The linguistic fireworks of Rick Moody's books, from The Ice Storm onwards, have drawn largely on his own troubled background and life. But his latest epic, set in the American television industry, finds him in an altogether happier frame of mind.
By Mick Brown
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Rick Moody's new book, The Diviners, begins with as breathtaking a piece of descriptive writing
as any novel is likely to provide this year. 'The light that illuminates the world begins in Los Angeles,' Moody announces, before sweeping the reader on a journey around the globe, following the sun as it rises across cities, countries and continents, bringing the world awake. 'Light on the Santa Ana River, on a drunk sleeping tenderly besides its dregs... light upon the Pacific grey Whale, wending its way south to warmer climes… light upon underground poets of Shanghai... upon Jammu and Kashmir, where Hindus and Muslims have weapons trained on one another... light upon Talmudic scholars, all weepers at the Wailing Wall... light upon Patmos, where St John hallucinated his revelation… light upon the pickpockets of Piccadilly Circus, light upon the orderly shops of the Fulham Road... light upon the open sea, the Winslow Homer green of the North Atlantic... light upon Newfoundland, light upon moose frozen in headlights on highways... light upon Yankee Stadium. Light moving apparently instantaneously from here toward the isle of Manhattan, its office buildings still illuminated with emergency fluorescence. Manhattan, New York City, beginning of another day.'
Pondering how best to approach the task of shrinking the world to 13 pages, Moody went and bought a globe. 'Then I got some dental floss and taped it at Los Angeles and wrapped it around the globe so that I would have an axis to use as a leaping‑off point. Once I had that, wherever I was on the globe I would pick four or five places to explore a bit further. So we have Beijing, Shanghai, the Himalayas, then it goes through Europe—through every city I've been to—and somehow manages to miss out Latin America and Africa, conveniently, since I've never been to either.' And who said authors aren't practical people?
In America, Rick Moody is regarded as being among the front rank of the younger lions of fiction, along with Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. In Britain, he is probably best known as the author of The Ice Storm, which was published in 1994, turned into an acclaimed film by Ang Lee, and saw Moody hailed as the heir to such chroniclers of suburban manners and anxieties as John Updike and John Cheever. Although it is advisable not to mention this too early in conversation with him. 'I'm really tired of being known as the author of The Ice Storm,' Moody says bluntly. 'I find it boring.'
In the 11 years since, Moody has written two further novels, two volumes of short stories and a memoir—hardly a prolific output by many writers' standards, but a consistently interesting one. At his best, he is one of the most dazzling linguistic stylists working in American fiction, and among the most perceptive on the more awkward and discomfiting aspects of American life. Happiness and contentment are not things that have figured much in Moody's books. Rather, they plot a course through the rocky terrain of anomie, addiction
and family dysfunction. 'But then which families are functional?' he says. 'I have yet to see a novel that deals with a functional family, so I don't see I'm unusual in that sense. It's certainly the case that I like the sheep that went astray better than the ones that stay in the flock; they tell me more, and I think that civilisation is made transparent by its margins; not by the big democratic centre of it.'
Moody and his wife Amy live in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, an area much favoured by writers—Paul Auster and Jhumpa Lahiri are neighbours—on the 10th floor of an apartment block. The flat is an eerily neat and orderly assemblage of bookshelves, leather armchairs, a capacious sofa, and a large wooden table set in the centre of the room, with an open laptop, like an altarpiece, placed on it. Moody, one senses, is a man with a place for everything. You feel almost as if you are untidying the apartment by sitting in it.
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[photo caption]: Right Rick Moody in New York. In his youth he played in a succession of rock bands, but dreamt of becoming a novelist
From the window you look out towards the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre still shocking in their absence. Moody was in Washington on 9/11, just four blocks from the White House, and close enough to see the debris and smoke rising from the Pentagon. Amy, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency, was in her office close to the World Trade Centre. For almost two and a half hours they were unable to communicate, until Moody finally managed to get through. 'I heard her telephone tolling in my mobile phone, and then I heard her voice. Which was a great relief.'
