Review Of Rick
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/27/06
Rick Moody should work for Ross and Norris McWhirter, the founders of the Guinness Book Of World Records, for the only thing one can absolutely say about his writing is that he loves to make lists- he lists brand names, celebrities, quotidian details, and sometimes the same words over and again. Naturally, this leaves almost no room for storytelling, which is what he claims to be about. His stories in his collection Demonology, lack character development, have no insight into the human condition, and are merely a hodgepodge of what might be termed his Worst Tales 1999-2001. Their only connection to each other is their execrability. It is no small irony that, as I was reading this book, I was also reading, alternately, a book of short stories by Anton Chekhov, and the differences were stark. In a century, were one to only look at these two writers, the short story form would seem to have died. Even in his earliest, most callow, tales Chekhov was capable of moments of insight, metaphor, and poetry that the ilk of Moody, Dave Eggers, and David Foster Wallace seem congenitally incapable of. Moody seems to thrive on merely typing. A friend of mine has suggested that the worst thing to happen to writing in the last thirty years was the development of the pc and word processors, for this allowed people to just gizz at the mouth with no need to look back and consider the words on an actual page. That may be overstating the case, but it is closer to the truth than some would wish.
Moody is a prototypical PoMo writer, and don’t give me any of that Post-PoMo bullshit- theory without execution is like a centerfold with staples versus the real flesh and blood thing. And why is it that all these daring and experimental writers’ works are larded with the worst clichés unredeemed, tepid tales, at best, which are then never brought to fruition, a total lack of music replaced by a total immersion of ego? Even worse, this book is one of those of small size with large font and plenty of white space. Were this a straight story this would be a novella masquing as a novel.
That all said, Moody is a bit better than Eggers or Wallace, and is capable of some straight narrative. He simply has zero ability to develop characters. I saw the film based upon his The Ice Storm, and I wonder how much of the success of that film, artistically speaking, was due to director Ang Lee’s rework than Moody’s probably thin source material? The last, and title story, Demonology, is a prototypical example of all that is poor in Moody’s writing. It is rife with lists, set at Halloween, and follows the medical emergency of someone related to the narrator, who then ends with this horrid paragraph, worthy of the end of Eggers’ mind-numbingly banal A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, save for no curses:
I should fictionalize it more, I should conceal myself. I should consider the responsibilities of characterization, I should conflate her two children into one, or reverse their genders, or otherwise alter them, I should make her boyfriend a husband, I should explicate all the tributaries of my extended family (its remarriages, its internecine politics), I should novelize the whole thing, I should make it multi-generational, I should work in my forefathers (stonemasons and newspapermen), I should let artifice create an elegant surface, I should make the events orderly, I should wait and write about it later, I should wait until I’m not angry, I shouldn’t clutter a narrative with fragments, with mere recollections of good times, or with regrets, I should make Meredith’s death shapely and persuasive, not blunt and disjunctive, I shouldn’t have to think the unthinkable, I shouldn’t have to suffer, I should address her here directly (these are the ways I miss you), I should write only of affection, I should make our travels in this earthly landscape safe and secure, I should have a better ending, I shouldn’t say her life was short and often sad, I shouldn’t say she had her demons, as I do too.
