What the Public Most Wants to See

Christopher Tayler

  • The Diviners by Rick Moody
    Faber, 567 pp, £12.99, January 2006, ISBN 0 571 22946 8

When he published The Ice Storm in 1994, Rick Moody seemed to be looking for a workable compromise between suburban realism and what Gore Vidal once called the ‘Research and Development’ arm of American fiction – the tradition of Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, William Gaddis and Don DeLillo. That might not sound hard if you think of R&D as a matter of surface effects: pop-cultural references, metafictional gestures, glazed irony and so on. But for Moody (b.1961), as for Jonathan Franzen (b.1959) and David Foster Wallace (b.1962), the previous generation’s experimentalism was as much a way of looking at society as a renovation of novelistic technique. Writers their grouchier teachers viewed as rebarbatively modish or futuristic struck them as fairly accurate prophets and critics of the image-saturated world they’d grown up in. And R&D seemed so squarely aligned with politico-cultural ‘dissent’ that any dilution of the avant-garde formula was troubling to contemplate – especially if you were both Theory-trained and, in Franzen’s words, ‘one of those skinny young men in scary glasses … who look like they possess massive amounts of data about small-label rock bands’.

During the early 1990s, however, a rough consensus began to emerge: pop-cultural references and metafictional gestures were here to stay, but glazed irony would have to go. This line was best articulated by Wallace in an essay he wrote in 1990 called ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’. Wallace took note of the speed with which parody and ridicule had been put to work selling Pepsi in adverts designed to flatter the viewer’s superior TV-knowingness. ‘Image-Fiction’, as he called the progeny of DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), was in danger of becoming similarly tainted. Though ostensibly aimed at ‘reimagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago and appearance’, it ‘most often degenerates into a kind of jeering, surfacey look “behind the scenes” of the very televisual front people already jeer at, a front they can already get behind the scenes of via Entertainment Tonight’. What was needed, he concluded, was ‘some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching’ and ‘risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.’

Consciously or not, many youngish American writers have answered Wallace’s call for a more feelingful brand of postmodernism, though in different ways. Funny, self-deprecating and extremely clever in his journalism and essays,[*] Wallace in his fiction occasionally barricades his interest in ‘plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions’ behind uncompromising levels of reader-unfriendliness. Franzen, as he tells it in the writings collected in How to Be Alone (2002), spent several years brooding over his failure to set readers on fire with ‘rhetorical Molotov cocktails’ before starting The Corrections (2001) with a view to providing more traditional pleasures as well as a broad social panorama. (He has also adopted a qualified god-that-failed position towards old-school avant-gardism.) And Dave Eggers, in both his writing and his activities as an editor-impresario, has promoted a puppy-eyed, heart-on-sleeve tricksiness, a postmodernism with a human face that’s sometimes likeable and sincere but sometimes hard to distinguish from the older, ironically smirking variety.

Moody, meanwhile, became famous for his sardonic yet tender depictions of the ‘devastated and wealthy’ inhabitants of suburbs not far from New York. Garden State (1992), his first novel, focuses on alienated, drug-taking kids in New Jersey and rehearses the environmental symbolism developed in Purple America, published five years later. The Ice Storm, which was filmed by Ang Lee in 1997, widens the generational canvas to include the sorrows of hard-drinking, unhappily married couples in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and their adolescent children. Set in 1973, with Watergate looming large in the TV schedules, it mixes a story of booze, adultery and heartbreak that wouldn’t be out of place in a Richard Yates novel with free-floating semiotic scrutiny of American capitalism. Moody makes a show of listening to the distant ‘opera of economics’ while cracking nostalgic jokes about outdated trends and products, but his elaborate descriptions of wife-swapping parties thrilling to talk of Milton Friedman don’t overwhelm the vulnerable human figures at the heart of the novel. A lot of the writing is also funny and precise, as when a teenage girl observes a boy’s erection straining at his corduroys ‘like the kid in math who always had the answer’.