Moody is 44; a slightly built figure with a shaved head and deep‑set, beady eyes. He is wearing a blue flannel shirt, jeans and a pair of black Converse hi‑tops. Conversation with Rick Moody is not easy. Intensely shy as a child, in the past he has said that he prefers to do interviews by e‑mail because he finds spoken communication 'vertiginous'. And there is a palpable air of reticence and unease about him as he settles into his chair. He 'can't stand' this sort of encounter, he says baldly. 'I don't like demystifying. I'd far rather remystify'. At the end of our conversation he happily allows that he has 'hated' it. And I don't think he was joking.
The youngest of three children, Moody was born in New York but grew up in Connecticut. According to him, his family were 'a tribe of dissemblers': his grandfather a car salesman, 'loose with facts, rich in stories'; his father a financier with a literary bent—at every Thanksgiving while carving the turkey he would treat the family to the 'Bulkington' soliloquy from Moby Dick. 'Take heart, take heart, 0 Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod. Up from the spray of thy ocean‑perishing—straight up, leaps thy apotheosis.'
It was an affluent upbringing, but not, one suspects a particularly happy one. Moody grew up watching television six hours a day—'a TV junkie'—while his parents staked out their respective territories in the house, his father brooding in his den, his mother brooding in the bedroom. They became 'the first on their block' to get a divorce when he was nine. The divorce affected Moody deeply. He continued to live with his mother, but they seldom spoke. By his own account 'a phobic, awkward, shy sort of child', reading became his
consolation and his escape. At the age of 12, he was sent to St Paul's Academy in Massachusetts, the American equivalent of Eton. He moved on to Brown University where he studied English (his tutors included the novelist Angela Carter), and then post‑graduate studies at Columbia University in New York. Throughout school and college, Moody had played in a succession of rock bands; but his dream was to become a novelist— and not just any kind of novelist, but 'a real bona fide experimental writer', à la Thomas Pynchon. Moody once said that he regarded the publication of Gravity's Rainbow as 'the most important historical event' of 1973, alongside Watergate.
By now Moody had become heavily mired in drinking and drugs. He says that when he first started drinking as an adolescent his reaction was 'tremendous relief that I had found the answer to all my problems.' Alcohol made the awkward, phobic boy gregarious, brash and overwhelmingly self-confident. 'And then you find yourself in a dependent relationship with the thing that's solving your problems.'
By his early twenties, things were going rapidly downhill. He was evicted from university housing at Columbia and moved to the rundown area of Hoboken, New Jersey. The girl he was living with went in for rehab. He began to suffer from a range of psychological afflictions—panic attacks, phobias, bouts of depression. He developed a morbid fear of being sexually assaulted. In 1987 he admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.
In his 2002 memoir, The Black Veil, Moody describes his fellow patients —the acid casualty, the
bi‑polar sufferer, the girl with anorexia nervosa, and the alcoholic doorman with blackouts. 'It was easy to lose myself in the contrasts between myself and those around me,' he writes, 'but that didn't mean I felt any better. It just meant there was more to look at.'
He is still hard‑put to describe exactly what his problem was. Researching The Black Veil, he acquired his hospital records. 'And what I learnt is that the psychiatric community will go to great lengths not to give you an actual word for what you're suffering from because as soon as you do that certain kinds of expectations of treatment enter into the equation, and insurance wheels and machinations begin to apply.
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[photo caption]: Above Adam Hann-Byrd and Christina Ricci in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997). Below Moody (left) with his band, the Wingdale Community Singers
He now believes he was suffering from the inextricable combination of alcoholism and depression which blighted what he calls 'the side of my family that has all the drinking in it'—his mother's side. His grandmother was in and out of mental hospitals throughout her life—'they stitched up her wrists, they took the sleeping pills away from her'—before dying of sclerosis. His uncle had what is now called 'impulse‑control problems'—'he would pitch a temper tantrum at the drop of a hat and strike out at people and so forth.' Moody sighs. 'So this was a whole family of people with a lot of problems.
