becomes matter for a playground boast, period. (“My father fired off a Howitzer! Some guy called Hawthorne wrote a story about our family!“) Soon enough, though, life-incitements cause Rick Moody to think harder about the reasons for his presumed forebear’s face-masking behavior, and for his own (and Hawthorne’s) interest in it.
The first extended treatment of “The Minister’s Black Veil” occurs just after a chapter on Moody’s childhood, and consists of a neutral-toned survey of Hawthorne’s life and a summary of events in the narrative of Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody alias Reverend Hooper. The second encounter with “The Minister’s Black Veil” occurs a few chapters later, when Rick Moody’s own mental disorder is in fuller view. Now the memoirist puzzles over Hawthorne scholarship, mastering—and teasing—various biographical and critical approaches to the tale. He learns about other members of Reverend Joseph Moody’s line, of whom Hawthorne was well aware—a Betty Moody, for one, who took refuge with her three children in a cave during an Indian raid, and smothered the children when their voices threatened to give the hiding place away. Hawthorne visited a cave said to have been the site of these child murders. Rick Moody connects Hawthorne’s fascination with the child-smotherer explicitly with Hawthorne’s guilt about his detachment from his immediate family; implicitly, he links it with his own condition of alienation. And he surmises that the author of Twice-Told Tales grew to have bleak suspicions about all the Moodys, finding in them “a singular collection of murderers, eccentrics, mesmerists, enough so that he was willing to engage in his own pilferage, looting, sacking [Hawthorne wrote about Betty Moody fifteen years or so after he wrote “The Minister’s Black Veil”], to get at their veiled truths….”
By chance Rick Moody learns that Handkerchief Moody’s diaries exist, and that a Manhattan literary agent owns a copy—and also owns a York, Maine, farmhouse in which Joseph Moody’s son lived. He gets hold of the diaries and the keys to the house, “understanding that I was going to pursue Handkerchief, that indeed I had been driven to do so and that much of my life had narrowed toward this particular theme.” That pursuit is interwoven, in the book’s second half, with chapters on Moody as convalescent mental patient, and includes a journey to Maine taken with his father. Together the two search out Handkerchief Moody’s birthplace and burial ground, collecting facts about Handkerchief’s progeny and their ties with the Connecticut Moodys, about the circumstances of Handkerchief’s crime of manslaughter (Hawthorne’s footnote says the man had “accidentally killed a beloved friend”), and about the probable causes of the minister’s ultimately overwhelming sense of guilt.
At length Moody finds definitive evidence that “the Moodys of my line had no conclusive relation” to Hawthorne’s Joseph Moody, and this fall of the family—as Rick Moody perceives it—provokes him to ironic, amusing, but puzzlingly bitter laceration:
We were the no-account Moodys. The dead wood on the family tree. The dross that made the gold nuggets shine. We were shut-ins of history. We were the leftovers in the repast of American achievement…. My line, for some hundred years or more, had been liars about our lineage. Indeed, we were always looking over the fence at those other Moodys…. Those Moodys went to Harvard, those Moodys preached from the pulpit of the eminent towns of the colonies, whipping up American pride in the revolutionary hour…. My Moodys, perhaps once acquainted with the others, back in Exeter, or on the battlefield at Louisburg, had otherwise retired for a century or more to the inland to look after sheep….
Soon after the revelation of his branch’s inconsequence, Rick Moody tells the reader, he begins “to feel the floodwaters of my morbid twenties begin to recede….”
I was no longer going to be raped by my forefathers, reduced by the airtight theology of them, by their claims of inspiration from above. No longer going to be violated by history, by the American heavens and their bloodshed and their morbid rage and hatred…. Maybe I wasn’t the end of something, the end of a system of cruelties. Maybe I was the beginning of something.
The Black Veil explicitly places Moody’s release from family myth as a moment of large consequence in the writer’s life. And it may indeed, in life, have functioned—like moments of awakening to self-enclosure in yesteryear’s classic novels—as an opening through which, to moral profit, truths about the larger world are glimpsed. But a major difficulty with Moody’s book is that, on the page, neither the experience of liberation nor the fear and shame that are presented as ending are realized as psychological events. Despite the saddening childhood vulnerability and suffering, the self-laceration for failures, the hallucinations and the rest, a reader’s doubts about the authenticity of “the requisite Moody shame” multiply before and after the hour of liberation. And those doubts rouse disbelief that substantial changes in self-understanding are taking place in this mind.