As his career began to take off, however, Moody appeared to bridle at the idea that he was merely adding some postgraduate curlicues to the traditional novel of suburban discontent. When one of the characters in The Ice Storm imagines herself plunged by ‘a slight warp in her Paul Simon album’ into ‘a bottomless pit of loneliness beside which even Cambodia paled’, you take the point about well-heeled self-indulgence in the face of South-East Asian suffering without losing sight of her genuine isolation. Years later, though, Moody told an interviewer that his primary impulse in writing the book was ‘a sense of outrage about American policy in Cambodia’. And his subsequent writing has increasingly yoked political passions to domestic unhappiness in more explicit but sometimes mysterious ways. Purple America, which tells the story of Hex Raitliffe, a stuttering thirtysomething booze hound trying to care for his incapacitated mother in a Connecticut landscape blighted by power plants, is built around a literal-minded play on the words ‘nuclear family’: the Raitliffes’ fate is ominously intertwined with the American nuclear industry, which irradiated Hex’s father and employs his troubled stepdad.

Like The Ice Storm, which uses frozen pipes and flooded houses to underscore emotional catastrophe, Purple America more or less gets away with its heavy symbolism. Its characters are sharply drawn and sympathetically viewed, even during a brief excursion into the comedy of sexual embarrassment. The writing, on the other hand, uses what Moody has called ‘a more natural albeit slightly more hysterical kind of line length’: enormous clumps of sentence fragments strung together with commas, sometimes lasting for pages, in which italicised jargon and direct speech clash with more lyrical utterances and commodity-collages – ‘peanut butter cookies, sugar cookies, Rice Krispie treats, triple-decker Jell-O desserts … maraschino cherries, green grapes, cling peaches, canned pears, raisins, cashews, other additives’ – until questions of who, what, where and why get lost in the textual undergrowth. Although it’s an effective instrument for conveying the characters’ pain and bewilderment (not to mention Moody’s Joycean or Melvillean ambitions), this kind of prose is less well suited to conveying what’s going on, giving the novel’s action a turgid, lumbering quality.

Along with Hex’s stuttering and his mother’s speechlessness, the difficult style is meant to emphasise language’s ‘obfuscatory action on human experience’, as Moody has put it. This is also a central preoccupation of The Black Veil (2002), a wildly digressive memoir of the novelist’s adolescent and post-collegiate troubles with drink, drugs and depression. Moody blackens numerous pages with free-associating meditations on Hawthorne’s ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’, with particular reference to such expressions as ‘veiled speech’, and the book becomes gaseous as he tries to use a putative family connection to the story as a vehicle for exploring his guilt about his ancestors’ colonial exploits. Full stops are in short supply; italic type is not. But there’s an entertaining account of Moody’s college days, spent getting high on ‘Australian quaaludes’ while trying to get his head round Of Grammatology, and the memoir comes to life when describing the Burroughs-like visions of predatory desire that caused him to check himself into a psychiatric hospital in Queens in the mid-1980s with a bad case of nervous burn-out.

Famously at the time, The Black Veil got a very bad review from Dale Peck in the New Republic that mixed some reasonable complaints with funny but self-aggrandising hyperbole. One much-quoted stricture was levelled against Moody’s habitually big, incantatory openings, which makes the beginning of The Diviners seem proudly defiant. The new novel’s first section – a 12-page passage tracking a sunrise from Los Angeles to Brooklyn via the rest of the world – is his biggest, most incantatory opening yet. And when that’s out of the way, we catch a glimpse of the World Trade Center’s ‘gruff, show-offy digits’ before zooming in on a brownstone in Park Slope. Inside, there’s a representative of domestic unhappiness: an old woman called Rosa Elisabetta Meandro, who’s slowly revealed to be a decrepit alcoholic. As Rosa Elisabetta strains horribly on the toilet, dreaming of her forebears, who claimed to be water diviners, the TV in the next room converts political passions into annoying background noise. It’s the morning after the 2000 election, and a different kind of divination is still going on Florida, eventually to be ended only by Supreme Court fiat.

