Meet Rick Moody

The author of The Ice Storm and The Diviners has accidentally become one of the most controversial novelists of our time. At least he’s reached an uneasy truce with Fairfield County.

“Ah, behind enemy lines!” said Rick Moody, emerging into a pine-darkened patch of Greenwich for his interview. By “enemy lines” Moody means Fairfield County, whose landscape is welded in his memory to fragmentation and despair. We shall get to all that. Today he lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood of polished brownstones, tender little trees, and babies, babies, babies. It was there on his home turf that we agreed to meet, at a coffeehouse populated by trim young folk wearing chic eyewear and flowing scarves — the sort you might take for poseurs out in the suburbs, tip-tapping gravely at their PowerBooks, but in Brooklyn might well be the genuine article. Brooklyn is, after all, the new capital of literary America. It claims about half the current generation of hip white male novelists — Moody, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Safran Foer, Benjamin Kunkel — as well as Paul Auster, Colson Whitehead, Jhumpa Lahiri and myriad lesser-known talents. Lethem at least has the grace to admit that Brooklyn today is “almost grotesque” with writers, not to mention their editors, agents and critics.

I, however, managed to leave Park Slope without bumping into a single known writer, Moody included. Our interview had slipped his mind. Distressed by this anomalous spaceout, Moody kindly offered to slip into Greenwich. He had to pass through these badlands anyway en route to Fishers Island, where he and his wife, Amy Osborn, keep a cottage far from the madding scribblers of Park Slope.

Last year Moody, who is forty-four, published a novel called The Diviners, which appeared to signal a new direction in his writing. Whereas Moody had made his reputation on small-canvas tales of family dysfunction, this story is one of Balzacian amplitude. But the book divided reviewers and created only a limited buzz among consumers. This leaves Moody at the uncertain midpoint of his career — a writer who, after four novels, two short-story collections and a memoir, finds himself influential but intensely polarizing. Why polarizing? We shall cover everything from the Ice Storm tem-pest to the Dale Peck hatchet job. In the meantime, as Moody stepped into the Connecticut air, it was a sentence from an obscure autobiographical piece called “Primary Sources” that came to mind: “In eighth grade I had a calendar on which I marked off the days until I’d be leaving Connecticut forever.”

Ghosts of personal experience haunt the Fairfield County of Moody’s books, especially his second and most famous, The Ice Storm (1994). Set in November 1973, this story of two crumbling New Canaan families plays out against the broader malaise of the nation — the America of automotive lemons, shag rugs, epidemic divorce and I’m Okay —You’re Okay, of Watergate and the burnt-out ends of Vietnam. Teenage narrator Paul Hood lives on Valley Road next to “Silver Meadow” psychiatric hospital. Twelve-year-old Rick Moody lived that winter in the very same place, an old farmhouse whose pipes burst during an actual ice storm. “I look back on New Canaan and my time there with dread,” Moody remarked with a lowered brow. “It’s just not a place I have great, fond memories about. We lived in some extraordinary settings in Fairfield County — they were really beautiful. That said, I still think back on it and I just, you know.…” A weary shake of the head. “I’m so glad I’m not here now.”

These somber musings may have to do with certain New Canaan qualities. They may concern the young Moody’s desire to flee the provinces for the illimitable city. But chiefly they arise from unhappy memories. Hiram and Peggy Moody divorced in 1970 (in a manner not unlike that of Ben and Elena Hood: her decision, made quietly, against his will), when the Moody family lived on Ironwood Lane in Darien. “I’m pathologically shy to begin with, and after my parents divorced, we shuttled around a lot,” Moody said, revisiting his old sense of dislocation. “My mom got custody and we didn’t have any money. We were trying to stay within visitation range of my dad in Darien, renting here and there when people in Fairfield County had to go do a year in Abu Dhabi for their bank or whatever. It was sort of a hand-to-mouth moment.”

Rick’s unhappiness followed him into young adulthood. He drank too much, ingested drugs, and spent a month of 1987 at a psychiatric hospital in Queens, New York. “I would not be the writer that I am at all if I had not quit drinking,” Moody said. “That’s one essential truth about me. I was a scoundrel when I was still drinking. And not a good writer.” Today Moody radiates healthfulness. A vegetarian, he appears fit and lean in his plain brown sweater, tight black jeans and high-top sneakers. He has shed his turbulent locks and his black-framed glasses, and as a result seems open and vulnerable where once he looked guarded and abstract.