'I certainly had all the symptoms of deep depression, but I was also drinking all the time. I can remember nights of barely being able to lift my head off the table and thinking the only thing that's going to improve my outlook is if I have a drink. And the horrible thing is it works for one drink, but once you have one you have to have five. And round about three you realise it's the worst possible idea you could have had. And in that condition it's very hard to see a solution, other than some dark solution. The self‑hatred becomes very acute in that cycle of symptoms.' Moody was able to quit drinking shortly after his stay in hospital, but it was not until a couple of years later, he says, that 'I had the first moment of light rushing back in'. Nowadays he eschews intoxicants of any kind, including cigarettes and coffee.
It was in the midst of this dark period that he wrote his first novel, Garden State, about a group of young working‑class people in New Jersey. The book established several recurring Moody themes: the sacramental importance of rock music, families in a state of disintegration, addictive behaviour, the promise of adolescence seeping away to be replaced by a bleak vista of future disappointments. The central character, Lane, was a clear surrogate of Moody himself at the time, almost catatonic with some inexplicable psychological malaise. Moody now describes the book as 'shocking. I can't even look at it it's so embarrassing.' The memories it stirs of the time he was writing it also make it 'very hard for me to look at.'
Rejected by a handful of publishers as 'too depressing', Garden State went on to win the Pushcart Press Editors Award in 1991. But it was not until the publication of The Ice Storm three years later that Moody began to gain wider recognition. Stung by the criticism of a friend that he should 'stop writing about the working class' and concentrate on a world he knew personally, Moody turned back to his middle‑class childhood in Connecticut.
Set in 1973 The Ice Storm told the story of a weekend in the lives of two unhappily married, adulterous couples. As they drink and cheat, so their children, too, infected by the adults' moral slippage, salve their sense of alienation by experimenting with alcohol, drugs and promiscuity.
While the book was clearly rooted in Moody's own upbringing and the unhappiness of his parents' broken marriage, he says its moral engine was actually driven by his obsession at the time with reading about American policy in Cambodia during the 1970s. The 'trickle‑down' effect of the sexual revolution on suburbia and Nixon's war in south‑east Asia were both of a piece, 'founded on deceit and hypocrisy'.
Notwithstanding the fact that the book made his name—greatly helped by Ang Lee's film adaptation which appeared in 1997—and guaranteed his publishing future, Moody has a pronounced aversion to talking about The Ice Storm. 'I don't like the book—it's kind of juvenilia to have to confront your juvenilia for the rest of your life is not necessarily a heartwarming proposition. Don't get me wrong, I think Ang Lee made a great film. But I do feel that literature shouldn't need cinema to argue for its existence; it should exist on its own merit, and I know I've written better books.'
There was a moment, he says, when his publishers might have wished he'd pressed on to become 'a sort of Updikey novelist of the suburbs', but Moody says it was a 'natural inclination' to go in another direction. His next book, The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven (1995), comprised a novella about a disparate group of young New Yorkers caught in a spiral of sex and drug addiction, set primarily in the East Village, where Moody was living at the time, and a collection of short stories that were increasingly experimental in nature. Moody began to talk of plot as 'the enemy of fiction and the inhibitor of the genuine', and of wanting to 'double‑cross and disrupt anything that seemed to have become a hallmark of form'.
Reacting against the plain‑spoken, unambiguous style of writing that has been the backbone of American fiction from Hemingway to Richard Ford, he strove instead for an ornate style of looping, labyrinthine sentences, thoughts 'cluttered up, like overused bookshelves… because that's what consciousness is'. Prolix and self‑indulgent, or incandescently original—take your pick. Moody's is a love‑it‑or‑hate‑it kind of style.