Few characters in the ensuing story are interested in the disputed election result. Annabel Duffy, an idealistic African American intern at an independent film company called Means of Production, is too busy placating her boss to follow the news. Vanessa, the boss, is Rosa Elisabetta’s daughter, and a stressful morning taking her mother to hospital leads her to binge on Krispy Kreme doughnuts, a routine well known to her terrorised staff. In order to dodge a sugar-fuelled sacking over a missing treatment, Annabel swiftly knocks out a replacement with the help of Thaddeus Griffin, an action movie star working at Means of Production in a futile bid for artistic respectability. For complicated reasons to do with a private joke about Rosa Elisabetta, they call their treatment ‘The Diviners’. After a courier delivery goes wrong, thanks in part to an unexpected assault on Tyrone, a bipolar bike messenger and ex-conceptual artist who’s also Annabel’s stepbrother, the treatment starts flying around town. Ferocious buzz attends it, and various outfits set out to track down its imaginary author while sharpening their pitches for funding and syndication.

The treatment itself, scrawled on a cocktail napkin and hastily ascribed to one Shelley Ralston Havemeyer on the grounds that ‘the people who write these things’ usually ‘have three names’, concerns thirst. More specifically, it’s an idea for a big-budget mini-series about a secret tribe of water diviners founded by Zoltan, a dispossessed Mongolian rainmaker, in the days of Attila the Hun. In counterpoint to Attila’s fiery conquests, Zoltan aims to teach ‘the way of peace and magnanimity’ by finding drinkable water with a stick. Over time, his descendants marry Gypsies and Jews, and transmute into Ethiopians and abducted West Africans. Thaddeus improvises the rest of the storyline in the street outside a nightclub:

Then you have the slaves of the American South. You have the descendants of Zoltan and Babu and Kwame … and some of them are on the Underground Railroad, in the middle of the Civil War … The story stops briefly at the Irish Famine and then it goes, uh, from Ireland to Iceland. And from there we’re in the – it’s the Russian Revolution. Always the diviners are on the side of the oppressed and the downtrodden. Poland during the Second World War. The Holocaust. The Armenian genocide. The founding of Las Vegas. Very important. The whole last episode concerns the founding of Las Vegas.

This mini-series, Vanessa tells a programming executive who nurses a guilty passion for crippled girls, will be bigger than Roots. Far from being ‘confined to a particular disenfranchised population’, it’s ‘a story that reaches out to every population and confers honorary disenfranchised status on it’. As Rosa Elisabetta starts overhearing by telepathy the phone conversations of Republican strategists disbursing funds for the recount-quashing effort, her daughter sets about persuading high-ranking moneymen that ‘The Diviners’ is what the public most wants to see – successfully, by and large, because everyone in the novel is shown to have a secret thirst for love or understanding that they’d assuage, if they could, by tinkering with a non-existent screenplay.

For the first 300 pages or so of this fairly long novel, Moody seems in control of his screwball plot, which he orchestrates surprisingly skilfully. The point of view shifts abruptly from chapter to chapter, confusingly at first, but when the key characters are established events appear to create their own momentum. For once, too, the obsession with interpretation and sign systems, misunderstandings and miscommunications, seems directed at more than the slipperiness of language. ‘I guess you could say that the people have spoken,’ Bill Clinton famously remarked after the 2000 election, ‘and now we have to figure out what they said.’ As it turned out, the task of figuring this out devolved to the media when the Supreme Court stopped the recount, and the reader guesses that the hucksterism and corporate tail-chasing generated by the elusive treatment will turn out to be a dark reflection of the hucksterism surrounding the confrontation in Florida: a confrontation whose outcome was an administration noted for its Hollywood-scale spin operation, its astonishing control of the political ‘narrative’ and contempt for what an anonymous aide is said to have termed ‘the reality-based community’.

