The Blank Verses
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.
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.