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The Blank Verses | The Nation

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The Blank Verses

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The Diviners is his best novel to date--I have, however, thrown down in frustration every other book he's written, including The Ice Storm, which certain otherwise perfectly sane people consider a work of art. (It is not, although Tobey Maguire, who stars in the movie version, is really, really cute.) So when I say that The Diviners is Rick Moody's best novel, what I mean is that it is his least annoying novel; at times, it's even sort of fun. And to its eternal credit, it stays away from the suburbs, which, if his previous novels are any guide, the balding Brooklynite would just as soon blow up before he would depict as a place where anything happens that isn't stultifyingly alienating and/or small-minded. But this occasionally entertaining rant about commercialism, excess, media, waste, loneliness, obesity and the central place of television in American life is not only vast and ambitious in scope; it is also bloated, repetitive, rambling, gurgling, churning and miserably undeveloped. The Diviners shoots for the epic but never transcends the cartoonish. His most intricate and pleasing stage, his most exhaustive backdrop, it lays bare the limits of his prose.

About the Author

Christine Smallwood
Christine Smallwood, a writer in New York, is former associate literary editor of The Nation.

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Since Garden State, his first novel, Moody has been keenly interested in the problem of communication. His characters either will not or cannot speak to one another. This works on a metaphorical level (the adolescent monosyllables of Garden State; the frigidity and sullenness of The Ice Storm) as well as a practical one (Hex's stutter and his mother's verbal incapacitation in Purple America). In The Diviners he goes all out: one demented alcoholic; one autistic child; one schizophrenic; and one girl in a coma. (Even the BlackBerry, that tool of instant messaging, telephoning and e-mailing, is the site of ponderously "impenetrable secrets.") Having created characters who are effectively mute, Moody assigns to his omniscient narrators the task of translating their thoughts--thereby relieving himself of the novelistic task of creating unique, or even convincing, voices.

When Annabel films her family, for example, Moody speaks for the silent camera: "He [Max] has on the baggy jeans, and he has on his so-called wife-beater, and he has donned the jewelry." The image calls to mind a certain type of adolescent male, but not in the voice of a smart, sensitive young black woman obsessed with the Marquis de Sade. It is in the voice of a thirtysomething white writer who uses "the"s like little speed bumps in his sentences. Why the "so-called wife-beater"? Why the clever distance, the subtle condescension? Why must his narrators always be, to ape his abuse of italics, so insufferably self-satisfied? Why are they always getting in the way?

Ultimately, Moody is less interested in articulating the thoughts of his characters than in giving us his own thoughts in his own language. (Attentive readers will note similarities between Moody the interview subject and Moody the narrator.) The voice of a generation, he speaks for them and on top of them, sliding in and out of their heads. Their blankness is a screen on which he projects his own ideas.

This wouldn't be so bad if his ideas were of any interest. (Sample thesis statement from The Diviners: The entertainment industry is full of creeps.) Unfortunately, Moody uses his vast vocabulary and advanced grammar, his literary pulpit, to tell us things we already know--movie stars are sleazy; police detectives like doughnuts; television shows are, generally, pretty stupid--and to tell us them over and over, forward and backward, through each and every character. Different faces and accents come and go in The Diviners, but nearly everybody thinks the same: Vanessa's interior monologue sounds an awful lot like that of Thaddeus, who resembles Ranjeet, who is quite similar to Tyrone, who echoes Jaspreet, who is, in case you've forgotten, mentally ill. In this menagerie of the lonely and the broken, the well-meaning and the just-getting-by, Moody gives us a book with the complexity of a freshman psych class and a case of multiple-personality disorder.

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