In the meantime, the cast keeps piling up. Vanessa installs a talkative taxi-driver as chief theorist of her newly commercial production regime. Tyrone is accused of attacking a curator who’s taken an interest in his abandoned ‘Thirst Paintings’ (‘defaced works by contemporary novelists, wherein certain words are highlighted’). On the run, he encounters a seeming revolutionary cell of trepanation and dowsing enthusiasts who plan to blow up a Krispy Kreme outlet in a town near Walden Pond. Lois DiNunzio, Vanessa’s long-suffering accountant, falls in love with a debt-ridden day trader during her cigarette breaks and absconds with a slice of Means of Production’s funds. And Moody puts different stylistic filters over the narrative lens: there’s a chapter written in yoga-speak, an account of racial bullying couched as an exercise in sociolinguistics, a section compiled from parodic police reports. The vocabulary also makes it crashingly clear that the world is estranged and defaced by economics: ‘He cradles the handset in its postderegulation console.’ Krispy Kreme’s original doughnut is said to taste ‘like the happy ending of a romantic comedy as purveyed by a vertically integrated multinational entertainment provider under German ownership’.

Then, somewhere around the halfway mark, the whole enterprise starts to collapse under the strain of depicting so many characters, co-ordinating so many wandering subplots and coming up with new ways to insert speeches about reality TV. As the cast keeps growing to take in a Botox-loving hack, a troubled pastor and an unattractive wine writer known for his amusing yet self-aggrandising copy, Moody labours mightily to equip everyone with an inner life and a saving vulnerability. He quite often succeeds, but the industrial scale of his character production finally makes the process look impersonal, automatic – a grotesque attribute here, a hidden sorrow there, and the conveyor belt rolls on. As the plotlines start lashing about the place, ushering the story towards the desert and Las Vegas, city of the spectacle, the farcical race for ‘The Diviners’ fizzles out. In the end, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Moody plonks everyone down in front of another made-up TV series – The Werewolves of Fairfield County, which might be pitched as ‘Buffy meets The Ice Storm’ – before wheeling on a Supreme Court justice modelled on Antonin Scalia to explain that the Republican high command worships power.

This is a cop-out, as is the deeply unconvincing scene in which Vanessa signs off by overcoming her jadedness. Location-scouting near the Mexican border, she and her assistant come across a party of wetbacks, one of them injured, none of them carrying water (thereby risking ‘death by thirst’):

It’s only after they’ve watched the Mexicans attempt to descend into the valley that Vanessa feels the beginning of responsibility in herself … She’s sceptical about the Mexican boy. She’s sceptical about what she should do about it. She’s sceptical about the part of American movies where the sentimentalists rush in. She’s sceptical about epiphany, about the Greek origin of the word, the making manifest. Simplicity nauseates her.

But in the moment of being undecided, intellectually, her physiognomy leaps into decisiveness without hesitation … She doesn’t know what she feels; she feels something in the crimson range, something in ultraviolet, but she knows she’s going to do something about the Mexican family and she doesn’t care what gets lost in the process.

What’s got lost by this stage would take a while to describe, and it’s sad to see a lot of it go: for a long time The Diviners seems to have interesting things to say about loneliness, sexual guilt and ennui, the marketing of self-pity, and the strange, febrile atmosphere of the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court’s intervention. Here, though, the novel not only risks accusations of sentimentality and melodrama, but manipulates the characters into doing the same. It almost makes you wish he’d gone for glazed irony, because this time round, Moody seems a lot more comfortable behind the scenes of the televisual front people already jeer at – the front they can already get behind the scenes of via Entertainment Tonight.

[*] Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace (Abacus, 343 pp., £10.99, December 2005, 0 349 11951 1).