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The Blank Verses

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It's hard to get away from Rick Moody. His name--frequently mentioned in the same breath as Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace--has been in print more than 3,000 times. He has published, since 1992, four novels, a memoir, two collections of short fiction and a great number of reviews, stories and essays. He has won a half-dozen awards and has been anthologized in collections like The Best American Short Stories 2001, The Best American Essays 2004 and Year's Best Science Fiction #9. The secretary of the PEN American Center (and the former recipient of a PEN Martha Albrand prize), he moderates panels for The Believer magazine, to which he also contributes. Last year, he chaired the National Book Awards' fiction committee. He was the opening act--as a reader--on the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs tour, and he finds time to play in his own band, too. He wrote the press bio for the rock group Sleater-Kinney, and also a chapter on chord progressions and the architecture of Chicago for The Wilco Book. Even the Criterion Collection DVD of Fanny and Alexander features an essay by you-know-who. One might be forgiven for being more familiar with Moody's guest appearances than with his major works themselves.

About the Author

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

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Or at least with Dale Peck's oft-cited attack on his memoir, The Black Veil. The review, which appeared in the July 1, 2002, issue of The New Republic, memorably began by calling Moody "the worst writer of his generation." The net effect of the piece, however, was to bestow notoriety upon Peck, and to leave Moody's social calendar more or less full. Which begs the question: If Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation, why does nobody seem to mind? Assuming that the folks at the Criterion Collection haven't lost their heads, he's probably not the worst writer of his generation. But he is absolutely the most overrated.

In The Diviners, Moody's latest--and biggest--novel, Vanessa Meandro, a grossly obese independent film producer (her company is cutely called "Means of Production"), is trying to make a miniseries about the history of dowsing, i.e., using a special stick to divine where water is in the ground. She's pitching The Diviners (get it?) to Jeff Maiser, a television producer whose wife is driven to a botched batch of Botox by his fling with Lacey, a teenage diva and ex-best friend of his daughter. Ranjeet, Vanessa's cab driver turned in-house television theorist, is very much in favor of the miniseries, so much so that he has stopped going home to his wife and their autistic son, Jaspreet, and has begun a halfhearted, barely consummated affair with Jeanine, the most picked-on and loneliest of Vanessa's assistants. No one can figure out who came up with the script treatment because it was secretly written by Vanessa's other assistant, Annabel Duffy, and by Thaddeus Griffin, the action star she's sleeping with, whose marriage is on the fritz, mostly due to his philandering. Annabel's brother, William, is not her real brother at all, but they are both the black adopted children of white parents, so they have that in common. William (his given name, but he prefers "Tyrone") is a schizophrenic bike messenger and a talented, though not terribly productive, artist who has been wrongly accused of putting Samantha Lee, the pretty gallery assistant, in a coma by hitting her on the head with a brick as he whizzed past on his fixed-gear. The charge is ridiculous, because she was on the phone with him when the accident happened, and he isn't like that, anyway. There's some other stuff, too, about embezzling and a Mormon investor and the Supreme Court--not to mention Vanessa's demented, alcoholic mother, who believes she's receiving wayward cell phone calls inside her brain, including some placed from Florida concerning the counting of the ballots in the 2000 presidential election--but that's the main gist of it.

As you might have guessed, the kid isn't the only one who's autistic. As you also might have guessed, most of what actually happens in The Diviners, like most of what actually happens in most of Rick Moody's novels, is beside the point. No matter how many pierced punk rockers or disaffected wives or disabled mothers flit across his pages, a Rick Moody novel is generally about one thing, and that is Rick Moody's ability to write very long, occasionally graceful sentences. Peck put this rather nicely when he said that plots were simply there to give Moody's "tangled prose something to wrap itself around, the way a vine will wrap itself around the nearest thing to hand, be it trellis, tree, or trash."

It is these tangled, spiraling, comma-ridden sentences that Moody can thank for his remarkable ability to create and sustain a mood for hundreds of pages. He has always been good at this--each of his novels, each of his stories, is wrapped and mummified in a broad swathe of adjectives and nouns. Precious plot points--the deformed ostriches of "The Double Zero"--or implausible characters--a 14-year-old who nostalgically wishes for "a childhood in which she was a kid" in The Ice Storm--cannot rupture the illusion, which is not about the content of Moody's writing but its uniformity. That the tone of this uniformity is smug--one can almost hear Moody cracking his knuckles with pleasure after completing a particularly florid line--does not diminish its effect.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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:

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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