Moody grinned mirthlessly when asked about the use of autobiography in his work. “My poor family,” he said. “My dad certainly had some problems with The Ice Storm. But they always come around in the end. I think they understand that the material picks me a little bit.”

The Ice Storm sold sparingly at the outset, but literary America took fond notice. “The Ice Storm is a powerful indication that the art of the novel is in the best of hands with the younger generation,” George Plimpton wrote. “A remarkable work, full of wit and drama.” A.M. Homes observed, “The Ice Storm is reminiscent of Cheever and Updike in the best of ways. Rick Moody comes off as the true heir, the next generation.”

Official New Canaan begged to differ. Richard Bond, then first selectman, pronounced the book “awful.” Peter Murphy, the town administrator, didn’t think it “too swift.” Paul Killiam, the late film historian, wrote to the Advertiser, “It was fine to clear the porn off 42nd Street, but moving it to New Canaan? Are we now ‘the Next Station to Hell’? Don’t waste cash (as I did) on a copy of the so-called novel.” (Should this magazine find its way to distant parts, know that New Canaan is a town billed as “the Next Station to Heaven.”)

These voices rose up not in answer to the book’s publication, which went almost unnoticed, but in anticipation of the movie, filmed in New Canaan amid much fanfare from February to May of 1996. Moody was blessed in having his vision adapted to the screen by Ang Lee, whose exquisite intelligence was sure to backlight the novel’s reputation. But not even Lee’s pedigree (he’d recently directed Sense and Sensibility) could mollify the offended. The Advertiser opined, “New Canaan will be depicted to the movie-going world as a cesspool of depravity and a raunchy hotbed of illicit sex.”

Contemporaries who remembered Moody as an almost catatonic presence at East School and Saxe Junior High must have been vexed by his new bad boy status. Moody certainly was. “I’m not happy at the negative energy that has been directed at me,” he said in 1996. “Although my story was set in New Canaan, it could have been anywhere.”

Today Moody is a little more sanguine about the whole mess. “The kind of culture I grew up in, and the kind of people I’ve known all my life, they have an indomitable ability to deny bad news and paradox and contradiction,” he said.

“I remember the New Yorker asked some people whether key parties had really taken place. And some family therapist person said, ‘Absolutely they took place.’ Then they asked someone in New Canaan, and that person said, ‘No, no, no, that was in Darien.’ Like there was some barbed-wire fence up around the Merritt Parkway, and all the bad stuff happened on that side. I think there was also this certain pejorative about me and New Canaan: ‘Oh, he’s really from Darien.’”

It might amuse certain New Canaanites to know that Moody now considers The Ice Storm a “juvenile” effort. He’s referring not to the sex bits, but to the arc of his literary achievement. Late in The Ice Storm, Moody found his style inadequate to the task of portraying a human death in all its intricacy. “I was still writing in these blunt, short sentences, lots of fragments and stuff. Kind of a punk-rock style. That was my style in Garden State, my first novel, and that was my style when I first began The Ice Storm.” But when he wrote a critical scene, that of a boy’s electrocution by a downed power line, he required more. “The complexity of the situation from the point of view of the narrator, Paul Hood, and the complexity for me personally in trying to write this scene was such that the blunt little sentences weren’t going to do it.

“So in thinking about it, I just naturally inclined toward this more ornate style. And it became possible to use that style for the rest of the book, like suddenly I had at my disposal a new pencil, a new colored pencil to do this thing that I’d never done before. So I ended up writing these longer sentences and longer paragraphs, and I found that the more I did it, the more organic it was to me.”

By 1997 two dominant themes of Moody’s career had emerged. One was that he’d become that rare thing, a famous serious writer. Of course, inside the literary fortress, he had already cemented his reputation with the short-story collection Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven (1995). The title novella was written, Moody explained, “to shed the suburban label as quickly as possible. It’s set in New York and it’s really grungy, it’s got a lot of sex and drugs in it.” The oft-made Cheever and Updike comparisons annoyed Moody not because he dislikes those writers — he admires both — but because he chafed at being labeled a “chronicler of suburbia.” The shallowness of the implication, he believes, trivializes all three writers. “Partly it’s a racial slur,” Moody said with a flickering smile. “It’s a WASP thing, you know. And when I used to say that, they got cagey and started putting Roth on the list.”

