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.

Quite often, Moody coaxes a casual, mock-heroic poetry out of his characters’ hopelessness. His brittle portraits of broken homes have a terse economy to them. But he doesn’t look closely at those homes, and as a result risks reducing his unhappy teenagers to symptoms of largely unexamined crises. In Garden State, family breakdown is the background condition for the poignant display of teenage self-pity.

In The Ice Storm (1994), by contrast, Moody faces the breakdown of a family head on. The setting is rural Connecticut, the home of affluent brokers and businessmen. Distracted by the Watergate scandal and the oil crisis, the local husbands dutifully take the commuter train to Manhattan; when they return, they blow smoke rings of marijuana and praise the economic theories of Milton Friedman. ‘America rose and fell on the melodies of New Canaan’s songs about the economy. Songs sung by a Jewish economist and mimicked by Wasps who would have thought twice before playing golf with the guy.’ The wives meanwhile are listless and bored. Strung out on quack therapies and self-help books, they have no higher purpose than to serve a ‘moist turkey’ for dinner and to reflect on mental illness:

Its onset would not be the result of a failed marriage or because of 20th-century spiritual impoverishment; it would be caused instead by these details, by a pen mark on the designer pantsuit she’d bought for the holidays, by the slight warp in her Paul Simon album, or by the acrid taste of old ice cubes. These small things led to a bottomless pit of loneliness beside which even Cambodia paled.

As for the children, they are sombrely aware that ‘family was a bluff, a series of futile power grabs.’

Much of The Ice Storm is appealingly compact and direct. Moody portrays his children with particular affection, giving their comic-book cosmologies and private languages in careful detail. A gentle, spaced-out teenager ‘had not scored well on standardised tests or on any other tests’. When two kids fumble towards sexual contact, their ‘hips locked together uneasily, like mismatched pieces of a jigsaw puzzle’. (Ang Lee’s film adds meticulous visual detail to these scenes, setting the story against an alternating backdrop of glass houses and dark woods.)

Of course, Moody’s distressed, privileged world is not exempt from outside forces. As the book proceeds, it develops a somewhat strained analogy between the ‘unfaithfulness’ of leaders like Nixon and the casual wife-swapping of the suburbs: ‘The only commodity that was traded was wives.’ When a freak storm blankets the county in ice, the novel rushes towards its double ending, juxtaposing a wife-swapping cocktail party with the accidental electrocution of one of the participating couples’ children. Marital infidelity and technological danger conspire to break up two families, throwing them into a ‘malevolent, post-electrical silence’. Though the electrocution and the couple-swap are carefully handled, Moody keeps a chilly distance from his adult characters. Rather than examine their feelings directly, he prefers to offer eloquent sumaries: ‘Like so many of the older Protestant couples, they were charming, courteous and estranged.’ The novel doesn’t quite plumb the depths of its disasters.

Written in elaborate, distended sentences, Purple America is Moody’s most ambitious book. Like Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, it concerns a homicidal stutterer in the suburbs. Roth’s subject was a teenage girl who becomes a politically enraged terrorist. Moody’s quarry belongs to another breed: the hero of Purple America is named Hex Raitliffe; he’s a 32-year-old party promoter with little to show for himself except a fine wardrobe and a (well-justified) predilection for self-pity. When his disabled mother calls him back to her house in Connecticut to help prepare for her death, he falls into a series of miserable crises involving liquor, medicine and burning cars that point him towards a terrible nervous collapse.

Moody’s long, flowing sentences submerge the reader into the current of Hex’s thoughts and rapidly changing feelings – affection, dread, anger at his stepfather, who has just taken up and left – as he finds himself having to bathe his mother’s decaying body, shortly after his arrival on her doorstep. Technology intrudes chillingly into the scene. With her voice nearly gone, his mother uses a computer to communicate, pointing and clicking at a vast menu of words. It’s this machine that reads aloud the farewell note that her husband has left, and then reads aloud her own instruction to her son to ‘undertake to end my life’. Mother and son sit together and listen to the computer sound out these dreadful messages, its synthesised voice droning on ‘as if reciting oven-cleaning instructions or do’s and don’ts of water safety’.

Moody struggles to maintain this level of intensity. Once again, family crisis takes place within the penumbra of technological disaster. Hex’s stepfather, Lou Sloane, is a nuclear engineer who is laid off from his job at the local power plant just as a headline-making crisis, a ‘code two unusual event’, envelops the area. Meanwhile, Hex conjures with the legacy of his biological father, a physicist who participated in post-war nuclear tests before making a fortune in uranium mining and moving to Connecticut in a Gatsby-style effort to disguise his origins and blend in with the local élite. When Hex is ten, his father dies unexpectedly of an aneurysm. The possibility that Hex, too, might be a victim of radiation-poisoning lurks in the background as he hurtles towards his crack-up.

