The Ineluctable Modality of the Marginal

Rick Moody hasn't figured out whether he wants to be the son of John Updike or the brother of David Foster Wallace: either continuing the story of sex and sadness in the American suburb, or building ironically and otherwise on master experimentalists like Barth, Coover, Gaddis, Elkin, Pynchon, DeLillo and the rest. Though Moody's more than an able successor to Updike's East-coast upper-middle-class psychological realism, the connections critics keep making to establishment squares like Updike and Cheever seem to embarrass him. He'd much prefer the lineage of a faster literary crowd—in a recent Times interview, William Burroughs, absurdly enough, is cited as a major influence—so he slathers on to his deeply felt studies of the suburban mysteries a high-sheen (and usually unnecessary) hipsterish, metafictional gloss, which is why The Ice Storm, an otherwise probing novel full of deep pathos, begins with straining-to-be-cool irony: "So let me dish you this little comedy about a family I knew when I was growing up." He's forever showing off, flashing his literary bona fides, letting us know, hey, I know realism's dead, I know the problems of a few white-collar folk in Connecticut don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but let me dish you this little comedy anyway—I'll jazz it up, promise.

Moody's not alone here: the other New White Guys—as Wallace has dubbed the group that includes him, Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Donald Antrim, and for good measure, let's throw in that upstart Dave Eggers—have almost had the same trouble. Schooled in the late '70s and '80s by English departments and creative-writing programs in which narrative deconstruction and paranoid irony was the rage—Moody's mentor was Robert Coover, perhaps experimentalism's sleekest, coldest customer—and understandably unwilling to follow the inimitable path of Raymond Carver, these writers find themselves swimming in postmodernism's backwash, not quite sure how to make their own way. It's an old Oedipal story—younger writers trying to write themselves free of their forebears—and so far, Wallace is probably the only one to find his way to shore, and that's because he's the only one who's managed to make postmodern innovation organic to his work, and even that took a while. Look at Eggers, for instance: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his smash memoir, is split right down the middle between heartbreaking pathos (a realistic description of Eggers' mother's death) and pop-metafictional showoffiness (the rest of the book). Both sides are intriguing, but the chasm between them is ominous.

Moody's problem isn't as severe as Eggers' is—he's more experienced, with five books, now—but it's the same problem: he can't pull together his large talent for traditional storytelling, especially for evoking character and a sense of time and place, with his desire to dazzle and impress. In Demonology, his new book of short fictions, you can see him constantly reaching for "impressive" effects: one moment, he's penetrating into brave psychological territory, the next, he's spinning into fancy-pants wordplay and fuck-it ironic posing.

(Digression: in the '80s, I once watched Tina Turner singing "River Deep, Mountain High," on an HBO special. I was high, for what that's worth, but I can remember vividly being able to tell from moment to moment, from phrase to phrase, when Turner was singing her heart out and when she was relying on bullshit Vegas shtick. She was bouncing from one to the other without even knowing it, and the reason I remember it so clearly is because it had never occurred to me until then that absolute artistic integrity–art to save your life–could stand so close to faking it.)

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The title story's a case in point. It's about Moody's sister, who died in 1997, and Moody has said that he wrote it just two months after her death. It's a memory story, beginning with a description of Moody's sister's kids going out on Halloween (hence the book's cover: that package of Smarties is shrewdly iconic for those who grew up in the 1970s), pausing here and there to recall incidents from her life before ending with her death the next day when emergency technicians can't revive her from a seizure. "Her body jumped while they shocked her—she was a revenant in some corridor of simultaneities—but her heart wouldn't start," he writes.

The sentence is indicative: Moody can't stay with simple description, even when simple description is all he needs, but gums up the works with a parenthetical, obscurantist metaphor. But that's not the only problem: the story ends with a coda, with Moody writing, "I should fictionalize it more, I should conceal myself, I should consider the responsibilities of characterization," and so on, 21 lines of metafictional should-haves that at once make sentimental Moody's grief at writing so soon after his sister's death as well as cover his back for, yes, not fictionalizing this more (i.e., not making this into a better story). And after reading it, I thought, you know what? Too soon. You should've waited a while before writing this.

At times, Moody's talent jells, and he's a great pleasure. "Boys," a quick eight-page distillation of the lives of two brothers from early kid-hood through the death of their father, is terrific. Almost every sentence begins "Boys enter the house." At first, they're "calling for Mother"; later, "Boys attempt to induce girls to whom they would not have spoken only six or eight months prior to enter the house with them." The stages the boys go through—grieving for a dying sister, beginning to drink beer, going to college, leaving home, bringing girls home to meet the parents, finally gathering for the death of a father—are mythic but individualized, and Moody's talent for anaphora works for him here just as well as it did at the beginning of his last novel, Purple America. And "Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal"—the title's clever-clever Joycean allusion turns inspired when you find out what the story's about—is very fine, too. In it, two theory-laden grad students can't discuss their romance without alluding to Lacan, Iriguray and "the social structure of commitment," and it drives the woman so crazy that the only way she can get her boyfriend to see that she's a woman and not a social construct is to get naked and spread her legs before him on the kitchen table. I got an ineluctable modality for you right here.

But the rest of the stories are a decidedly mixed bag, including the long novella, which, along with the title story, anchors the collection. "The Carnival Tradition," half of which is a beautiful rendering of a '70s teen party that shows the conventional Updikean side of Moody's talent in its full unaffected glory, is also one hell of a diffuse, rambling work which Moody seems to think is justified by the story's arch allusion to Bakhtin and his notion of the carnivalesque. Time and time again, Moody pulls annoyingly smartass rabbits out of pretentiously smartass hats, and after a while, you forget the things he does so well. What Moody does beautifully is remember and render, and it's an old-fashioned talent that he doesn't respect enough. Lots of good writers have it, and not all of them are old East Coast WASPs. It's not the fast crowd Moody seems to covet, but it's his.

Demonology by Rick Moody; Little, Brown. 306 pages, hardcover, $24.95.

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