Ok, count the clichés- at least five by any reasonable measure, and this is a very poor single sentence because it is clichéd, serves not the narrative, nor undermines it, is not filled with insight nor turns of import, and is merely a dull list. I underlined two fragments to illustrate the very wanness of PoMo thought. Moody’s acolytes would counter that these two bits represent Moody’s ‘knowing’ that what he was writing was bathetic and banal, therefore it isn’t. Of course, because one writes a dull poem on the dullness of a café writer’s life does not justify the dullor of the poem. There ar ways to portray negative things without giving in to their essences, and moody has not learned this fundamental lesson. Also, the fact is that writers like John Cheever were doing far less intrusive, more subtle, but far more experimentally adventurous and jarring things with narrative fifty years earlier. The problem with all the latter day –isms: Post-Modernism, Post-Structuralism, Deconstructionism, Languagism, etc., is that they want the reception of the work to be independent of the work, and more based in ideas, yet philosophy is just that- an idea, whereas art is ideas put in motion, in service to something larger, therefore it’s more complex and difficult, and complexity is not just filling up over a thousand pages, like a David Foster Wallace did in Infinite Jest, then not knowing a damn thing what to do with the work. Rather, complexity is built by the juxtaposition of often simple elements. Not that I am nearly as high on Surrealism or Absurdism as others are, but the best plays of Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett are far more complex than anything Moody and his posse have penned. In short, what is on the page is all there is to be considered. that the writer may have intended this or that, or come from here or there, is ultimately meaningless, for few will know such facts, and far less will care- but the word remains.
In other tales, such as Wilkie Fahnstock, The Boxed Set, or Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13, Moody shows that he has interesting ideas, but no ability to pull them off, for no real stories flesh out the former’s tale of a suburban loser’s life viewed through his musical tastes in mixed cassette tapes, nor the latter’s listing of books with a thinly threaded narrative of- guess what?- lost love- through it. The problem is the technique wholly drowns any emotional connection. In short, form does not serve function.
The tale Boys is a cutesy wannabe tale where that word starts almost every sentence. This is as thrilling as someone claiming they wrote an epic poem without ever using the letter F. To return to the Guinness World Records theme, this sort of writing is the equivalent of being proud of holding the record for the most lima beans stuffed into a nostril: seventeen. This is nothing that measures the boundaries of storytelling the way record holders in the hundred yard dash or weightlifting do. A shrug of the shoulders to both such records and writing is all that awaits, for this is not true experimentation, but ostentation. The actual tale- remember?- follows twin brothers until the death of their father. This sort of storytelling has been done far better. I think of Annie Proulx’s Job History, from her collection Close Range, wherein the form, the laying out of a life of menial jobs, serves the function of sketching a life. Proulx is at her best in the brief snips of poesy that connect each job while all Moody can offer is the stock phrase ‘Boys enter the house’, and a raft of clichés. Proulx’s tale surveys the larger American fallacy of success through hard work, while Moody’s take on masculinity is as deep as a handjob.
The novella The Carnival Tradition, as example, is so dull that, only a few days after reading it I cannot tell you what it is about. Seriously- it’s that bad, and I rue the dead trees felled for its publication. That it takes almost a hundred pages is disgraceful, and shows that Moody has no knowledge that even prose is usually best when concise. Ok, I checked back- it’s about two New Jersey preppies who fail in the arts and life. Yet, despite its manifest golem to Moody’s life and art, he is utterly incapable of even a moment of true connection to the plight of his creations. He makes glass figures devoid of give.