Though it builds on experiments in his short fiction, Purple America is nonetheless a stylistic leap for Moody. Conspicuously nodding to DeLillo’s coolly precise technical jargon, Pynchon’s loose historical riffs and David Foster Wallace’s involuted, self-undermining thought-processes, Moody weaves together a great number of voices into agile and extremely long sentences. He ventriloquises the clinical impersonality of a technician (‘urinary pressure increasing incrementally, as the imported beer ... is converted by the purifying organs into basic dextrose and formaldehyde’), the hyped up exclamations of a TV salesman (‘A rottweiler! America’s fearsome and trusted watchdog!’), the stoned chatter of a beatnik handyman and the expansive observations of a cultural critic:

Those six lines of interstate are the avenue of choice for those who sunder themselves from habits and routines and head out on the road, avoiding the car pool lanes, turning the radio up and singing (tunelessly) – those Americans, bending the rules a little as far as open container restrictions go, paying no heed to restrictive speed limits, passing on the right, these rugged individualists, who at the end of a long tussle have concluded that marriage is a confinement, these guys who are convinced there’s a part of the good life hidden from them, a patch of contentment so far denied, the pursuit of happiness being written into the original national documents for godsakes.

Most frequently, however, Moody chooses to focus on the hapless plight of his schlemiel protagonist:

Raitliffe is particularly tired of watching any and all of his contemporaries pairing off as though it were prearranged, men or women, wherever, in nightclubs, in night school, in public places, on buses, subways, trains, at street corners, in lines for bathrooms, hitting it off in conversations that would take him a good twenty minutes. Hi there I couldn’t help overhearing your remarks on reforestation in Katmandu and it really struck a chord in me, pretexts time-tested and approved by 1001 Ways to Meet Single Women, all of those conversations of lonely hearts, prose of lovers skydiving into one another’s arms, hastening from beds to the aisles of churches.

This sentence is fairly typical of Moody’s methods, with its fluid, run-on syntax, its send-up of contemporary clichés, and its interpolation of italicised voices into a stream of consciousness. Moody’s writing is always lilting and lyrical; the extended riffs move along swiftly, but they can also come off as glib or ingratiating. The satire is often too broad to be very funny (‘remarks on reforestation in Katmandu’). And the frequent use of italics to supply emphasis becomes dull with repetition, as if Moody is simply turning up the volume whenever he wants to make sure we savour a phrase’s absurdity or emotional significance (‘Old Saybrook and Fenwich are condominium communities, Sunset Gables and Pleasant Point and Marshland Estates’; ‘As the week of home renovation stretched into two weeks, however, his resolve began to crumble’).

More important, Moody’s relentless drive to document Hex’s lowly stature becomes wearisome. The emotional combustion of a sorry loser could be a rich theme; but the novel is too busy mocking Hex, kicking him in the rear, vaudeville-style, for the full force of his agony to emerge. Nor are the other characters more fully drawn; his mother’s jumbled reveries are movingly presented, but they don’t add up to much beyond a series of dustbowl clichés – ‘and thistle and bad ground and great storms of topsoil, or the hothouse of summer when she went about in just her dress and nothing underneath’. As for Lou Sloane, he seems a mere impersonation of masculinity, his voice an imitation of what someone else’s dad is supposed to sound like.

Moody can write more effectively than this. When he’s not jeering too hard, he gets Hex’s wavering feelings across strongly. And when he’s not gesturing towards an incipient nuclear meltdown, he can use the language of science to bring a scene gently and surprisingly into focus: in a restaurant, Hex watches his mother’s ‘biological processes work their way out from under the auspices of intention, her bladder reluctantly yielding its responsibilities to gravity’. But typically, Moody goes on to press this moment into the service of his technopolitical-designs: as his mother evacuates her waste onto the restaurant floor, a newscaster appears on TV to warn of a ‘leakage of waste water’ from the local power plant.

Like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and many other young novelists, Moody yokes together a number of apparently disparate elements: an intimacy with the politics of popular culture, a fascination with bizarre, paranoid visions, a feel for family detail. He may be the most natural writer in this group, the most effortless stylist, but he doesn’t quite match the others in the power of his imagination, or hasn’t done so yet. His most successful work to date is a short story that departs from his usual preoccupation with unhappy families. In ‘The James Dean Garage Band’, we are told that James Dean walked away from the car crash that supposedly killed him and showed up in a remote California desert town. Joining a threadbare local band, the incognito star helps to incite spectacular musical innovations and barroom brawls – all of them entirely unknown to his mourning fans. In the end, this story turns out to be the narrator’s fantasy, the invention of a 57-year-old retail store manager who yearns to tell ‘all kinds of stories, stories based on real stories, stories of the most rigorous truth, stories of legendary couples, stories of their partings’. Once again, Moody takes us into a world of teenage fantasy and stunted development. Only this time, the unhappy dreamer, the deluded would-be hero, is an adult.