Reviews of Rick Moody

Brian Evenson


Rick Moody. The Diviners. Little, Brown. Hardcover, $25.95.

512 pages. ISBN: 0-316-08539-1.

It’s been probably twenty years since I’ve read a novel sporting a Frank Frazetta-esque cover depicting scantily clad fantasy types bulging with impossible muscles. On this one, a well-muscled Mongolian thrusts high his (divining) rod, crying out in ecstatic triumph. Behind him, a huge jet of water spurts up in a way that would make Freud blush. Meanwhile in the background battles and fire rage across a parched plain.

The last place you’d expect to have to confront your Frazetta ghosts is on a novel by Rick Moody. True, you only confront it directly on the galley proofs for the novel; by the time the novel reached hardcover the image was still there, but this time mediated by being contexted in a screen displayed beyond a sea of theater seats and anonymous heads. The image is taken from a proposed television saga of the same name as Moody’s book, a planned epic about divining for water from early Mongolia up into contemporary America. Proposed off the cuff by an aging and perverse movie star as a kind of foreplay with his ex-girlfriend qua productioneer, the idea rapidly gathers momentum. Vanessa Meandro, the head of indie Means of Production studio, smells a hot new property, other producers vie over it, and publicists jump on board. Circumstances seem just right for things to click into place at a major studio, but just to make sure Vanessa recruits the goth daughter of one of the execs. There’s a lot of buzz and yet, well, to be honest, no actual script.

And that’s what makes the use of fantasy art weirdly right; at the center of this novel is a fantasy, an emptiness that everyone is running to possess. The Diviners is a thirst created by meaningless buzz and waiting to be quenched by a screenplay. In what follows, everybody’s looking for an angle, trying to be in the right place at the right time: it’s all about positioning. Moody cycles the narrative from movie industry people to a bipolar outsider artist to a Mormon dot commie to a Sikh cabdriver turned television consultant, showing in unexpected ways how intertwined their very different lives are.

Yet well into the book, most characters are still wandering, unfulfilled, the screenplay still unwritten.

Despite the book’s humor and satire, Moody still strips his characters down to their bare bones, cutting through the farce to get at the humanness inside—which makes everything more painful and the laughter more nervous. Indeed, Moody’s writerly instincts won’t let him rely on easy humor or farce. Rather than taking television and the media as his solitary target, he explores how closely the media is entwined with our political and personal lives.

Which is what makes The Diviners a more ambitious—and more effective—book than similar books ostensibly of its type. Ultimately, The Diviners is neither a critique of Hollywood nor a plot-driven book about who will get the mini-series, nor a quest novel about getting the money or the prize; it is about what happens to people’s lives once desire sends them into orbit. The plum of a mini-series—the chance to make the next Roots!—serves as a centrifugal force accelerating the character’s lives outward, with centripetal forces—family, friendships, company loyalty, love—trying to hold them in place (both for better and for worse). By focusing on characters equally stretched between different desires and commitments, Moody both keeps them human and shows them to be torn apart less by external forces than by the conflicting strengths of their own desires.

This is a savvy and complex—and I think accurate—way of depicting human nature, but Moody makes it look effortless. His prose is always eminently readable. He manages to integrate the tension stylistically into the book as well, pulling off a very delicate balance of centripetal and centrifugal narrative forces so that the novel holds together without ever quite pinning anything down, without sewing up plot points or giving a forced sense of significance or closure. Instead, characters dart in and out. They appear and then are swept away by the narrative flow, only to surface a few miles downstream, gasping for breath. Some never even resurface at all.

The result is a dynamic text that leaves the readers in the same fix that the characters are in, that doesn’t allow us to keep our distance. The Diviners holds together very delicately, an airy structure always at risk of collapse; it seems at times a house of cards—which makes it all the more satisfying when it doesn’t collapse even after Moody deftly flicks some of the cards out. The Diviners takes chances that a writer of Moody’s stature and skill doesn’t have to take. He’s able to get away with this partly because the writing is deft and fluid, partly because though the characters begin as types they quickly develop into human beings that one feels attached to—it’s hard not to feel something’s lost when we move from one character to one of the two dozen others, but very quickly the next character reveals himself or herself to be quietly indispensible. Ultimately, it’s less like you’re reading about characters than like you’re experiencing a complex cross-section of contemporary society.