Admittedly some of the doubts seem fairly trivial on their face—for instance, the doubt stirred by the exhibitionistic character of Moody’s reports on his dissoluteness. The writer’s hallucinations begin with bad trips on acid as a schoolboy, but Moody jokes about “my wild teens.” The need to cooperate with the programs of a psychiatric hospital yields from him, as an answer to a question about damage done by “your chemical usage,” the observation that “I found that I was thinking about alcohol much more than I wanted to.” Drug addiction comes across in The Black Veil as a distraction or peccadillo, not as a prod to torments of conscience—a fact that could be read, of course, not as self-display but as sensible reluctance to indulge in simplistic denunciation.
A less ambiguous obstacle to belief in Rick Moody’s shame and the liberation said to be its sequel is the frequency with which he softens his self-indictment for self-involvement by quoting lengthy written salutes, from fellow mental patients, to his “sensitivity”:
You’ve really been an inspiration to me since you have been here…. I’ve never met a more sensitive person…. Your future is golden and so are you. You are such a sensitive person. You really deserve all the best.
These and other testimonies to sensitivity play poorly because the winningly kind, straightforward voice of the child that speaks in the book’s opening chapters is so swiftly displaced by a voice that is compulsively taunting. The Black Veil has bite and vigor when it takes aim at the jargon of salesmanship manuals (Moody studied them during his stint as a pitchman for museum tapes) and the chatter of psychiatric hospital professionals (“Creative Therapeutic Activities,” etc.)—or when Moody’s italics hiss at class (or business or showroom) cant:
My mother asked me what I was intending to do for a couple of weeks….
My father…enabled me to get a number of promising informational interviews with successful practitioners of West Coast finance.
My father steered his champagne Jaguar over the river from Portsmouth to Kittery….
But the taunting of elders in the book becomes vexing partly because it dehumanizes them, partly because of the hint of ingratitude (fathers who buy their children years at St. Paul’s School plus a city apartment and, in addition, chauffeur them around New England hunting the past probably are owed slightly more forbearance than Moody Senior receives).
More disabling to a reader’s belief in either authentic abjectness or significant release is the author’s mockery of the language of plain folk outside his family circle. Intelligently sympathetic in fiction and on occasion in this book, Moody nevertheless lights often on clichéd speech used by nonwriters in situations of emotional strain—lights on it, treats it as though it were both identical with the feelings it aims to utter and actually capable of exhausting those feelings. The effect, resembling that of passages of Derrida, a thinker Moody admires, is to reduce the world, cruelly, to words. Discovering at one point that a successful women’s basketball coach at the University of Alabama bears his name, Moody surveys the contents of the coach’s press package, kidding the jargon:
His college degrees are from Patrick Henry State Junior College, Troy State University, and, for the MA in physical education, the University of Alabama…. While head-coaching the Crimson Tide, Moody has amassed so far a record of 219–92, the best ever at the university by about 119 wins.
Almost at once the kidding loses its way. Asserting that “the more stylized and predictable the public rhetoric about the other Rick Moody gets the better I like it,” Rick Moody the writer quotes garbled first-person and other excerpts from “humanizing” interviews with the coach:
“Rarely do I remember taking any backwards steps or having anything major happen in my life that would quote ‘get your attention.'” But in September 1992, Sandra, whom [the coach] married in August of 1976, discovered a tumor while she was doing a routine breast examination. It was malignant.
Smirking blights the ironic commentary that follows: Moody the coach, says Rick Moody the writer,
falls back on the traditional battlefield metaphor to describe how his wife’s struggle against cancer helped him learn to coach women athletes effectively: Most of the things I learned, I learned from Sandra. She taught me how important it was to have a good attitude. It was her attitude, the way she handled that adversity, that made her successful in winning that battle…. Like Dwight Lyman Moody [the preacher], Rick Moody [the coach] has developed a total faith in God. One that has enabled him to become a deacon at his church and also a motivational speaker of some reputation. Now, even if he struggles with a bad season, as he did in 1999–2000, it can only make the unalloyed success of his early career more interesting.