His preoccupation with language, its possibilities and limitations reached its zenith in Purple America, published in 1997. An extraordinary mixture of the deeply lyrical and the profoundly harrowing, the novel tells the story of a weekend in the life of Dexter 'Hex' Raitcliffe, an alcoholic PR man who talks with a debilitating stammer, and who returns to the family home to care for his mother, who is in the advanced stages of a neurological disease that renders her almost incapable of speech. Communicating through a computerised vocal synthesiser, she asks her son to promise that he will take her life when her condition becomes unbearable. Moody acknowledges that the book was partly inspired by his difficult relationship with his own mother—'We're not great communicators,' he says drily—and with her passing obsession with the Hemlock Society, a voluntary euthanasia group. 'There was an interval when she was often heard saying, "If anything should happen to me, you know where the Phenobarbital is", and so forth. At a certain point I had to say, "Mom, please stop talking about this".'
Reading the book 'wasn't easy for her', he acknowledges. 'But I think she likes it. I mean, she's put up with me for 40‑odd years now, and she understands to the extent that I'm trying to make art and I'm not writing some tell‑all book about our relationship. I'm trying to dramatise an area that is a problem for both of us; it's not meant to be indictment.'
In The Black Veil Moody attempted to trace the roots of his depression to a family legend about an 18th‑century ancestor named James 'Handkerchief Moody, a clergyman who as a child accidentally shot his best friend and later donned a veil as a penance, which he wore until he died. 'Handkerchief' Moody seems to have been the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne's story The Minister's Black Veil in which the Reverend Hooper decides at the age of 30 to wear a veil for the rest of his life. Is it possible, Moody wonders, that the melancholic history of his family is somehow 'written on his body'?
Having set this hare running over the course of some 250 pages, Moody then proceeds to squash it by admitting that, actually, there is no proof of his connection to Handkerchief Moody at all. But for Moody the truth of the story is less important than the way it demonstrates his belief that families, as he puts it, 'imagine mythological origins for themselves and then live out the ramifications of those mythologies.
'My contention is that genealogy is as hypothetical as alchemy. The alchemists realised that they never were going to turn base metal into gold and ultimately it was themselves that they were deceiving. And I think that's true of genealogists too; that genealogists are bent on creating the ideal family tree in order to derive their own identity in a more satisfied way.'
Ironically, in the past six months Moody has been contacted by 'an insane group of Moody genealogists', who are now involved in DNA tests to try to establish whether his line and Handkerchief Moody's are related in some way. 'Would it make any difference?' He laughs. 'No, I don't think it does.'
The Black Veil was savaged by critics, both for its solipsism and the way in which Moody skirted the topics—his career as a writer, the success of The Ice Storm, his romances—which a book advertising itself as 'a memoir' might be expected to cover. Dale Peck, the Hannibal Lecter of American literary criticism, described him as the worst writer of his generation in America'. Moody winces visibly when you remind him of this. He avoids reading criticism, he says. 'I'm a tremendously vulnerable person, so it's not easy. It takes me a couple of days to bounce back after hearing some remark like that.'
But he says he doesn't believe that memoir, in the sense that most people understand the word, really exists. 'I'm not sure that you can sit down and tell the story of your life and not do a lot of editorial shaping that is entirely contradictory to the notion of memoir, in other words, everybody is concealing. I think Susan Sontag said, I write the most fiction in my non‑fiction books and tell the most truth in my novels. The forms are entirely paradoxical—all I try to do is tell the truth about it.'
So if you know where to look the fabric of Moody's life has always been woven into his fiction—as it is with most novelists perhaps. But writing The Black Veil marked the end of his interest in writing 'anything autobiographical again'. The Diviners, then, is a conscious attempt to mine the territory of 'invention and imagination' and to rectify what he regards as a deficiency in his earlier work—the absence of plot.
The book tells the story of Vanessa Meandro, an independent film producer in New York who, lured by the promise of big bucks, turns her back on artistic credibility and plunges to the base level of populism, entering a race to produce a 13-part television mini‑series about dowsers, which stretches centuries and continents from ancient Mongolia to present‑day Utah. A sustained satire on American popular culture, it covers a sprawling canvas with a cast of characters almost Dickensian in scale: a washed‑up philandering action movie star; a Sikh limo driver who convinces Meandro that he has almost mystical insights into television theory and metamorphoses into a parody of a gung‑ho executive; a thriller writer who sponsors Botox parties; an old woman, consigned to a psychiatric ward who discovers the gift of overhearing telephone conversations in her dreams.