On The Carousel tracks a holdup at a fast food joint, and The
Mansion On The Hill is a love story about an unbalanced young man with a
rubber mask fetish, who cannot let go of his dead sister’s memory. These were
perhaps the only tales with any potential to be fleshed out into something
deeper. But, as written, both are far too fatty to succeed as tales, and have no
characterization- they are all plot-heavy, or as plot heavy as an airhead like
Moody can be. Another major flaw in his writing is that he has absolutely no
skill in deplying modifiers. He tosses adverbs and adjectives around with all
the subtlety of a Looney Tune, except he is devoid of humor, and his
cardboard cutout characters have no life to them- they are as dessicant as can
be. The only exception was a tale of would-be ostrich farmers, The Double
Zero, yet even that devolves into a listing of fast food joints that
absolutely kills any humor bubbling. The worst example of self-indulgence is the
single sentence tale, Ineluctable
Modality Of The Vaginal, a
tale that consists of verbal sparring between two vacuously pretentious graduate
students who say and mean nothing- in other words, are perfectly PoMo. Yet, the
tale, after its third comma, lapses into the very and manifest PoMo weaknesses
Moody is allegedly trying to skewer, but really is indulging, for in his world,
bad is good, and the badder the better. Any reader can see what Moody is trying
to do, and only those who long to write as badly as he do will think the
predictable end works. His mechanics moan and creak like a Rube Goldbergian
device splashed on pulp, and show zero growth since his 1995 disastrous set of
short stories, The Ring Of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, which was
similarly larded with brand name references, apotheosizing bad music and rock
bands, and a style over substance mantra and execution. The only thing this book
lacked that that one had was an atrocious Eliotic listing of faux Primary
In the whole book there is not a single moment where a reader can identify with a character, because they never become more than characters. There are no real fictive people that leap off the page because you know them and where they are from. The characters are described physically, and we get garish displays of likes and dislikes, but not an iota of their inner worlds- beliefs, politics, fantasies, emotions. There are no moments one says, ‘Ah!’, and there certainly are no dazzling displays of wordsmanship that will stick with one for decades. As in the selection above, the writing is banal in music, idea, and construction, as well as offering absolutely nothing new that other bad writers have not churned out before. I wonder, as I did with the Beatniks, why none of them ever realized that scatology and screeding were dull and poor substitutes for good narrative and dialectic. Then I don’t, for they never did, and never even cared to bother. the same goes with the PoMo frausters. In short, there is nothing interior to them or Rick Moody- he is as much a creation as his tales and characters, and that’s too bad, for it’s hollow….hollow….hollow….
He uses ‘big words’ with no real knowledge of their meaning, nor best usage, but even when he does they fall flat because Moody has absolutely nothing to say in his work about life, society, existence, nor even telling a good tale. And, it’s not as if he’s a young hipster anymore- he was born in 1961, for God’s sake! He’s a middle-aged man with the attention span and interests of a thirteen year old with soft hands and a first look at a Playboy magazine. In the three decades since that 1974 moment of truth Moody has not matured in the least. In short, his work is the opposite of daring, it is safe and bland, trendy and wannabe hip. It will seem as facile and dated as the poems of Joyce Kilmer or the science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, with none of the gleeful cheesiness in retrospect. I just wonder when he will be exposed as a fatuous fraud, as his pals Eggers and Wallace are, by the big magazines who have shirked their literary responsibility? Have he or his cohorts ever revised a single word they type?
The most famous rebuke of Moody and company came in a 2002 New Republic review of Moody’s novel The Black Veil, by literary badass wannabe Dale Peck, who himself is a bad fictionist (sigh), that opened with the declamation, ‘Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.’ punning off the usual fellatric blurbery of the day. It continues with some humor in the hatchet job, of the sort Peck staked his claim, as this: ‘The plain truth is that I have stared at pages and pages of Moody's prose and they remain as meaningless to me as the Korean characters that paper the wall of a local restaurant. Actually, the comparison is not particularly apt, because I know that the Korean writing means something, but I am not convinced that Moody's books are about anything at all.’ Witty, but the whole piece never intensifies, nor specifies, as this one does, for it often indulges the same precious PoMo preening its subject is guilty of- arguing debatable semiotics of a bit of punctuation or throwaway phrase rather than pointing out the general aimlessness of the text, its banality, or blatant clichés, even though it can sting with occasional accuracy between its reams of despond: ‘For all its shrillness, Moody's volume strikes me as something more than the antics of a child needing attention.’ And, in the end, Peck cannot help but indulge the convention of de facto patting Moody on the back as a genuine writer, which he defines in as abstruse and nonsensical terms as apartheid era South Africa did blackness. The net result is that Peck’s arguments reek far more of a personal anger over being excluded from the network of insular fetishists that moody, Eggers, and Wallace represent, than an objective desire to see frauds and bad artists denuded.
