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The Blank Verses | The Nation

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The Blank Verses

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Moody's expansive vocabulary notwithstanding, his characters are essentially flat, something his leave-no-adjective-behind descriptions strain to conceal. Consider, for instance, the passage where Samantha, the coma-ridden gallery assistant, regains her memory at the mention of Tyrone's name. Moody's description begins well enough:

About the Author

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

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At the sound of the name, something happens in her. It is as if a whole second window of consciousness opens up. It is the window onto ornament, onto all the things that are inessential on their surface, and yet, when this window is reopened, she wonders how she lived without it, because in here are consigned the memories with no names attached to them, such as riding down the FDR in a taxi at night with the windows open in spring. How beautiful this memory is, and how beautiful are the lights, and how excellent is the FDR drive.

It's an evocative passage--the window opening up; the memories with no names--and even the intrusion of Moody's "how excellent is" is offset by the simplicity, the reserve, of the image. But he doesn't shut up and let us enjoy the moment. He keeps going:

Likewise, the memory of the leaves changing color in the suburbs in autumn, and the memory of ballet class as a girl, and what it felt like to lace up her toe shoes, and also the memory of the taste of ice cream, especially mint-chocolate-chip ice cream.... and the smell of people's lunch bags in elementary school, and what it felt like to climb the ropes in gym.... and the satisfying sound that a videocassette made the first time she ever fed one into a machine.

And on and on. Not one of Samantha's memories--her unlikely recollection of the entire history of art aside--could not be the memories of any other female character. "What it felt like to lace up her toe shoes"--maybe we'd like to know how it felt? The "sound that a videocassette made"--which video? We are no closer to understanding who, or why, or how Samantha is than we were when she was unconscious. As in some game of literary pin the tail on the donkey, Moody has thrown a bunch of ideas at her in the hopes that one will stick, but he hasn't brought her to life--he hasn't rendered her as an individual. And even when he does succeed in giving his characters tics, they are just that, tics, not traits, and so willfully odd (Vanessa must eat a doughnut from every Krispy Kreme franchise in the city of New York) as to be not charmingly kooky but unbelievable. That which is interesting is routinely forsaken for that which is merely wacky.

These wouldn't be problems if Moody were writing in a postmodern tradition, in which information--encyclopedic footnotes, complicated chemical formulae--supersedes or replaces traditional subjectivity. But he is a more old-fashioned writer, with more old-fashioned concerns. His novels want to revolve around character, but the arty self-consciousness of his prose prevents them from doing so. You can only wonder what might happen if Moody applied his energy to crafting characters other than his narrators--which is to say, other than himself. The result might no longer be a Rick Moody novel. But it would make for much better reading.

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