Moody most closely resembles Updike in his absurd fluency and polymathic learning. Yet Moody sometimes seems impatient with American realism and wanders into the postmodern territory of his personal masters, William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, writers considered dense, difficult and “tricky.” Moody relegates his boldest experiments to the short story. Among these a reader might encounter the tedious “Treatment,” consisting of one twelve-page sentence; the lovely “Boys,” in which most sentences begin “Boys enter the house”; and the darkly amusing “Wilkie Fahnstock, the Boxed Set,” a biography of a Greenwich man presented as CD liner notes.

In April 1997 Moody published his third novel, Purple America, set in and around Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The story concerns an alcoholic son summoned home from New York to care for his terminally ill mother, whose second husband has suddenly left her; alongside this family meltdown, a literal nuclear crisis plays out at a nearby reactor. Stylistically, Moody ramps up his “more ornate attack” of sentences and scatters italics everywhere, by now a Moody trademark. The book begins famously with a kind of secular liturgy that describes the son bathing the mother:

Whosoever knows the folds and complexity of his mother’s own body, he shall never die. Whosoever knows the latitudes of his mother’s body, whosoever has taken her into his arms and immersed her baptismally in the first-floor tub, lifting one of her alabaster legs and then the other over its lip, whosoever bathes her with Woolworth’s soaps in sample sizes, whosoever twists the creaky taps and tests the water on the inside of his wrist …

This sentence unfolds across four startling pages. Purple America is certainly not for all tastes, but critics adored it: “Reading it is a transfiguring experience”; “How Moody balances his comedy and his pathos is a wonder”; “A rapturous novel of love and life at the lilac-hued close of the century.” The buzz extended beyond the literary fortress where the highbrows lounge. As proof, Time magazine published a story headlined “Fiction’s New Fab Four,” featuring Moody, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Donald Antrim. (Franzen, author of The Corrections, a best-seller and a Pulitzer winner, is probably the best known of the four. Wallace’s thousand-page Infinite Jest rendered him a divinity within the fortress. Only Antrim, though a marvelous talent, remains little known.)

That same year Ang Lee’s Ice Storm arrived to respectful reviews, and movie critics used the occasion to cast an affectionate backward glance at Moody’s novel. Salon’s Charles Taylor, to cite just one, called The Ice Storm “one of the most beautifully written and emotionally satisfying books any young American has produced recently.” This was any writer’s miracle year. But success resided uneasily in Moody. “I avoid the word ‘success’ at all costs,” he said gravely. “I like the Graham Greene formulation, ‘Success is an interval between failures.’”

The second theme of Moody’s career, thus far only foreshadowed by the New Canaan affair, is his emergence as a divider, not a uniter. Some discord was inevitable since writers tend toward bitchiness and jealousy, often in the guise of honesty. But what awaited Rick Moody, what had been quietly burbling away in American lit’s subterranean vaults, was a horrifically volcanic thing. By name, it was Dale Peck.

A novelist himself, Peck also wrote book reviews for the New Republic. His 2002 review of Moody’s The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions begins, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” and goes on like that for 6,000 words. Peck confesses himself nearly overwhelmed by the task of cataloging Moody’s faults, then tells the reader: “My gut feeling is that if you honestly believe that this is not bad writing, then you are part of the problem.” Peck’s piece touched off an old-fashioned literary brawl whose dust has not yet settled. Had Peck breached the ethics of responsible reviewing? Or had he kicked life into a torpid art? In the end, the reviewer’s nastiness and tendency to undercut himself (in the same review, he savaged Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Pynchon and DeLillo: not bad company) probably did more harm to him than to Moody.

Something did stick, however, and it wasn’t all Peck’s doing. The Black Veil contains lovely sections, but it’s an odd book, and digressive as promised. The chief digression concerns a supposed ancestor, Joseph Moody of York, Maine, who in youth accidentally shot and killed a friend. Moody is said to have worn a black handkerchief over his face for the rest of his life and served as a model for Hawthorne’s story “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Rick Moody proceeds to examine guilt and shame in the family gene pool, burdens that redound finally to himself. An intriguing idea, but could guilt and shame really be inherent family traits, as blue eyes might be? The argument for Moodiness seemed thin. And then to learn late in the book that Rick’s line and Handkerchief’s line never actually cross — well, the brow just furrows.