Moody also gets away with the risks he takes because of the symbiosis of his subject and his style. TV becomes a trope for his own fictional programming, allowing for rapid switches between characters/programs, as well as serial returns and program cancellations. This is done effectively and generally without fanfare, though it is signaled strongly in the opening section which (similarly to Robert Coover’s Lucky Pierre) is identified with film terminology, as “Opening credits and Scene Music.” Its extent, however, is only completely evident in descriptions late in the book of a television program called The Werewolves of Fairfield County, about a community of werewolves working to balance their day-to-day family concerns against their lycanthropy and need for human blood—a balance that characters in the larger novel, torn between contradictory commitments and desires, experience as well. Indeed, the only point of consensus all the characters seem to reach concerns the power and interest of this program, watched by all the very different characters of the book, all of whom can relate to it. And yet the connection is illusory—a “community” of individuals focused on televisions is insular rather than dynamic, with everyone connected to the weekly half-hour burst of light rather than to other humans.

The Werewolves of Fairfield County is about thirst—thirst for blood, of course, but also a thirst to belong, to feel part of a pack. It’s the most popular show on television. Perhaps this isn’t surprising considering Moody’s novel takes place shortly after the 2000 election, with the fate of the Presidency as uncertain as that of the diviners script itself: the country too is experiencing a thirst, which explains why everyone is suddenly so interested in the multi-generational epic sweep of "The Diviners" script.

Moody recognizes that to slake the thirst with a neat ending would be a cop-out. The Diviners ends with the promise of fire rather than water, dropping us back squarely in the middle of our own cultural drought, still thirsty but now aware that it’s water we need. The Diviners is not only an entertaining book; whatever the cover might suggest, it’s a significant work of art.


Addendum: Moody in Golden Handcuffs

I think the temptation for any writer, once he or she’s gotten a certain amount of acclaim, is simply to continue to do the same things over and over again. Very few writers once they’ve found “what works” are willing to take chances and to experiment. In terms of writers who have both critical and popular recognition, I can think offhand of only three. First is Don Delillo, who culminated a certain sort of maximalist novel with Underworld—a novel built up to through the course of his career—and then followed it with The Body Artist, a book that didn’t fit into his corpus at all. Second is Graham Swift, who goes through a shift with nearly every book, refusing to ever cover any ground twice. Last is Muriel Spark, who manages to range from the realistic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to the surrealistic Not to Disturb, covering every bit of ground in between and always remaining one of the writers most genuinely deft in all modes of narration. Rick Moody, I’d say after seeing these pieces and thinking about the shifts he’s made from book to book, is a fourth.

The stories published in The Golden Handcuffs Review strike me as taking a decidedly different tack from Moody’s most recent novel. They’re remarkable for their concision, their ability to take a fictional problem or issue and focus in on it to the exclusion of almost everything else, to explore it purely and carefully. They know exactly what they’re interested in, and what they’re not. In that sense, and in the way they play with language, they strike me as “minor literature” in the deleuzian sense, as pieces that don’t fit in with a major usage of language or with the majority view of what literature should do.

“Lunch” is a character sketch that reveals its character’s relation to age through a situation, an incident that happens at lunch that causes him to confront others’ image of him and relate it to his own past image of himself. It’s a careful and simple piece that manages to offer a lot about the relationship of one's older and younger self in a very few words.

In “Not” the problem is largely aural, a matter of repeating words until they begin to warp and become strange. It’s a little like late Beckett, the Beckett of “Worstward Ho,” but the pattern of repetition is at once simpler and more severe. It plays on the repetition of Moody’s earlier story “Boys” (in Demonology) and pushes it to an absurd extreme. The words, beginning to melt both in one’s mouth and one’s mind, give one a very curious relationship to the content.

In “Hewitt-Smithson,” the premise of the piece is gathered in its initial sentence: “What she used to like she was starting to hate.” What follows is a sequence of things that she used to like, interrupted sometimes by the declaration that she now hates, or is starting to hate, them. The moves through the piece are careful and seemingly associative: hidden within the initial image of what the central female character used to like is a deep dissatisfaction with her marriage, though only as we near the end of the piece do we understand the significance of this: the reasons for why the narrative voice has both mentioned the vat of molten glass and has quickly moved away from it and onto other things. Other things that, ultimately, can’t help but lead her back to unearth what she’s hidden in her initial statement. Ultimately, this short piece is about the way in which language both reveals and obscures human reality.

These piece both give hints at Moody’s working methods and show him willing to take quite serious risks. In a book like The Diviners, those risks exist within a larger context that partially protects the writer; here, naked, Moody explores the tighter confines of flash fiction, each piece thinking about the way a certain combination of language or a certain system of repetition changes the way the reader (and the writer) processes the world.