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[photo caption]: Above Moody's books include Demonology, a collection of short stories, his memoir, The Black Veil, and his first novel, Garden State.
Moody says that one of his intentions with the book was to explore an area of interest that was 'sub‑literary in a way. And the fastest way to piss off serious literary types is to write about television. But I also think that if you want to talk about the US now, and the West in general, you have to have some truck with media because they have become the emblems of advance capitalism. That's where it all starts. Television is the publicist for advance capitalism, it's the propaganda machine, and it seems it's getting worse.'
Mirroring its subject matter, the book unfolds in a series of episodic chapters, constantly shifting from the perspective of one character to another. 'In a television series you often find episodes that don't seem to have as much in common with the whole as they might, or you have an episode with a guest star and it's just a star vehicle. Writing it like that suits the way I think anyway, which is kind of impulsive, and I think it gave me more opportunity to tackle different examples of capitalism run amok than if I had a straight linear narrative of some kind.
Just as The Ice Storm was acute in its observation of the social detail and manners of 1970s life, so The Diviners offers an encyclopedia of early 21st‑century cultural detritus—Krispy Kreme doughnuts, rap music and Botox parties.
Moody says he knew that Botox had penetrated the American heartland when, in 2000, he was on a book tour and, driving on a country road in Long Island, passed a building with a sign in 3ft high letters 'BOTOX IS HERE!'
He enjoys this sort of observation. Recently he was booked into a boutique hotel near Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. 'I would eat in the restaurant and be the only person there. I couldn't understand it. And then a friend met me there and explained it was just a block away from all the plastic surgery practices, and it was where people recuperated from surgery. They'd run out from the surgeons in their hooded sweatshirts and across the street to their rooms and not come out for a week.'
Darkly comic, and accessible in a way his other books have not always been, The Diviners is the most unadulteratedly enjoyable book that Moody has written. 'In my twenties I would have thought that that was pandering,' he says. 'But now it seems fine. Why does everything have to be so hard, you know? Why do I always have to prove I'm the smartest guy? I'm not the smartest guy and I never will be. So why bother to try and prove it.'
He seems to have laid to rest other ghosts from his past, too. The failure of his parents' marriage, he says, had always scarred him against the idea of marrying himself. But two years ago he married Amy, who is 37, after 10 years together, and they now intend to start a family. He attributes his change of heart to the tragedy of his sister Meredith's sudden death 10 years ago, from a seizure following a car accident. She left behind a son and a daughter, then aged five and seven, to whom Moody has played a surrogate parental role over the years, 'If she hadn't died the way she did—and it was such a traumatic event in my life--I probably wouldn't have changed as I did, or not as quickly and resolutely as I did. Wanting to help out and be with them was intuitive and without a thought about whether it cohered with my scepticism about family.'
Moody keeps a small cottage on the furthest tip of Long Island, where he does much of his writing—often in bed, with his laptop propped on a pillow. In the past couple of years he has also renewed his interest in music, after joining a couple of 'genuine musicians' from Brooklyn, Hannah Marcus and David Grubbs, to form a group called the Wingdale Community Singers. The trio perform new songs, with lyrics by Moody, in a traditional Appalachian style, and last year released their first album. 'It's a total hobby,' he says. 'But if you can make your hobby go well, why not go out and do it.'
For the first time in his life, Moody is a contented person. 'Certainly way more than I have ever been in my life. I'm productive in my profession, and that makes me feel good. I love my wife. I feel much comfort in family. I'm still a maniac and full of anxieties and difficulties in some ways, but there's so much that helps with that now. And just the sorts of things that I resisted when I was younger, being a little slower in my life, letting people in...' Even journalists? Moody attempts a smile. Not that far, perhaps.
'The Diviners' by Rick Moody (Faber) it available for £11.00 plus
£1.25 p&p from Telegraph Books on