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The Blank Verses | The Nation

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The Blank Verses

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Moody has long had a penchant for biblical language and scriptural reference. (He even co-edited a collection of essays on the New Testament, Joyful Noise.) The first chapter of Purple America, which features--much like the first chapters of The Diviners, come to think of it--a seriously ill, neglected and abandoned mother being cared for by her wayward grown child, is shrouded in the language of the Gospels: "Whosoever...shall never die" (John 3:15) is the constant refrain.

About the Author

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

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"The light that illuminates the world begins in Los Angeles," solemnly intones the first sentence of The Diviners.

Begins in darkness, begins in the mountains, begins in empty landscapes, in doubt and remorse. San Antonio Peak throws shadows upon a city of shadows. There are hints of human insignificance; there are nightmares. But just at the moment of intolerability there's an eruption of spectra. It's morning! In the East! Morning is hopeful, uncomplicated, and it scales mountaintops, as it scales all things.

Is morning uncomplicated? Does it scale all things? Eleven pages of sunrise later, it seems that morning's reach is pretty far, but it's still not clear why we needed the exclamation points. Instead of plumbing the depths of meaning, enhancing understanding or appreciation, this high-flown language--the language of faith, the language of previews--prevents readers from discerning what Moody thinks. It's a neat trick. It saves him the trouble of figuring it out.

Moody likes to have it both ways, cutting earnestness with irony, grandeur with derision. And it's not limited to religious rhetoric: His screen of allusions and manic free flow, his wordy, associative narration, work to obscure his meaning at every turn. Every object and feeling, every moment, is a door to be opened, a hat out of which he'll pull anything--really, anything. A female orgasm in Purple America, for example, calls to mind "silk flowers, rice paper, dusk in summer, chamber music, night swimming, penny candy." Moody consistently chooses abundance over precision; in his world, more is more. (The Diviners ends with an "Epilogue and Scenes From Upcoming Episodes"--this instead of, say, an ending to the current episode.)

This compulsive list-making partly reflects an emphasis on spontaneity and excess over sparseness, obliqueness over direct representation--but it's mostly just sloppy. After all, it is one thing for a passage to feel extemporaneous, and another for it to be written carelessly. The centripetal force of the prose in The Diviners fails to suggest the madness or interconnectedness or impossibility of all things that it so badly wants to imply; it merely suggests that the author hasn't bothered to undertake the writerly task of rereading, or rewriting, his own work.

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