Yet more troubling than the jeering at perceived inferiors is a gesture I’ve already mentioned—the jeering at America that follows Moody’s self-declared release from illusions about his past. Research having denied him justification for believing that his inner chaos derives from a corrupt, crazed bloodline, the writer turns to full-throated denunciation of Amerika the hateful, still seeking extra-personal causes for his troubles, still avoiding engagement with faults he has himself defined. The chapter becomes a long threnody on the theme that “all life is ebony, or murderous, everywhere the blackness of the veil“—a thunder of images climaxing with “the black rain of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” and with the claim that
the real American color is black, primordial, eternal, heartless, infinite, full of sorrow, For though consciences are unlike as foreheads, every intelligence has one, upon every forehead the burdensome ornament of the black conscience, and a recognition that the civilization we founded, the civilization of the strip mall and the subdivision and online cosmetic surgeon [is] all built upon the color black….
The chapter ends with the assertion: “To be an American, to be a citizen of the West, is to be a murderer. Don’t kid yourself. Cover your face.” The smoothness of the transition from one explanation of failures of feeling to the next undercuts belief that the failures truly were devastating—or that they produced telling experience of abjectness. And the blanket indictment of others means that although the morbid floodwaters recede, Moody’s enthusiasm for stick-figure characterizations mounts.
It’s not astonishing that, in a democratic society, a writer’s attempt to wrestle publicly with the experience of shame miscarries, ending in announcements that everybody else is hateful, too. (“Don’t kid yourself. Cover your face.”) Guilt, the need to confess, and allied feelings depend not only on bad action and active conscience but on assurance that superior people are nearby who are justified in looking down on you—figures before whom, if one is found out in misdeeds, one experiences a piercing sense of debasement. A society of presumed equals doesn’t nourish such assurance.
Nor is the assurance encouraged by a national religious history marked less by fundamentalism, despite its notoriety, than by the invention of faiths—first among a dozen equals is Christian Science—scoffing at claims that sin and guilt are the common lot of our kind, and dismissing dogmas of predestination and election. Further difficulties just now for homeland aspirants to authentic guilt, reasonably measured, arise from the country’s growing vision of itself as exemplary—rightful preceptor to the world, utterly innocent, untormented by past transgressions. “The ethical termites are loose among us,” said the sociologist Jules Henry a while ago, “gnawing away at the pillars of guilt.”
A literary factor in recent days, perhaps, is the rage for confession manifest not only in The Black Veil but everywhere in contemporary mem- oirs—rage that distorts any sense of proportion in guilt, and that induces wild veering between extremes of shame and extremes of self-importance. In the epigraph to this review Rick Moody talks to an interviewer about the dialectic of fiction and nonfiction—two ends of one narrative, etc. Comparison of the texture of Moody’s memoir with that of Purple America, the novel cited at the start, suggests that a huge distance separates the two ends of the narrative, and that one reason for this lies in the difference in the qualities of mind that are summoned by these sharply contrasting literary forms.
All three principals in the scene of Purple America quoted earlier—the ailing woman, her gift-giving husband and son—behave well and badly simultaneously. Billie Raitcliff’s struggle for self-respect demands that she reject the generosity of her loved ones. Her husband’s sermonizing, read in context, signifies both that he wants to help his mate and that his past help has so exhausted him that he’s close to thinking of desertion. The loving son’s pity, anger at his own impotence, disappointment with his mother’s response all drive his hyping of technological gimmickry. As fondness and fury battle each other in this circle of human suffering, readers are reminded of delicate intricacies of moral response—complications brought to life best by patience with mixed motives, skill at imagining the interior lives of others in a room, nuanced skepticism of moral categories: qualities, clearly, of the sound novelist’s mind.*
Not many current memoirists have worked seriously in literary forms that distinguish the world-according-to-me from the world shaped by an active moral imagination. Few among them give us solid reason to believe that their returning to such literary forms would be of significant interest. Among those few Rick Moody retains a high place.
September 26, 2002
The climactic speech of a recently published play by Moody draws a pertinent contrast between artists who savor complication and media types—NPR interviewers, for example—who deal in “structured irony,” and “smoothed-out,” “carefully crafted human interest.” “Some people, some artists,” says the speaker admiringly, are committed to “leaving the friction where it is, they’re allowing the static energy to rise up from the surfaces of things, leaving the mixed ambitions right out there alongside the joy, letting the work breathe, leaving the ragged edges scraping against one another, letting the gears grind.” See Alamo: A Radio Play in The Paris Review, Summer 2002. ↩