Moody admits that writing The Black Veil took a harsh toll. This he had not foreseen. After straining at Purple America, he’d grown tired of “the artifices of fiction” and sought liberation in truth telling. He had discovered this liberation before, in his much-praised autobiographical story “Demonology,” about the death of his sister, Meredith. “‘Demonology’ is just an act of preservation,” Moody said. “Just trying to get memories of a person down in a spot. And since it’s so hard for my family to talk about what happened to my sister, they’re happy to have a spot where this material is preserved.” Moody found no similar release in writing The Black Veil. “Looking back, if I’d known what an ordeal it was going to be, I wouldn’t have done it. And yet I still am proud of the book. It’s material that was just sitting there for me and I had to use it.”

Since The Black Veil, much commentary on Moody has been weirdly, unfairly hostile. Every time he moderates a panel, plays with a rock band, publishes an essay, writes liner notes for a CD or gives an interview — “It’s hard to get away from Rick Moody,” one unsympathetic critic noted — someone wants to bash him. The bile is partly an extended tittering over Peck’s hatchetry. But it’s partly connected to a serious debate now raging in American letters. Must our leading literary novelists be so challenging to read, and are we stupid if we give up after fifty pages of labor? Or have our reading muscles grown weak before the seductions of TV, computers and video games? Jonathan Franzen fired a shot at the literary fortress when he rejected what he called the “status” novel — with its arty motives — in favor the “contract” novel — which promises a good time.

Moody probably lands in the status camp, given his postmodern grounding and his appetite for the difficult. As a cranky voice from the blogosphere charged, “Moody seeks an elite above the elite.” This view was reinforced by yet another Moody ruckus in 2004, when he chaired the National Book Awards’ fiction committee. Moody’s group chose five finalists from the same slender demographic (little-read New York women) and snubbed Philip Roth’s Plot Against America. The ensuing furor inspired a witty sendup by the blogger-writer-publisher Dennis Loy Johnson: “It was going to be the end of literature as we know it. And it was all Rick Moody’s fault.”

Moody frowned when asked about readers’ madly divergent opinions of his work. “Do I think about it? Yeah. It’s pretty unavoidable. I would love not to think about it, but it’s not that easy. Look, what I do is complicated and it’s not going to work for everyone.” But he sees a useful role for the negativity. “I think that it’s really important for me as a writer and as a person to never get to a spot where I’m without self-doubt. And so I take the naysayers as an opportunity for humility. Every time one of these things comes up, it sort of forces me to go back to square one and think about why I’m doing what I do. Of what value is it? Is my commitment to thinking about certain ways of thinking about fiction valid? Is my total faith in modernism as an enterprise valid?

“And that’s a good process for me, a really important process, and even though all of this stuff makes me miserable, and I feel like it’s founded on misapprehensions and misperceptions about who I am and what I do, that’s my lot. My lot is to be a guy who people love or detest as a writer. And detestation makes me lean and mean and hungry. So that’s good.”

Moody’s curious standing in the lit world has at least one tangible benefit: Book people are always interested in what he writes next. When The Diviners arrived last fall — his first novel in seven years — readers discovered a Rick Moody they’d never seen before. Gone was the fog of melancholy, gone the cold wit, gone the clever vocabulary. Here was old-fashioned entertainment. A grand comic novel. Once you got past twelve pages of “Opening Credits and Theme Music” describing sunrise around the globe, you were swept up in a New York social drama, swirling around show biz the way Bleak House swirls around the law.

Our corner of the world gets a fiendish cameo. In this novel the hot American TV series is called The Werewolves of Fairfield County: “In Fairfield County, stronghold of the affluent and powerful here in the northeastern megalopolis, the human species has spontaneously come to express a genetic crisis.” The pages devoted to werewolves in our midst were the ones Moody elected to read when he visited the New Canaan Library last October.

Yes, Rick Moody returned, publicly, without a black veil. He did wear a black porkpie hat. The audience was smaller than anticipated — thirty to forty people — and it was easy to imagine that some New Canaanites, nursing the old wound, made a conscious decision to stay away. But Moody seemed quite pleased to have his brother, Dwight, of Wilton, and Dwight’s young family seated among this unpredictable crowd.

How did it feel to be back? “Strange, for sure,” Moody said later. “Any time I go back to New Canaan, I do it with trepidation. That was amplified by the experience of the filming of The Ice Storm, and the negative reaction that the story got from the New Canaan town fathers when they first figured out what was happening in their midst. That said, even though I drove into town shaking, like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ and there was definitely an opportunity to feel bad about myself and what I do again, I had a really good time. I really enjoyed it.” And no ending to a Rick Moody story, by him or about him, is likely to get any happier than that.

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