Rick Moody is the Worst Writer of His Generation
Fascinating book review by Dale Peck in The New Republic of Rick Moody's new novel. I haven't read Moody, whose best known novel is The Ice Storm (filmed by Ang Lee). The review is fascinating and passionate. The first paragraph details the author's quest to write a first sentence worthy of how he feels about Moody's books.
...as I made my way through Moody's oeuvre during the past few months I was unable to come up with any other starting point for a consideration of his accomplishment. Or, more accurately, every other starting point that I tried felt disingenuous, nothing more than a way of setting Moody up in order to knock him down.
He quotes the first paragraph of Moody's new novel, The Black Veil, and details why it's so awful. I wonder if I would have noticed the particular ways the paragraph is awful? Am I that close a reader. Sometimes, but mostly not, though on close reading, they're pretty apparent.
But bad writing has consequences. The Black Veil isn't simply a bad idea badly rendered. It is so awful that it is easy to see the book as in league with the very crimes that it seeks to redress. Here, as in the books that preceded it, the language that Moody employs is so fundamentally imprecise that it cannot help but tell untruths.
This to me is where Peck grabbed me, and I had to believe at least part of what he was saying. Bad writing cannot be true. Bad art is always false, can never teach.
So why spend all this time and energy on a bad book? Are bad books worth writing about? Besides the truth he stated above about bad writing, Peck gets down to some of Moody's if not redeeming qualities, at least to some reason why we should care:
...yet there is that urgency I mentioned before, the hysterical desire to be heard. For all its shrillness, Moody's volume strikes me as something more than the antics of a child needing attention. I say this as a fellow novelist: though he has never put together a single sentence that I would call indispensable, there is a true empathetic undercurrent in Moody's work. I find the same current in the work of David Foster Wallace and Jeffrey Eugenides and Colson Whitehead, but not in the work of Richard Powers and Dave Eggers and Donald Antrim and Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem. I find it in Thomas Pynchon but not in Don DeLillo, here and there in John Barth and Donald Barthelme but almost entirely absent in John Fowles and John Hawkes and William Gaddis, in Lolita but not in Pale Fire, in the early Joyce, the first one and a half books, but not in the last two and a half books.
Wow! The true empathic undercurrent. Yes, that's what it takes to make art that's worthwhile. At least he finds that in Moody, though he doesn't in some luminaries. Of the writers he mentioned, I've read only Powers, Lethem, Barth, Barthelme, Fowles, Hawkes, Gaddis, Nabokov, and Joyce. I emphatically disagree with him about Ulysses and Pale Fire. Though his characters were "galley slaves," as he put it, Nabokov's characters do have a humanity, even those imagined by other characters, as the multiple shadows are in Pale Fire. I liked early Bath, The Foating Opera, and The Sotweed Factor, though it's been decades since I read them; later Barth felt sterile and gamelike to me, but these books felt real.
What Peck is really after is "the white man's ivory tower," and I think he has a point there. "Academic" literature seems like an old boys club sometimes, pretty insular; if you can understand it or identify with the characters, then maybe it's not good enough.
But then he says another thing that grabbed me:
I can think of no more urgent reason to write books today than out of an overwhelming sense of despair at the state of the world. It is also the most urgent reason to write book reviews.
Or weblogs! Or songs or poems or create pictures! Yes!
When I wrote my last review for this magazine, anthrax was traveling through the U.S. Postal Service and smart bombs were decimating Afghanistan; now we are waiting to find out if Pakistan and India are going to fight the first tactical nuclear war. Global warming, overpopulation, the worldwide AIDS epidemic, the ever-increasing distance between supposedly democratic governments and their electorates, the decimation of culture after culture by the relentless spread of the Disneyfied garbage of the American entertainment complex, and the incredibly sad, horrible, hopelessness-inducing fact that people still cannot say what they really mean to each other after seven or so millennia of human civilization: life really sucks right now. I am not claiming things are any worse than they have ever been, merely that there is genuine cause for sadness, and no writer strikes me as more despondent about the state of the world than Rick Moody.
Amazing. Peck now has me wanting to read Moody. Though part of me isn't interested in any more sadness; there's plenty of that around.
Ultimately, The Black Veil is less an explication of an American crime or American guilt (of either the criminal or psychological variety) than of a particular American need to assign blame or to refuse it. Rick Moody is a Puritan, pure and simple, his memoir nothing more than a witch-hunt. But his culprit, he would see if he pulled the wool from his own eyes, is himself.
And now I'll tell you my truth: I went into this review thinking that Moody was a faker, a poser. Shooting him off his plinth, I thought, would be easier than shooting fish in a barrel. But whatever else he is, he is the genuine article. A writer of one terrible book after another, but a writer nonetheless. If you want to know the difference between a real writer and all those wannabes who punish us with their memoirs and literary novels, it's this: the real writer is incapable of seeing the world through anything but the prism of metaphor and narrative, which renders that world as falsely as chronology renders the progress of time. The real writer suspects that character is just a by-product of these two forces--that what we think of as ourselves is nothing more than an assortment of chemicals acted upon by internal and external stimuli--and in some ways it is his urgent need to disprove this hypothesis, to assert at least the possibility of an existence independent of fate, that drives him to write fiction. It's true, it's true, what you have always suspected is true: it's ourselves we blame, ourselves we're trying to save. Not you.
But here's the end of the review:
All of which may be just a long way of saying that I hate Rick Moody's books, but there is always a moment in each one of them when I get mad at myself for hating them.
And then, alas, the moment passes.
Compare with something like The Attack of The Clones. I got mad at myself for liking the thing when I liked it because it was so superficial and incorrect. It couldn't tell truths because it couldn't use language, not even some of the language its predecessors had created.
What's my point at going on about this review? I'm not sure. I don't read enough reviews that are both passionate about literature and so careful in constructing their arguments, or that do such a good job of telling me why I should care about this bad novelist and the particular ways in which he is bad. I don't entirel agree with Peck where he discusses things I know, but I do know his point, but that somehow engaged me more with the review.
So, now I may have two writers to read: Rick Moody and Dale Peck.
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