Following the Fall-Out

Alexander Star

  • Purple America by Rick Moody
    Flamingo, 298 pp, £16.99, March 1998, ISBN 0 00 225687 8

Like much of Rick Moody’s previous work, Purple America charts the lives of the ‘slovenly, affluent’ young. It’s not an especially good life. Moody’s characters are distinctly unhappy, unformed, unable to proceed with their lives in anything like a reasonable way. Instead, they gradually succumb to a set of local problems. When the logic of crisis is put in motion, the outlook further darkens. In Moody’s novels, to be born is a crime, and to grow up compounds the offence. The enclosed residences of American affluence are under a curse – nature and neuroses will contrive to bring them low.

Moody delivers this dark verdict in a casual, off-hand prose. His miniature family tragedies emerge through a screen of humorous banter and comically exhibited clichés; his language frequently reminds us of its intimacy with convenience stores, shag carpets, and the patter of commercial speech. Updating Cheever and Updike, he wants to make the literature of suburban distress available to a less rigid generation, one which grew up on the Brady Bunch and the Bee Gees.

At the same time, Moody brings political and technological preoccupations to bear on his sheltered characters. Attempting to marry private traumas and public problems, he laces his work with environmental disasters and electrical surges. The sinister hum of power plants, and the invisible presence of radioactivity, undergird his storylines at all times. The ‘guardians of the atomic age’ have apparently bungled the job, and now we are all at risk. Under these conditions, the novelist must follow the fall-out wherever it goes.

Moody’s first novel, Garden State (1992), is a bluntly primitive investigation of the ‘nuclear blast of the nuclear family’. Written in a deadpan, matter-of-fact style, it’s a kind of literary analogue to the indie rock of the mid-Eighties, to the music of bands like the Replacements who sang tepidly defiant sagas of generational self-pity: ‘We’re getting no place/As fast as we can.’ Moody situates a gallery of burned-out kids in the toxic environment of northern New Jersey – the landscape the sociologist Donna Gaines has called a ‘teenage wasteland’. The ‘chromium haze’ of the region settles over everyone. A tone of nonchalant failure is sustained throughout: ‘He knew everyone who was a nobody.’ A success in this town is ‘the kind of girl who could do math and return phone calls’. And effort? ‘His solemn vow, his solemn effort, was to try not to drink while on his mother’s tranquillisers.’

Before long, we grasp that the studied indifference of Moody’s characters is indistinguishable from their hidden sorrow over family disarray. A teenage girl muses about a world with ‘all fathers gone’, or observes that ‘there were fathers, but no dads.’ All the feeling in the book gathers around absent fathers who produce kids who have ‘faded away’, who are ‘dead inside’: ‘There wasn’t much left of him.’ None of this is unusual in the ethos of depressed teenage suburbia that Moody strives to evoke: your typical grunge band might strike rebel poses, and write aggressive hymns to the spirit of generational angst; but if you scratch the surface, their songs turn out to express a fervent longing for a strong family life. It’s always incest or an absent father that turns a misunderstood kid into a murderer, or incites a sad girl to slit her wrists.

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