More typical of the reviews that Moody has garnered are this, from Salon magazine early 2001, on Demonology:
There are writers who follow etiquette, who invite you in and make sure that you are comfortably seated before they begin a round of proper introductions, seduce you with their careful clauses and their correct flatware and the nice meals they have prepared for you. And then there are writers who are simply so good that they don’t feel the need to ask your permission before they take you over a cliff or into a train wreck or introduce you to a dead family member or a teenage arsonist. Rick Moody is, of course, the second kind, the kind of writer who doesn’t stop to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.
Aside from being a bad metaphor, what does this mean? Why must bad critics hide their lack of acumen, as much as they do their ties to a writer or magazine they seek their own publication in, with such bad writing? How does this even hint at the level or form of the text? Even worse is this bit from Rain Taxi, written by failed writer, but successful literary geisha, Eric Lorberer- perhaps the greatest example of cronyism on the web:
….in ‘Drawer,’ a two-page ditty whose protagonist has junked his beloved's armoire on the beach (‘She called it an armoire, which was the problem’) and contemplates the word and their breakup with tidal fervor:
he’d walked upon the beach whistling lullabies, but he’d never
learned how to say the word armoire
with any conviction at all, and he would have included demitasse
and taffeta and sconce
and minuet, actually,
he’d gone gray trying to learn all these words, he’d become an old unteachable dog trying to learn how to say these
things, how to say I love you
Just look at the selection. What good writing is evidenced? There is no music, the first half is just straight-forward, and the latter half a clichéfest. The review continues in this vein:
It is in thinking the unthinkable, of course, that both ‘Demonology’ and Demonology lay bare the truth in fiction, the lodestone for which we readers yearn and return. Like his fellow wunderkind David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody is one of a rare breed who manages to be both smart-alecky and just plain smart at once, and who never lets his prodigious talent for playing with language outstrip the depth such language has to offer.
Of course, real writers know that art and truth are not intertwined essentially, and if he wants to claim Moody’s talent prodigious, could not Lorberer have picked a better example than the above? But, you may have noticed something even more telling, his squeezing of a second member into his mouth. Why? Because Rain Taxi, as many online venues, wants to be anointed by the ephemeral writing demigods. perhaps as telling as the poor criticism their site posts is a scan at their reviewers’ guidelines:
If you become a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi, note that we assign books according to the reviewer’s interest. If a book assigned for review turns out to be uninspiring, we will usually be happy to assign something else. While we generally prefer to use our limited space for discussion of books that are worthwhile, negative reviews that engage larger issues are certainly welcome. Article lengths and deadlines are determined upon assignment. Reviewers are also encouraged to discuss ideas for press profiles, interviews, and other feature-length essays with the editor.
Note, they do not publish negative reviews along the order of mine, nor even Peck’s. This paragraph, so thinly veiling its real intent, and so meagerly wrought, actually says more of what is wrong with contemporary writing than every bit of criticism that I’ve ever written. But, as poor as that is comes this hypocritical claim of ethical standards that, as a former Minnesotan, I personally know was violated many times, as associates, teacher, students, friends, and lovers have regularly reviewed each others’ work, in the most sycophantically glowing terms. Read:
In the small press community it is often common for friends and colleagues to support each other by ‘reviewing’ each other’s work. We discourage this practice, however, believing that a higher standard of objectivity is expected by our readership. We realize that there are degrees- writers often meet other writers and just knowing someone doesn’t mean you’re in cahoots- but please be up front with us about any connections you may have to writers and publishers of work you are reviewing. And of course, instead of sending us work that promotes your friends, you can always tell us about their achievements- this often results in our directing their work to another reader.
Boy, are they slick in covering their asses, or what? The truth is that such blatant promotion of cronies’ work has at least shamed them, and a few other outlets, into posting these warnings, although folk there heed them like cigaret warnings. I could give many other examples that equal or surpass Rain Taxi’s crap re: this or any other work, but, why bother? Savvy readers know I’m correct in my assessments of them.
As I am in this view of Rick Moody: He is a very bad writer, who is not just routinely bad, but predictably bad, even as he gesticulates form, for he is all shtick, PoMo vaudeville. Should I have a better ending?
Return to Bylines